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Foe of fracking offers grim warning

Jessica Ernst can't say what she hopes will happen after her presentation on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday night. "Fracking killed hope," she said.

Jessica Ernst can’t say what she hopes will happen after her presentation on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday night.

“Fracking killed hope,” she said. “I don’t have any hope any more - in anything. From what I’ve uncovered, and what I’ve seen, they’ve killed all hope in me.”

Ernst will present information on the controversial mining method as well as share her story of living in a fracked area. Her visit coincides with Global Anti-Fracking Day, and follows shortly after the deadline for public comments on Northern Cross’ Eagle Plains project. The company has included fracking in its proposal for two oil and gas wells off the Dempster Highway.

Ernst has warned about the dangers of fracking for years. While her efforts have garnered her much praise - the United Nations gave her a “Woman of Courage” award in 2011 - it has also cost her almost everything she has.

In 1998, Ernst moved to Wheatland County, outside of Rosebud, Alta., not far from Drumheller. It’s a tiny hamlet of less than 100 people, surrounded mainly by grain farms. Many of the residents are children, said Ernst.

There’s a little arts and theatre school in Rosebud. Ernst bought a house there because of the area’s beauty.

But now, because of the work of oil corporation EnCana, she will likely have to sell her home.

Ernst is suing Encana, the Energy Resources Conservation Board in Alberta and the province’s government. She alleges that

the company has polluted rural water wells, including her own.

In the early 2000s, EnCana began drilling for coal-bed methane throughout central Alberta. They drilled over 200 wells near base water. This was done “all in secret,” Ernst said.

Ernst is a scientist and has worked in the oil and gas industry as a consultant. She’s even done work for EnCana, she said.

Her bathtub spout started blowing gas in 2004. She thought she had a problem with plumbing. When her skin became blotchy and red after bathing, she thought it was a sign of menopause.

Her behaviour changed in other ways. She stopped doing dishes as often. And when her dogs backed away from fresh drinking water, she knew there was a problem.

Her water is white now because of all the chemicals in it, she said.

Ernst began doing her own research and raising the alarm. People mocked and criticized her.

“I think (EnCana) was using people here, my community, as guinea pigs, not just geologically as an experiment, but also to see how they could use human nature and greed to their advantage,” she said.

The company promised to give the community’s theatre company $150,000 in 2004, but the cheque wasn’t cut until 2010, she said. Ernst was told she was keeping people from their money and that she was putting the community in danger, she said.

But she’s continued fighting.

EnCana has broken several laws during their work, Ernst alleges. The case has not been taken to court yet. A fresh statement of claims was filed in June. Statements of defence have not been filed yet, and her lawyers have warned her the delays may continue for years.

“I’m planning to go all the way,” she said.

It’s been a costly journey. Working to expose the situation has become a full-time job. She has had a personal business, but expects it will go bankrupt soon.

She’s spent over $200,000 in legal fees. While she often hears from people across the country who have concerns about fracking and she travels telling her story, her own life is isolated. She has spent her savings fighting this case and can no longer afford to travel to see friends.

But this isn’t just about her well, she said. This is about everyone’s drinking water.

“All the laws and regulations in Alberta to protect water were violated, and the government and the regulations helped EnCana cover that up and get away with it.”

She has less water now. Ernst drives 40 minutes to Rosedale to get it, 681 litres at a time. When she gets cold in the winter, she doesn’t have enough to heat and give herself a warm bath.

But she won’t quit. She’s skeptical when governments say they are banning fracking.

“When there’s really bad windstorms, or hail, or drought or tornadoes the government helps people affected. I’ve seen that everywhere.”

But when it comes to helping citizens with contaminated water, there’s no help, said Ernst.

Ernst will be speaking at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the CYO Hall in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at