Big oil, big problems?

By Kuhl, Nick on December 5, 2013.

Lethbridge Herald

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Howard and Nielle Hawkwood own a picturesque 1,440-acre property just northeast of Cochrane. But not all is what it seems.

The Hawkwoods have experienced health problems, dead cattle and earthquakes causing property damage in the past three years – all, they say, as a result of fracking operations and more than 80 oil wells just upwind from their ranch.

The couple were two of the guest speakers during an open house, community engagement and panel discussion, organized by a concerned group of Lethbridge residents, Wednesday evening in the atrium at Lethbridge City Hall.

The session was the latest in a series of movements opposed to the proposed operation by Goldenkey Oil Inc., which is anticipated to make its formal request next month to drill at sites within city limits on the westside.

“We’re trying to give people an opportunity to hear unbiased information – so information from engineers and scientists who aren’t on the Goldenkey Oil payroll,” said event organizer Sheila Rogers.

“The people with Goldenkey Oil told us that there’s nothing to worry about and everything will be fine. But we’re not so convinced on that. We know that there are many dangers associated with fracking.”

Speakers included Braum Barber, an engineering instructor at Lethbridge College, Jim Byrne, chair of geology at the University of Lethbridge, and environmental scientist Brynn Choquette. They talked about how air pollution from flaring, water contamination and semi truck traffic in neighbourhoods could occur in Lethbridge should Goldenkey’s request be approved.

The Hawkwoods, meanwhile, discussed the series of issues that began soon after fracking started about five and six kilometres to their west in 2009. Since they live on a ridge, which they said is level with the top of the nearby flare stacks, they are affected anytime a west wind is blowing.

The flaring has caused hair loss to Nielle Hawkwood, to the point that she now wears a wig, as well as skin, eye and respiratory irritation.

“As the time went on my symptoms got worse,” she said, adding she went to a dermatologist and was told something had affected her immune system.

“So we know from some of the chemicals that they use in fracking that there are effects on people’s immune systems.”

In the fall of 2012, the Hawkwoods lost 18 cattle. They also noticed an off taste in their own drinking water, which is drawn from a ground well source. They then tested the water, as they had done for years, and observed that the chloride levels had doubled.

“I’ve actually checked all my neighbours’ water,” Howard said, adding he has also had his horse barn wrecked and his grain bins packed solid due to the underground vibrations. “Everybody’s got the same problem.”

The Hawkwoods have contacted the Alberta Energy Board and have written to politicians, but nothing has happened. They said most of their neighbours are trying to sell their properties.

“They’re frightened and they want to leave, or they’ve been affected,” Nielle said. “There’s a neighbour to the south of us – he has prostate cancer, his wife lost her hair, their two teenage daughters lost their hair; they’ve abandoned the house and told the real estate agent to get what you can for it.”

“I think the government knows what the problems are and they’re refusing to act,” she continued. “They’re not acting in Albertans’ interests, they’re acting in the oil companies’ interests. This is not right. This is not safe. Fracking is not safe.”

“They don’t tell you the truth,” Howard added. “I’m afraid that you’re going to have a lot of sick people here in Lethbridge. This is going to be a major problem.”