The fracking debate has raised a lot of public interest in the issue, in Yukon and elsewhere. The groundwater pollution concerns take me back to the 1960s, when I worked as a chemical engineer for Naugatuck Chemicals, the chemical arm of the Uniroyal rubber company.
Naugatuck had a plant in Elmira, where the company made a number of toxic chemicals. The chemical processes involved produced waste products that were suspected carcinogens. While the company had a good record making a profit producing chemicals, it had a poor record on waste disposal, dumping a toxic soup in open pits on its property.
This toxic soup eventually seeped into Elmira’s groundwater sources, causing the closing of municipal and private wells in a three square-kilometre area, as the pollution plume spread underground. It became necessary to pipe drinking water up from Waterloo. The cleanup of the Elmira aquifer has cost many millions of dollars, both public and corporate, and is tentatively not scheduled to be completed until 2028.
For many years, the company’s management footdragged on dealing with the problem, downplaying concerns that were raised. The company also downplayed the concerns raised by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring. Carson was a marine biologist who initially raised the alarm over the indiscriminate use of chemicals, and was credited with the birth of the environmental movement. The chemical industry’s response at the time was to attack the messenger.
The lesson to be learned from Elmira is that it is much easier to pollute our groundwater than it is to clean it up, a lesson that is relevant to the fracking debate. The evidence relating to the danger of groundwater pollution from fracking chemicals is anything but conclusive, despite assertions from the industry to the contrary. Warnings from respected scientists suggest caution.
A fairly simple risk analysis relating to the consequences of making the wrong decision is in order. If we follow the advice of those urging caution, and this advice is eventually proven wrong, then we have temporarily passed up some possible economic opportunities. If we ignore the concerns of those urging caution, and their concerns are eventually proven valid, then we stand to pollute our aquifers and other groundwater, causing a mess that will take a generation to clean up.
This suggests that unless there is scientific proof, from a credible and independent body, that the fracking process is not a threat to our health, then we hold off buying into the fossil fuel industry’s arguments. Being stampeded by the industry is a recipe for making a mistake.
It is useful to look back at the recent New Brunswick election, where the fracking debate turned into a major election issue. The government that felt its role was to act as a cheerleader for the fossil fuel industry was replaced by a group that paid attention to its citizens’ genuine health concerns.