Letters to the Editor

Monday, 14 November 2011

Op-Ed - Who's "FAULT" is it? Government incompetence or greasing the rails for mining?

By Lawrence Wuest

The Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis continue their gallant struggle against Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan in the face of government incompetence and submissiveness to industry. The latest sessions of the mine hearing at Sussex have vividly demonstrated the failure of the EIA process to serve to protect the environment, the health, the safety and the financial interests of vulnerable citizens.

Many residents of Penobsquis have experienced water well problems starting around the year 2000. The close association of failed water wells with the mapping of the underground mine workings at Penobsquis (see Map 1 below) leaves little doubt in many people’s minds as to a connection between the operation of the mine and their loss of water. Providing scientific proof of that connection has been problematic and expensive for the residents involved, and the issue has created some friction in intra-community relations.

Successive governments have observed the short-term economic boom from mining and gas exploration in other provinces and have encouraged mineral and gas exploitation without any forethought into the downside of such an initiative in a small province like New Brunswick. The mine hearing at Sussex has demonstrated how, in a contorted interpretation of their function, the departments of Environment and Natural Resources have become solely facilitators of industry, and have abandoned any sense of responsibility to their MOST AT RISK citizenry through a corrupted EIA process. Nowhere has this been more demonstrably apparent than in the EIA of the Picadilly Potash Mine. The proposed Picadilly Mine is an expansion of the Penobsquis mine operation into a second potash deposit buried in the same salt dome.

The Penobsquis and Springdale faults are geologic formations near Sussex, New Brunswick. They formed nearly 300 million years ago and are now considered “inactive” with maximum tectonic movements on the order of several millimeters per year. However, the schisms in the rock layers continue to hold relevance for both the public and industry situated nearby. The faults create the potential for ground water movement, for land movements at the surface, and for pathways for water and gas migration to surface aquifers during fracking. The implications for mining and gas development are considerable.

Officials at NBDNR have confirmed that the location of the Penobsquis fault is largely influenced by information contained in a 2006 research paper from the University of New Brunswick. That paper located the fault line south of the old Trans-Canada Highway, currently Rt. 114. In this position, the fault intersects some of the proposed Picadilly mine (see Fault A Map 2 below).

As stated above, geologic faults present potential pathways for water and gas, critical considerations for mining in general and for shale gas exploration and development in particular. So it is particularly worrying that the EIA of the Picadilly mine transpired without comprehensive review and contained “Conditions of Approval”, none of which pertained to the possibility of a fault occurring coincidental with some of the proposed mine workings. This is particularly puzzling and suspicious, given the ongoing problems of lost water wells in the Penobsquis area at the time, the ongoing subsidence from the current mine at Penobsquis and the disastrous past flooding of the Potacan Mine at Cassidy Lake. But it is equally curious that the Penobsquis and Springdale faults (Faults B and C, Map 2 above) were suddenly relocated on government geological maps shortly after the EIA approval of the Picadilly expansion in 2008. In the relocation, the Penobsquis fault avoided the Picadilly expansion, while the modified Springdale Fault moved to overly the expansion further south. The change was only brought to light by residents of Penobsquis three years later in 2011. Subsequent to that discovery, DNR once again modified the mapping of the faults in 2011, but a tainted air of suspicion lingers that the location of the faults is a matter of convenience for industry rather than a purely science based appraisal.

In any event, a fault or faults intersected the Picadilly mine during the EIA of that project in 2008. The subsequent events and their timing present troubling possibilities that call into question the competency and integrity of the EIA process and possibly the future physical integrity and safety of the proposed mine. It also leaves unanswered questions about the prospects for further impacts to Penobsquis and other small communities. The sequence of events also begs the question: Was the fault relocation in 2008 an honest mistake or was there a government strategy to remove the Penobsquis fault from consideration during the EIA process? Was the impact of the either the Penobsquis or Springdale Faults considered in the EIA of Picadilly?

The government will not or cannot explain itself fully and it is unlikely to reopen the EIA of Picadilly because doing so would expose the government to a possible lawsuit. But the sequence of events presents serious questions about the operation of Technical Review Committees in environmental impact assessments, and about the competence of people appointed to look after the public interest in scientific aspects of mining proposals. It is time for government to stop “protecting the resource” at any cost and start accepting that its mandate includes looking after all socio/economic aspects of mining and gas exploration and development.

Lawrence Wuest is a sculptor and forest ecologist from Stanley, NB. He has a background in spatial analysis and GIS mapping and was a participant in the Working Committee on Ecological Land Classification within New Brunswick. He is a frequent critic of the province's Environmental Impact Assessment process. He is assisting the Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis in documenting the impact of mining-induced subsidence in their community.