[Editor’s note: Last summer, two University of Alberta global and development studies students, Hans Asfeldt and Alison Bortolon, visited the province's unconventional oil and gas fields to document the concerns of people living downwind from hydraulic fracturing operations. Armed with cameras and pen and paper, they recorded what landowners were experiencing. There have been 7,700 horizontal frack jobs in Alberta to date and 7,300 in northern British Columbia since 2005. More of these stories are available at the AlbertaVoices project. Andrew Nikiforuk contributed editing to this report.]
Nielle and Howard Hawkwood do not welcome the west wind at their 40-year-old cattle ranch just north of Cochrane in the foothills of the Rockies anymore.
The polite couple, whose family has farmed in the region for 100 years, will tell you why with a quiet sense of disappointment and an uncomfortable clarity.
The west wind now often carries flared-off pollutants from many of the 70 tight or shale oil wells in the region. All use the controversial technology of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal wellbores to access unconventional hydrocarbons in the nearby, booming Cardium tight oil play.
"It's an absolute disaster," says Nielle Hawkwood, a 64-year-old retired speech and language pathologist. "It's a public health disaster. It's an environmental disaster. It's a disaster for future generations. And it's very, very difficult to come out and say that when some members of the community are gaining income from this."
Her 58-year-old husband, Howard, just calls it "the wild, wild west. There is no one to police it or investigate it."
Driven by royalty holidays, low-cost water and high oil prices, about a half-dozen Calgary-based oil companies -- including Lightstream Resources (formerly PetroBakken) Pengrowth Energy, TriOil and Tamarack Valley Energy -- rushed into the foothills north of Cochrane just five years ago and started a drilling and fracking frenzy.
Using large volumes of municipal water, sand and fracking chemicals -- including gelled hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel, condensate and kerosene -- the companies have drilled down into a 2,000 metre deep formation. They blast the deep rock with highly pressurized fluids horizontally, up to two to five kilometres from the vertical well. Each well can require as many as 25 high-pressured fracture jobs to break up the concrete-like formation which is riddled with natural fractures.
Ever since the industry started to frack up the region in 2009 (the Cardium is now the most fracked oil and gas bearing formation in Alberta), the Hawkwoods say they've endured an array of problems, including bad air, compromised health, dead cattle, earthquakes and a fractured community.
It has been a steep and difficult education for the couple.
The once bucolic landscape with vistas of the Rocky Mountains, including Mount Lougheed, has now been abruptly industrialized with fracking operations and the buzz of constant truck traffic.
"There are many, many unanswered questions about the effects of this industry," says Nielle. "We feel that we've experienced them directly, as far as our health is concerned with the air pollution, and as far as our water issues are concerned."
Shielding chemicals burnt off
The Hawkwoods' most acute concern has been the air pollution from flaring -- the burning of waste gas along with frack fluid components.
According to Canada's auditor general, hydraulic fracturing not only injects millions of gallons of water and sand underground, but as many 800 different chemicals -- a number of which are known carcinogens -- down the wellbore. Some of this fluid is brought back to the surface, mixed with produced water and gas. But according to Alberta's Energy Regulator, as much as 80 per cent of the toxic brew can remain underground.
Certain chemical components of the frack fluid are separated alongside potentially marketable natural gas, which is then burnt off in flare stacks.
The heat produced by the combustion of methane causes some of these chemicals to react and form new chemicals that were not necessarily present at the time of injection.
The Hawkwood home and their 175 Hereford cattle and five horses sit directly downwind of the flaring, and at a similar elevation.
"Some of those chemicals are very dangerous when burnt to decomposition," says Nielle. "They form very toxic gases."
But oil and gas companies do not disclose all the chemicals they inject into the ground.
An anonymous engineer, formerly employed in the oil and gas sector, managed to acquire a list of frack fluid chemicals used in at least some of the wells in the Lochend area.
He reported to the Hawkwoods that one of the chemicals that may be emitted off flare stacks is phosgene. Used as a chemical warfare agent, it is formed through the reaction of carbon monoxide and chlorine gas. Phosgene is one of countless chlorinated hydrocarbons, many of which are used as pesticides such as DDT.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes phosgene as "extremely toxic by acute (short-term) inhalation exposure." It can cause severe respiratory problems including pulmonary edema (or fluid accumulation in the lungs), severe eye irritation, burns to the skin, other symptoms and death.
According to information acquired by the engineer, a chemical called dibromoacetonitrile is used in the frack fluid in the Lochend area. It is also used in the shale gas fields of Pennsylvania.
Potentially fatal by inhalation, it forms a variety of new toxins including cyanide gas when burned to decomposition.
"We assume that when they burn well effluent, they're also burning this chemical...this is not being monitored, it's not being regulated properly," said Nielle.
A Calgary company that until recently was using the chemical in their frack fluids has now stopped, say the Hawkwoods. The couple suspects that this change resulted from landowners educating operators and sending letters about the dangerous nature of nitrile compounds.
'I've lost a lot of hair'
The Hawkwoods live approximately five kilometres from most of the flaring, and have carefully documented the impacts on their health for the last three years, with the hope that authorities might do something.
Nielle says that she has experienced unnatural hair loss, and both her and Howard's general health have suffered markedly. But they know others who have been more severely impacted.
"I've lost a lot of hair," Nielle says. "We've had skin irritation, nasal irritation, eye irritation. And these are chronic problems.... They've just been building up over the last three years since fracking started here."
Adds Nielle: "They can use us as guinea pigs and look at what happens to us to get some basis for saying that there are health concerns with this technology."
Because the list of chemicals that could be present is endless and unknown, testing air quality can be expensive and difficult. But in studies where flared gases have been tested for a limited range of pollutants, high levels of benzene were recorded.
Benzene can cause leukemia, and Nielle suspects it has also contributed to her hair loss.
A 2011 U.S. study found that 75 per cent of 632 chemicals used in natural gas drilling operations could affect the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, while 50 per cent would impact the brain and nervous system and kidneys. 25 per cent can cause cancers.
The Hawkwoods suspect that some of the same fracking chemicals are also polluting groundwater.
At one point, they say their tap water had an "off" taste that led them to stop drinking it altogether, and last November it caused Howard's skin to sting.
It is possible that fluids injected down the wellbore migrate beyond the production zone, through intercommunication with old wells or along hydraulically induced fractures, enlarged natural fractures, or compromised casing and cement.
By one scientific estimate, one in six unconventional oil and gas wells will leak fluids to surrounding rocks and the surface over the next century.
Dead algae, starving cows
Last November, Howard noticed that the ever-present algae in their horses' water trough suddenly died. The University of Calgary tested the water, which comes from the same well that supplies the Hawkwoods' house.
Tests in November and January revealed high levels of chlorides. The water's pH level rose from 6.5 two or three years ago and now fluctuates between 7.2 and 8.6.
(A spill of fracking fluid into surface waters caused a similar reaction in Kentucky, reports the U.S. Geological Survey.)
The Hawkwoods say they've been unable to rid the water trough of dead algae and the horses still refuse to drink from it. The couple has a second water well for their cattle herd. When the algae died in the horses' trough, it disappeared altogether from the cattle's troughs.
This coincided with an increase in the cattle's mineral consumption and by mid-December, consumption had tripled and some cows were becoming extremely thin.
The Hawkwoods say their veterinarian investigated but could not remedy the problem. Six cows wasted away and died while four others were euthanized. Autopsies were performed on two of them, and a jelly-like substance that often indicates starvation was found around their organs. The feed was tested and was found to be nutritionally adequate, and cows that were not affected maintained good health and normal body weight.
The well in the feedlot was tested privately by another third party in December and again confirmed high levels of chlorides. The veterinarian told Howard that the imbalance of chlorides in the water could have caused nutrients to be flushed right through the cows' digestive systems. This would have led to their starvation and would likely explain the increase in mineral consumption.
A shaking ranch
In addition to the air and water pollution, the Hawkwood ranch itself sometimes shakes and hops with tremors. Howard says he first experienced this in August 2011 while out tending the horses.
"The whole barn started to shake and tremble and the horse bolted out of the barn," says Howard. "I was trying to get the saddle off of him and the whole barn swayed and I heard cracking and creaking noises."
He immediately ran over the hill to where he knew a seismic crew was operating that day, suspecting that it was responsible for the tremors.
To his surprise, the crew explained that all seismic work had been stopped earlier in the day due to a fracking operation nearby. The reverberations caused by hydraulic fracturing can distort the testing results and whenever fracking is occurring, seismic testing must stop. The seismic workers, who also felt the ground hop, indicated that the fracking had caused the tremors.
Many landowners in the area have felt tremors on several occasions. The province's closest seismic monitoring station, located on the opposite side of Calgary, reports that the tremors were not picked up by monitoring equipment and did not occur.
But the quakes damaged the Hawkwoods' barn and they were left to make the repairs themselves.
The couple wonders whether the cracked cement in their barn walls is an indication of what might happen to cement casing in the wellbores themselves. The cement is in place to prevent the migration of gas and other fluids from the production zone to other strata and drinking water aquifers.
To date, the tremors remain unaddressed, and little has been done to mitigate water and air pollution or prevent future problems.
'It's very difficult to take a stand'
"It seems like the regulators have basically walked away," says Howard. He and Nielle have sent letters to the Alberta premier and to the ministers of health, agriculture, and energy, but they have only been told to talk to the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), now the Alberta Energy Regulator.
The ERCB told them to speak with Alberta Environment, another government agency. Its representatives turned the Hawkwoods away on the grounds that they could not address 400 similar complaints in southern Alberta alone.
The ERCB has held community meetings, but Nielle says any concerns that were raised were simply brushed aside. "They've just basically said, well, we know what we're doing."
In the meantime, Nielle and Howard have written to newspapers, met with neighbours and connected with Albertans across the province. They weren't surprised to learn that many Albertans are uninformed or misinformed because most fracking disputes are never made public.
"We're not the only ranchers who've experienced these problems. Most people don't want to come forward for one reason or another," says Nielle. She and her husband explain that the pressure to keep quiet about the impacts of fracking can easily be overwhelming.
"It's very difficult to take a stand. Many people, many ranchers and farmers depend on the oil and gas industry for added income because they're not making very much money farming and ranching," says Nielle.
Many who are employed in the oil and gas sector fear that sharing their stories could cost them their jobs. "They're absolutely terrified," Howard says.