Letters to the Editor

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Rural New Brunswickers Come Out for Meetings with Shale Gas Rep and Government Officials

Sessions at times heated as public voices it's concern about industry to shale gas rep and province's bureaucrats; MLA's

By Cheryl Norrad

SWN rep Tom Alexander at left. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)

Public information sessions were held in Boiestown and Taymouth yesterday with the General Manager of shale gas giant Southwestern Energy (SWN), Tom Alexander, presenting information and answering questions on the company, along with it's plan for New Brunswick, while Alward administration officials participated in a Q&A and MLA's looked on.

"I'm here to give people credible and factual information," said Alexander. "A lot of the protest is fueled by misinformation and I want to get resources out there," he said.

Southwest Miramichi MLA Jake Stewart attends the SWN open house in Boiestown yesterday. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)

Southwest Miramichi MLA Jake Stewart attended the Boiestown session to get up to speed on where SWN is currently at after having attended a few summer and fall meetings with government.

"I'm concerned about shale gas, too, and it's effects on water, having dealt with drinking water issues in Blackville, but I'm not an expert so came to be better informed," he said.

Stewart also added Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Minister Bruce Northrup and (DoE) Environment Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney are interested in attending meetings in the region next month.

The MLA for York North, Kirk MacDonald, was present in Taymouth and struck a conciliatory tone, both in support of government bureaucrats struggling to get a framework in place for the industry in the province, as well as taking the concerns of his constituents seriously.

York North MLA Kirk MacDonald attended a shale gas meeting in Taymouth yesterday evening. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)

"As long as I'm MLA there will be no fracking in the Taymouth area without an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) in place...and I will take it back to the government that the people want a referendum on shale gas," he said.

The meetings were at times hostile and raucous, with a small but vocal turnout in Boiestown and a standing-room-only crowd in Taymouth.

In Boiestown, Alexander gave his presentation inside the local community center while protesters lined the highway outside with anti-shale gas signs and banners. A few came into the meeting to hear Alexander and made it clear they weren't in favor of the company being in their region.

"We don't want you here!" said Mary Delavalette, a member of Doaktown's Concerned Citizens of Central NB, in an exchange with Alexander over worries about the impact of chemicals used in the fracking wells on the local watershed.

"What people are hearing is blown out of proportion. Millions of wells are working fine," said Alexander.

Others attending the Boiestown meeting weren't protesters, but were members of the local community very upset about the possibility of their offspring being harmed by toxic water from chemical fracking.

"How can you guarantee my children won't be effected by drinking poisoned well water?" asked Jason Lyons, a businessman and fishing guide from the area.

"I can't," answered Alexander, "But I don't think small amounts [of chemicals] in local water will affect children...we test water before and after drilling and the Environment Department is working on regulations to ensure safe water," he said.

At the Taymouth meeting government officials from DNR, DoE and the Department of Health (DoH) answered questions from the public alongside MLA MacDonald, SWN and a representative from the Natural Gas Group (NGG), a government committee struck in April to regulate the shale gas industry in New Brunswick.

A capacity crowd was on hand at a public shale gas meeting with company and government officials in Taymouth last evening. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)

An attendee poses a question to company and government officials at a shale gas public information session last evening in Taymouth. (Photo: Cheryl Norrad)

On a night when they could've been home watching Vancouver lose the Stanley Cup to Boston, the citizens in Taymouth politely lined up at the mic to ask their questions. But as it became clear to them by a lack of concrete answers from bureaucrats present that the government is lagging behind in regulating the industry, several became derisive and skeptical.

"When are we going to get straight answers?!" asked one exasperated attendee at the mic inquiring about chemicals used in shale gas drilling.

Calmly taking the lead on the question, Angie Leonard of the Natural Gas Group said, "Not everyone can be at every public meeting and we are trying our best."

Sam McEwan, Assistant Deputy Minister at Natural Resources, added, "the Natural Gas Group is in it's early days and are trying to find answers...it has to be done right and concerns addressed; that's what government is doing."

SWN's Alexander answered the question by saying, "Options [are coming] in the industry for user-friendly fluids; food-grade products are coming out; it's a possibility for us."

The DoH's Karen White said, "We're working on regulations for health through the EIA...risk assessments are going on now and if there isn't enough information for a satisfactory assessment, work will be stopped."

At this the crowd erupted into anger with one saying, "Wells have already been fracked in New Brunswick without assessments!"

Leonard reiterated the NGG is new and working to get on top of things. There is a plan to have open houses and communique's in the future notifying the public and questions by the public were welcomed.

"We are happy to speak to individual well owners if they contact the Natural Gas Group with questions," she said.

A question was later shouted out by an anonymous voice in the crowd that seemed to prick the ballooning anger in the room, "What's the score in the hockey game?" To laughter, Alexander's assistant went to the stage with his Blackberry and showed the moderator it was 1-0 for Boston. Boo's came from the majority of the audience.

That question distracted the crowd from getting any more heated with the panel. But it was another posed by an attendee at the mic that gave everyone pause:

"Where's the Opposition?"

Filling the void, Alexander said, "I met with the Liberals a month ago for a briefing and we agreed to meet every three months for updates."

That answer and MLA MacDonald's statement to bring the issue as a referendum to the government seemed to help quell the crowd and it eventually wound down given the late hour.

At the end when asked by The Purple Violet Press if he often runs into this tension at public meetings, Alexander replied, "The tone usually calms down as meetings progress [the public gets informed], but the general reception has been positive. Some will always object. That's okay, that's what makes the world go round."

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