Energy regulator orders water delivery to Alberta farm contaminated by gas plant

An Alberta energy company has been ordered to truck water to a family dairy farm where groundwater has been contaminated by chemicals from a nearby gas plant.

The lawyer for Ron and Lonni Saken says the plant’s current and previous owners still need to compensate the family for land that will be tainted for a generation.

“We can’t just leave them here,” said Keith Wilson. “If the companies have destroyed this, then the companies need to buck up and relocate this farm.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator ruled Thursday that Bonavista Energy must truck enough water to the Saken dairy farm near Edson for the family, their employees and all their cattle. That must total at least 9.5 million litres a year, said the regulator, which gave Bonavista until the end of Friday to come up with a plan to fulfil the order.

The family’s wells have been contaminated by sulfolane, a solvent used in treating sour gas. It has seeped from a plant Bonavista bought from Suncor (TSX:SU) in 2010.

Bonavista first discovered the problem and informed the family about the problem in March 2014. The company’s investigation concluded the leak began before Bonavista purchased the plant.

The company has since drilled the family a new well, but that water is highly alkaline and has heavy concentrations of flouride. As well, the open tanks required to let dissolved methane vent have allowed bacteria in.

“(The cattle) aren’t drinking the water,” said Lonni Saken. “They’re drinking half as much as they should be.”

The farm’s milk production is off by 20 per cent, she said. A similar percentage of the cows are aborting their calves — the source of future production on the farm, which has been in the family since 1929.

“We can see what’s happening to the cattle,” Saken said. “We can see they’re getting bony and skinny. We just cannot get them to milk.”

Saken has been driving to Bonavista’s plant to pick up bottled water for the family and employees.

Wilson praised the regulator for requiring Bonavista to truck water to the farm. But he pointed out that the family can neither sell the farm nor use it to backstop loans. The Sakens had hoped to expand their operation to allow their son and his fiancee to join them, but those plans are on hold.

Experts say it’ll be at least a decade and more likely up to 30 years before the groundwater is safe, Wilson said.

In a letter to Wilson earlier this week, the company said it has done everything it could.

“The work is clearly not complete,” wrote president Jason Skehar. “But the activities taken by Bonavista, and supported by the AER and other agencies, demonstrate the significant actions taken in addressing the complex issue.”

On Friday, Bonavista released a statement saying it has complied with the order to provide the water.

In referencing the fact the leak began before Bonavista purchased the plant, the company said it “remains aligned with the Alberta Energy Regulator in managing the ongoing issues” and noted it has “worked closely with all stakeholders, regulators, and affected parties.”

“Significant resources have been committed to resolving all issues related to this release, inclusive of providing alternative water solutions to those affected since discovering the release,” said the statement. “Bonavista has and will remain committed and responsive to complete compliance and management of this complex issue.”

Wilson said Suncor should also acknowledge its role and help with compensation.

“The evidence is clear they were the initial cause of the contamination. They should step up to the plate and not hide behind some sale agreement they had with Bonavista about liability.”

A letter from Suncor lawyer Peter Duthie to the regulator says the company bears no further responsibility.

“It is our view that Bonavista, as the owner and operator of the Rosevear plant, is in the best position to resolve any contamination issues that may exist,” he wrote.

“Suncor’s participation is not required at this time.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960