Dr. Gary Tresidder is determined to make progress on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for tight oil that occurs just across the road from his Lochend home in the Cardium play. For three years, operators have violated flaring regulations, causing serious health problems for Gary and his family. Within a five-kilometre radius, there are approximately 80 wells. About seven to nine of the wells immediately upwind of his house flared gases for 18 consecutive months without penalty, longer than the maximum 72 hours allowed by regulations.
Gary has education in dentistry, medicine, and chemistry and despite his recent experiences with local industry activity, he makes his position on oil and gas development clear.
“I am not against the oil companies, I’ve owned many shares in oil companies. It’s just their new high, high pressure hydraulic fracturing….”
All 80 or so horizontal wells in the area have been fracked with a water-based fluid saturated with various chemicals. “Frack fluid” is pumped down the wellbore under high pressure to crack the bedrock and release gas that is trapped in the pores of the rock. Some of the fluid is then brought back to surface as flowback alongside produced oil and gas. The most immediate issue in the Lochend area is that the chemicals used in the frack fluid become mixed with associated gases that are burned off in ground-shielded flares.
The result is that countless toxic chemicals, and products of the reactions between those chemicals, are emitted into the air. This caused Gary to develop a chronic cough.
“My cough lasted about 18 months,” he says. “At first I didn’t know what was causing it.”
During the first year of flaring, Gary made a trip to Arizona and within one week of being away, the cough cleared up. Upon his return home after one month, he again became sick after only three days.
“I was having problems thinking, remembering names….” says Gary. “I couldn’t focus, I was weak, I had heavy, heavy sputum. I was having hair fall out in greater quantities than normal.”
His doctor was unable to help and could only suggest that it was probably because of the flaring. “He has … no medical background to deal with 500 different chemical gases that are coming out of those [flares] into the air.”
Among other chemicals, frack fluids contain hydrochloric acid, nitriles and bromides, each of which leads to complex reactions that can produce any number of different chemicals when burned to decomposition.
As the link between hydraulic fracturing and poor health became clear, Gary started asking more questions.
“A group of us started to educate ourselves, and we spent three years learning all about the process.”
The group calls themselves the Cochrane Area Under Siege – Coalition (CAUS-C) and serves to inform Lochend residents about hydraulic fracturing. In addition to the pollution caused by the flaring of frack fluid components, CAUS-C members have become aware of the risks imposed on drinking water. In most cases, oil and gas companies in the area are using millions of litres of fresh or potable water in each fracking operation. This is sourced from the Cochrane water system, Cochrane Lake, the Bow River, and other small bodies of surface water, according to Gary and another member of CAUS-C.
The water is mixed with various combinations of chemicals, some of which are never disclosed to the public, regardless of their toxicity. All of this contaminated water must be permanently removed from the environment and is generally disposed of at deep well injection sites.
“We found out that some companies were taking [the flowback] down to the local small-town water treatment plants,” says Gary. This is a public health concern given that even industrial water treatment centres lack the capacity to filter unknown chemicals.
Although there are certain requirements for companies to disclose the chemicals used in their operations, industry is often reluctant to share details and usually stops short of revealing chemical names. This has made it difficult for Gary and other members of CAUS-C to uncover the specific causes of their health problems.
“We fought very hard, because when we asked what were the chemicals put down, they wouldn’t tell us. They said it was proprietary. Without knowing the chemicals, of course, we didn’t know what we were testing for, what was making us sick.”
CAUS-C did eventually acquire a list of certain chemicals used in the area, but it remains difficult to know which chemicals are being emitted into the air following combustion.
“This is what’s dangerous,” says Gary. “When I asked the engineers, who work for the ERCB or the oil companies, ‘Name me one or two gases that are coming out … of those flare shields.’ I haven’t been able to get one answer of even one chemical that is coming out of there.”
“They wouldn’t be allowed to do this at a garbage dump,” says Gary. “It’s ridiculous.”
Gary has a friend in the area who at one point was driving by a flare-shield with his window open and he breathed in the thick emissions. “He got instantly sick, he felt a pain in his chest,” says Gary. “He could barely get out of the car.”
The friend visited Gary a couple of times to show him the consequences of the incident. After five days, the man’s forehead was covered in blistering boils. “About three weeks later, he came over and he showed me this body rash,” says Gary. “It looked like a burn rash. It was kind of all run together and moist. It was just horrifying. So I took pictures, it was over his whole body.”
The man’s wife was also in the vehicle and died last year. Doctors refused to consider chemical poisoning in their diagnosis, but failed to prove the presence of cancer, which they cited as the cause of death.
Gary goes on to list other health issues that residents have experienced, including an increased incidence of cancer. Many women in the area have lost unnatural amounts of hair, he says, and others have reported abnormally bloated stomachs and an increased number of hospital trips for unknown reasons.
Gary and others have appealed to the regulating and governing bodies, they have written letters and they have held meetings, but they have found that none will listen or help. Gary’s comments suggest that money is at the root of the problem.
“The regulating system, funded by the oil companies, is a huge conflict of interest,” he says. Gary lists several risks to ground water that he says the Alberta Energy Regulator simply overlooks. These include faulty cement seals, which are meant to prevent the migration of fluids from the production zone to fresh water aquifers. Gary mentions that he and other Lochend residents have felt several tremors and earthquakes caused by fracking and he wonders what further damage these do to cement casings.
He also explains the risk that an active production zone can intersect an abandoned well that then serves as a pathway for the migration of methane and frack fluid into shallower geological strata. He points out that this is exactly what happened in the community of Innisfail, where well effluents flowed onto a field via an abandoned well early last year.
“They have no idea what they’re doing,” says Gary. “This is when intelligent men, for the sake of greed, make stupid mistakes.”
“They don’t want to know, because they don’t want to be shut down. They want to get as many wells done before the public finds out how dangerous this is.”
Gary is disappointed by frequent industry and government claims that there are no reported incidents of water well problems caused by fracking.
“What they don’t tell you is that the people who had the problem were bought off and made to sign a non-disclosure agreement.” Gary claims to know many of these people, but refrains from sharing anything further to avoid putting them at risk of a lawsuit for violating their gag orders.
Being one of the few to speak up, Gary says he sometimes feels like “the lone ranger”, but he is determined to continue sharing his story along with the things he has learned over the last three years. Gary supports a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until it can be proven safe for humans by independent studies.
“That’s not a lot to ask. The oil isn’t going away.”
“What’s the matter with us?” he asks. “If they’re banning it in other countries, why are they allowing it here in Canada?”
Gary shakes his head in sadness for the damage that has been done to human health and to the land itself.
“This is one of the most beautiful parts of Alberta and I’m very, very lucky to be here. We have a huge view of the mountains here. We have great soil. We have great weather for agriculture, for raising livestock. You know, we searched for years and years before we found this property.”
In the effort to protect health and land, Gary encourages people to ask questions, write letters and speak with their MLAs. He also invites anyone to contact CAUS-C for any help the group might be able to provide.
It is an issue that affects all Albertans and Gary hopes that even those who are not experiencing the impacts become educated. He finds it discouraging that some choose to overlook the problem.
“Because it’s not in their backyard yet, and because it doesn’t affect their water yet, they’re not concerned.”
“I’m concerned for the children of the CEOs of oil companies. I’m concerned about the health of the rig workers.”
While a moratorium has not yet been implemented, the residents in Lochend have had some success in influencing industry activity in the area. In the last year, the pipeline infrastructure has been expanded and the amount of flaring has decreased. However, it is yet to be seen how operators will manage associated gases and flaring in the near future with dozens of new wells ready to be drilled.
“I’m not a protester, I’m just an average guy trying to live a normal life. I’m concerned, and I’ve taken up this vendetta because it’s not moral. It’s immoral, what they’re doing. It’s blatant greed.”
– Hans Asfeldt, October 8 2013Watch the Film! Gary Tresidder’s story is the third in a series of short films on hydraulic fracturing in Alberta.
The Cochrane Area Under Siege – Coalition (CAUS-C) invites you to contact them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On several occasions, the group has given community presentations on the subject of hydraulic fracturing.