In the 1970s, the television series Battlestar Galactica got around the censors by using frack as its "four- letter" word. Thirty years later, fracking is still a dirty word - one that, if used 18 months ago, would have had most people scrambling for the dictionary.
Although hydraulic fracturing - a process used to break up rock underground to allow oil or gas to flow - has been happening in Taranaki for more than 10 years, only recently have people become concerned about it, fearing it contaminates groundwater.
The Taranaki Regional Council released a comprehensive report on fracking in November. It comes with a disclaimer stating the hydraulic fracturing and geologic information was supplied by the oil and gas industry.
At the time of its release, the council said its authors "had not found evidence of related environmental problems" from hydraulic fracturing. Taranaki rock is so thick it seals chemicals and gas from the fracking away from fresh water.
However, in June last year, another regional council report showed there was water contamination at Kapuni sites where fracking had occurred. Shallow groundwater below some blow- down pits is not fit for potable water or stock use and groundwater didn't meet the criteria for irrigation. Two of these sites will be fracked later this year.
Both Shell Todd Oil Services, which owns Kapuni, and the regional council say there is no link between fracking fluids and the contamination of the site where three of the toxic BETX (benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylenes) chemicals were found.
At least one of the pits Shell Todd has used for storing fracking fluids does not show any contamination, but there is BETX contamination beneath at least one other site where no fracking fluids were stored, regional council director environment quality Gary Bedford says.
Wherever it came from, the contamination in the groundwater, identified in at least one pit as far back as 2004, has not been cleaned up. The water is directly underneath the blow-down pits which are within the wider exploration site controlled by Shell Todd, Bedford says.
"It is not widespread. Let me be very clear - there are bores located between the well head sites and the Kapuni stream, but there is no indication of the contamination reaching that far and the Kapuni stream itself is showing absolutely no indication of contamination either by chemical analysis or by biological health surveys conducted in the Kapuni stream.
"Everything we see tells us that the contamination is highly localised."
The oil firm discovered the contamination and went to the council, which decided to impose resource consent requirements.
Until then, Shell Todd wasn't required to have a resource consent for storing materials in the pits.
Bedford is waiting to hear from Shell Todd as to when the cleanup programme will start.
"They are designing the programme. First, they had to confirm full details of what was at each site and we have a pretty good knowledge already of that. Second, which was the best way of proceeding with remediation and the programme and which sites they would start with. That's the detail I'm waiting for."
Shell Todd plans to start fracking at two sites later this year, but Bedford says this is a separate issue and will come under a separate monitoring regime.
Shell Todd general manager Rob Jager says the water contamination at Kapuni is a historical issue which is being managed with the regional council.
"In the past, fluids from well operations were intermittently released into pits within the Kapuni field. These pits were used on an infrequent basis and were unlined."
While some pits were used to receive fluids from fracked wells, fracking returns were highly unlikely to be the source of dissolved hydrocarbons, he says.
Water-quality sampling of the Kapuni Stream was carried out in 2008 and 2009 by the regional council and there was no significant difference in water quality upstream and downstream of the production station.
The discharge complied with the consent, Jager says.
Shell Todd no longer uses the pits.
"For several years [Shell Todd] has been exploring other, better methods of containment and will be using steel tanks for the upcoming drilling programme."
As an extra precaution Shell Todd has engaged the services of an independent consultancy company which specialises in environmental management.
It has reviewed existing information and undertaken site visits to provide recommendations for further monitoring and remedial action, Jager says.
"The fracking carried out at Kapuni occurs at a depth of about 3500 metres, well away from shallow freshwater aquifers. There are three layers of cemented steel casing between frack fluid and the earth."
Shell Todd does not use BETX for fracking, he says.
The Kapuni stream feeds the Kapuni treatment plant, which supplies water to Hawera and Normanby. The first the South Taranaki District Council knew of the contamination was in December, when it was informed by Ngaere resident Sarah Roberts.
District council group manager engineering services Neil McCann says he was concerned when Roberts spoke to him, because the council didn't monitor for the BETX chemicals.
"We took some grab samples, which are only indicative of that time you take the samples, and there is clearly no evidence of those chemicals . . . and we have also adjusted our calibration instruments at the Kapuni treatment plant to constantly monitor for the presence of those chemicals. So we can say to our ratepayers and users we are now monitoring for it and if it is present we will know about it."
This isn't enough for South Taranaki district councillor Michael Self. He is a member of the Egmont Plains ward which declared itself a frack-free zone at the last community board meeting.
"I'm particularly concerned about [fracking], especially the way things have gone on in the Kapuni field, with high levels of groundwater pollution.
"Also we have the wholesale practice with the regional council just about giving anything the oil companies want in terms of consents."
The regional council recently changed some consents to allow for untreated stormwater into streams including Kapuni.
"Previously, those consents were for treated waste."
Self has a report from the 1980s that said the Kapuni river was under stress.
"Thirty years on, they are still wanting to put waste into it."
He is also concerned about the regional council not notifying the public when it grants resource consents to oil companies.
"Everything is done under secrecy and under cover."
Until August last year, fracking did not require resource consent and, since then, the consents haven't been notified.
Bedford denies secrecy, saying all the regional council's reports are on its website. He admits having non-notifiable consents frustrates some people, but says the regional council is bound by the Resource Management Act.
"Notification isn't about notifying people who yell loudly or for a long time or with passion.
"The notification requirement deals with those who are directly affected by this activity in some way."
The regional council has gained a reputation as an expert in dealing with fracking and oil industry- related matters and is advising other councils, particularly those from around the East Coast area, where fracking is proposed.
In Parliament two weeks ago, Minister of Energy and Resources Phil Heatley, in response to questions about fracking from Green MP Gareth Hughes, said he took his advice "from officials and from the Taranaki Regional Council".
Hughes tabled the report about the contamination at Kapuni in Parliament when he had finished asking his questions.
"I heard that in New Zealand oil companies say they don't use BETX chemicals and this shows they were. What we see is water contamination, consents being breached. It's not the rosy picture that the industry likes to portray itself - as highly regulated with no mishaps," Hughes says.
A year ago most people could not say what fracking was, he says. "People are becoming aware of it. The Government is having to answer questions on it and regions across the country are facing fracking. They are concerned councils don't have much expertise so everyone is looking at Taranaki to see how it happens there over the decades."
He is drafting a private members' bill asking for a moratorium on fracking and would like Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, to look into the practice.
Hughes is not the only one. The Christchurch City Council and Hawke's Bay Regional Council are among local bodies asking for either a moratorium or for more information on fracking.
Hughes likens it to the nuclear- free movement years ago when the government didn't act, so towns and cities across New Zealand did. "That's what we're saying with fracking."
Dr Wright has received 19 full written complaints about fracking and about 550 petition emails.
Her office has "scoping work" under way to determine if there are grounds for an investigation and, if so, "what shape it would take". She expects the study to be complete in a few months.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is doing a major study on the risks of fracking after chemicals were found in groundwater in Wyoming.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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