Hans Kirschbaum, Anja Hutgens and reporter Ben Parfitt

When it comes to fracking, radiation levels can be ‘(literally) off the charts’

Our latest newsletter explores the problem of radioactivity in B.C.’s fracking waste — and the lack of regulatory action to address the dangers

Before we get to this week’s newsletter, excuse us for this **sappy moment** about our mighty Narwhal pod. We are still in awe of the flood of support that came in this past weekend. 411(!!) of you signed up to become monthly members. Yes, you read that right, 411.

Remember when we mentioned our goal of reaching 2,020 members in 2020? Well, we now count 2,243 members — a number far beyond our wildest imaginations. That’s 2,243 of you who give whatever you can in the name of in-depth and investigative reporting on key environmental issues across Canada. Each of you helps us tell even more stories and shine a light on problems lurking in the shadows (case in point: a fight over radioactive fracking waste that we detail below).

We’ve got big plans for 2021. But right now, we’re just thankful for our wonderful Narwhal community. Y’all rock.

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Remember February? Before the pandemic took over our lives?

Back then, 10 months or 10 years ago, managing editor Carol Linnitt reached out to reporter Ben Parfitt to see if he would look into radioactivity in B.C.’s fracking waste. Turns out Ben was already on the case — and this past weekend we published his sprawling and shocking piece.

It’s a story that centres around Anja Hutgens and Hans Kirschbaum, two ranchers in the Peace River region of northeast B.C., and a fracking operation that the couple says threatens the water source for their 300 head of thirsty cattle.

“We’re not against the gas industry,” Anja says. “I mean, we all need those resources. We all depend on it as well. But there need to be boundaries. And first of all, we must protect our water resources, which is the most important thing of all.”

Not far from their ranch, Crew Energy has plans to build two wastewater pits that would store 64 Olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of wastewater from fracking operations.

Anja and Hans say that if the plan goes ahead, there could be massive consequences in the event of a leak, including the risk of potentially radioactive waste contaminating aquifers — putting the lives of wildlife, including those cattle, at serious risk.

Wait, hold up: radioactive? Yes, you read that right. Public officials are aware of the problem — but very little has been done to address the dangers.

Some shale rock formations relied on for fracking operations are believed to have radiation concentrations that are “(literally) off the charts,” according to an internal BC Oil and Gas Commission email obtained by The Narwhal.

The fight over fracking waste exposes some familiar problems: lax rules, absent data and a regulator’s failure to fully account for risk.

In 2018, a committee appointed by B.C.’s agriculture minister found “the development of the energy sector has exceeded the capacity of the current regulatory environment to protect farmland.”

But despite the committee’s call for the government to address the issue, ranchers like Anja and Hans are still waiting.

While the Oil and Gas Commission has acknowledged the threat fracking poses, it leaves the responsibility to companies like Crew to test for and report radioactive materials.

Anja and Hans say they were rebuffed when they asked Crew to test its existing wastewater. Crew says it will be taking precautionary measures with its planned wastewater pit, but failures have happened before in B.C.

With so many red flags, we can’t help but wonder: will the government institute more stringent requirements for companies increasingly operating on farms and agricultural lands?

The first clue could come early in the new year, when B.C.’s Oil and Gas Appeal Tribunal is expected to issue its ruling on Anja and Hans’ fight to halt Crew’s plans.

Take care and don’t forget your Geiger counter,

Arik Ligeti
Audience engagement editor


The Narwhal in the world

Josie Kao portrait

Josie Kao joins The Narwhal from The Globe and Mail, where she was a web editor. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Mea culpa: it’s been a whole month, and I still haven’t introduced you to our new assistant editor! Josie Kao joined us after a stint at The Globe and Mail, and she has seamlessly tackled every task we’ve thrown her way since Day 1.

You may have already had the chance to chat with Josie if you dropped a note to our editor inbox or seen her byline on a wrap-up of our recent Site C panel discussion. And if you follow us on InstagramTwitter or Facebook, you may have already caught wind of Josie’s singular voice! (Did we mention how we’ve turned our Instagram presence up to 11?)

My personal favourite tweet of Josie’s is this one with a Ghostbusters reference.

Make sure to read this Q&A with Josie, where she recounts her introduction to environment issues and details why “good journalism should constantly be pushing boundaries — other people’s and its own — and constantly questioning its assumptions.”

Hear, hear. At The Narwhal, we’re always striving to challenge our assumptions and yours.


This week in The Narwhal

Public money ‘helped fund extinction’ of B.C. caribou through mining subsidies: report

First Nations guardians caribou calf pen

Caribou herds have experienced dramatic declines in B.C.’s Peace River region, where First Nations are leading a costly maternity penning effort to bring one herd back from the brink. A new analysis shows coal mines that have contributed to caribou declines were approved under the guise they would lead to significant economic benefits that never materialized. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

By Stephanie Wood

The destructive impacts of three coal mines on critical caribou habitat were justified by promised economic benefits that a new analysis finds were ‘grossly exaggerated.’ Read more.


Critics flag concerns as Prince Rupert, B.C., fuel export terminal enters final comment period

Train in Banff, Alta.

The proposed Vopak Pacific Canada facility would receive up to 240 rail cars of fuels from sites in B.C. and Alberta every day. Photo: James Chen / Shutterstock

By Matt Simmons

The proposed Vopak Pacific Canada facility would bring up to 87,600 rail cars and 171 tankers carrying combustibles to the region every year. Read more.


Yukon cancels 65-kilometre ATAC resource road into Beaver River watershed

Beaver River watershed Yukon

A recent decision to cancel the ATAC Resources road in Yukon could slow the pace of industrial development in the Beaver River watershed. Photo: Steve Hossack / Yukon Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

By Julien Gignac

The proposed access route, controversially approved without a land use plan, would have opened up undeveloped wildlife habitat and salmon-bearing rivers to mining and the potential for future industrial development. Read more.


Why B.C.’s Zincton resort, the proposed ‘Tesla of ski villages,’ is worrying conservationists

Backcountry skiing Zincton David Moskowitz

The Selkirk Mountains in B.C. are a popular destination for backcountry skiers. But a new proposal for a ski resort has conservationists worried about the loss of wildlife habitat. Photo: David Moskowitz

By Paul Fischer

Proponents of the eco-village, pitched by the founder of outdoor retailer Valhalla Pure, are at odds with wilderness advocates who say the carbon-neutral project will have too great an impact on precious wildlife habitat for at-risk species like wolverine and grizzlies. Read more.


"Wildfire smoke is poisoning California's kids. Some pay a higher price" from the new york times "Coastal communities facing climate change need an equitable retreat, geographer says" from national observer


chris traeger from parks and recreation saying "literally"

When radioactivity levels are (literally) off the charts, subscribe to our newsletter before it’s too late.

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You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists in less than a year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,200 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make this year our biggest yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Arik Ligeti is The Narwhal’s audience engagement editor, with a focus on growing a dedicated community of members and readers.…

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