One Alberta Ranching Family’s Three-Generation Fight for Cleanup of Contaminated Well Site

By Tony Bruder

For three generations, my family has lived on our ranch near Twin Butte, Alberta, where the mountains meet the prairies.  Against a backdrop of towering rock there is an abundance of wildlife, and immensely rich grazing land. In the midst of all this beauty lies an all too familiar site in rural Alberta — two long-inactive sour gas wells.

I never met my grandfather, but my dad told me about the first time oil and gas folks stepped foot on our property near Twin Butte 60 years ago — the way they disregarded my grandfather’s concerns about the land and the haphazard way in which they commenced drilling, operated their wells and eventually left the site as an eyesore on the land.

What we didn’t expect is that our own government — in this case the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) — would side with industry over the people it is meant to protect.

The attitude of both industry and government is, “You own the top four inches of soil, and we can do what we want with the rest.” As a landowner, that’s what you’re stuck with and it’s incredibly disempowering.

There are more than 80,000 inactive oil and gas wells in Alberta. Thousands have been decommissioned, but in many cases the land has not been cleaned up. More than 17,000 inactive wells don’t even comply with the regulator's requirements for inactive wells.  

The wells on our property have sat idle for decades. After years of effort and multiple letters and e-mails to the AER sent by our lawyers at Ecojustice, the regulator finally ordered the well’s current owner, Nomad Exploration Ltd., to decommission the well in 2014. Nomad ignored the order and the AER eventually had to do the work itself.

We watched the AER haul 12 truckloads of contaminated soil from a small portion of the lease site. A preliminary environmental investigation showed there was more contaminated soil on and surrounding the well site. One can only imagine the extent of damage from six decades of seepage. Tweet: #Alberta fails on abandoned oil wells: “Our livestock still refuse to drink from a seep flowing from the site” http://bit.ly/2fCwNYL Our livestock still refuse to drink from a seep flowing from the site.

In September 2015, the AER ordered Nomad to complete a more detailed site investigation to determine the extent of the contamination. I was skeptical but relieved. But Nomad ignored that order — and the AER did nothing.  After more letters and e-mails from our Ecojustice lawyers, the AER finally issued a new order — asking Nomad to create a plan to commence the site assessment by August 2016 — the same work they had ordered Nomad to complete a year earlier. Nomad created a plan but August came and went without any site assessment or clean-up work. Worse, the AER ignored my request for information on how it will deal with Nomad’s continued failure to clean up the site.

The Bruder family.

The Bruder family has been fighting for clean-up of a contaminated well site for three generations.

In the face of a toothless AER and unresponsive operator, my family worries that we will be forced to live with a contaminated site indefinitely.  All the while, we worry that the well site continues to leach contaminants into soil we’ve worked tirelessly to preserve for future generations of our family.

Our children are reluctant to take over the property because of the AER’s inaction. Our children grew up, absorbing our disbelief and frustration at the dim prospects of a clean-up.

It should not take 20 years to decommission a well and clean up a known contaminated site. This complacency is not characteristic of a “world-class regulator,” as the AER proclaims itself to be. We understand that oil and gas is a major aspect of our provincial economy (our own son works in oil and gas), however the AER is failing taxpayers and Albertans by sidestepping its responsibilities.

If the AER is not willing to enforce orders against Nomad, it should complete the clean-up itself. The AER has tools at its disposal to recover those costs, to make sure the public and landowners don’t shoulder that burden.

We’re doing our part to be responsible stewards for the land — taking care of the soil, even selling cows to ensure we’re not over-grazing. Now it’s time for the AER to do its job and protect Albertans. We are the third generation on this landscape to fight this battle. For the sake of my children I don’t want there to be a fourth.  

Tony Bruder is a rancher in Twin Butte, Alberta.  

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