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Tim Irons, a quality control technician, checks the state of fluid that will be pumped into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process at an operation near Bowden, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh for The Globe and Mail)

Tim Irons, a quality control technician, checks the state of fluid that will be pumped into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process at an operation near Bowden, Alta., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012.

(Jeff McIntosh for The Globe and Mail)

Where does all the wastewater from this B.C. disposal well go? Add to ...

Disposal well #2240 is located in northeast B.C., near the small, booming resource town of Fort Nelson.

While it might look like any other old gas well on the surface, the lake of polluted wastewater that has formed underneath makes it worthy of note, and raises some troubling questions about whether provincial regulations are adequately protecting the environment.

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To fracture shale and release reserves of gas trapped in deep rock deposits, the gas industry can pump up to five million gallons of water underground into a fracking well, states a report to be released Monday by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.

The study states that a lot of the fracking fluid, which contains a mixture of chemicals and sand, remains underground after it has been injected. But as much as 50 per cent returns to the surface as “flowback.”

That returning water is more polluted than when it went down.

This is because it comes back laced with trace metals and hydrocarbons

It also has naturally occurring radioactive material picked up from the bedrock. It is often also highly saline because it is mixed with water that has long been trapped underground. That wastewater has to be disposed of – and disposal wells are the method used in B.C.

The report, written by law student Savannah Carr-Wilson and supervised by Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the UVic Environmental Law Centre, looks at regulations governing the disposal of that wastewater.

And it presents some troubling data – not the least of which concerns the amount of wastewater pumped into the ground at disposal well #2240.

“Approximately 16,693 OSP (Olympic swimming pools) – 41 billion litres – of water have been injected into this one well over the past 46 years,” states the report. “Because wastewater is not tracked after disposal, the fate of this massive quantity of wastewater is unknown. Yet the amount disposed of in this single well is equal in volume to 24 towers the size of the 9/11 World Trade Center Towers.”

That’s a lot of dirty water. And nobody knows where it went, except that it disappeared down the borehole.

Well #2240 was both the oldest disposal well looked at in the study. It also contained, by far, the greatest amount of wastewater. So you’d think the government would be keenly interested in studying the groundwater nearby to see if anything is leaking out.

Nope. That’s not done in B.C.

Not only that, but before starting to dispose of wastewater, industry isn’t required to test adjacent groundwater to establish baselines. Such data, of course, are vital if you want to track environmental change.

“Notably, there are no requirements for operators to conduct baseline testing of water systems surrounding the well, or conduct ongoing monitoring of these water systems. There are also no requirements to monitor or disclose the quality or characteristics of the fluid being disposed of in the well,” states the report.

There are currently 110 disposal wells in B.C. But we don’t know what impact they are having on the environment. And that’s troubling because there could soon be many more disposal wells being pumped full of wastewater, given the gas boom taking place in the province.

Here’s more disturbing news: Most wastewater is injected into old natural gas wells, some of which may be starting to crumble.

“Age is a factor in well integrity because the tube of cement casing surrounding disposal wells can degrade over time, creating a potential risk of leaks into surrounding layers of rock or aquifers,” the report states.

Operators are supposed to do tests every year to ensure that concrete seals on the wells are in good shape, but when the UVic researchers asked the Oil and Gas Commission if industry was in compliance, the data weren’t available.

The study recommends, among other things, that B.C. look to guidelines in the U.S. and European Union to make sure our wells are environmentally safe, to make baseline testing mandatory and to monitor wells throughout their lifetime.

If those regulatory changes aren’t made, it may only be a matter of time before those reservoirs of dirty water that have been created underground start to leak out. Indeed, that might already be happening. We just don’t know.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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