Geologic engineer disagrees with MOECC on well water contamination
Former oil drilling roughneck now university professor says vibrations such as from pile-driving is well known to affect wells. The MOECC, however, relies on a report from the power developers’ consultant, which says it doesn’t. Choosing what to measure seems key.
Debate continues on water wells and contamination
Special to Ontario Farmer
February 20, 2018
Geological engineer Maurice Dusseault wasn’t surprised to hear that Chatham-Kent water wells were contaminated in the wake of pile driving for wind turbines.
“Pile driving emits a lot of low-frequency energy, and it is not at all surprising to me that there could be related groundwater effects. The concept of large-amplitude, low frequency excitation as an aid to liquid flow is reasonably well-known,” the University of Waterloo professor said.
“Low frequency deformation waves are absolutely known to lead to fluctuation in ground water levels as well as changes in the particulate count in shallow groundwater wells.”
In addition, Dusseault said affected residents were well-advised in having their wells baseline tested prior to construction last summer. It’s the type of evaluation he recommends.
Before and after tests sent by the Water Wells First citizens’ group to RTI Laboratories in Michigan show an exponential increase [in] turbidity among the 14 affected wells, including [a] large proportion that can be attributed to Kettle [Point] black shale particles that are known to contain heavy metals, including uranium, arsenic and lead.
That’s not the conclusion reached by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, as outlined in letters recently sent to affected well owners living near the North Kent One project in the northern part of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent.
While there’s been an admission that wells have indeed been contaminated, that contamination can only be attributed to “unidentified factors.”
Pile-driving activities associated with wind turbine development are not to blame, the MOECC maintains.
The MOECC, in coming to its conclusion, relied upon the vibration evaluations prepared for the developers Samsung and Pattern Energy, by Golder Associates Limited. Golder measured changes to particle velocity as a measure of vibration intensity created by pile driving.
“The ministry has reviewed Golder’s assessment and agreed with the conclusion that any pile driving -induced vibrations at your well would have been much lower than those created during common daily activities around the homes,” a letter to one of the affected families states.
The parameters used by Golder, however, may be flawed….
“This is a complicated issue because there is reason to believe that it is the very low frequencies that may perturb the aquifer, whereas higher frequencies have no effect. Thus, if their vibration sensors are not picking up the low frequencies (lower than one Hertz), it would be difficult to make general comment about the vibration,” Dusseault said.
Heavy equipment was used to drive steel beams to the black shale bedrock, located 50 to 70 feet below the soil surface, to anchor each of the North Kent Wind turbines. The aquifer from which most well owners in the area draw their water is located just above the shale.
According to Dusseault, pile driving emits the same type of low frequency vibrations created by distant earthquakes — a phenomen[on] known to affect groundwater wells.
The same type of vibration could be created by the operation of the turbines, “if there are continued low frequency but reasonably large-amplitude excitations set up by the wind turbine through the connection to the foundations seated in the rock … and of course this is based on direct evidence (earthquake-induced effects), not indirect inference (peak particle velocity) for which there is not a proven causality,” he said.
“Earthquakes, even [distant] ones, are known to affect groundwater wells, altering the levels of the water, perhaps generating turbidity … It is clear there are substantial effects from distant earthquakes, even though the peak particle velocity locally is essentially zero, as measured the way they [Golder] do.”
Dusseault is well versed in his field, having spent three years as a roughneck and drilling mud technician while completing his BA and PhD in the 1970s. He occupied a Research Professor Chair at the University of Alberta funded by the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority and, in 1982, became Chairman of the Geological Engineering Program at Waterloo. He has co-authored two textbooks, over 470 conference and journal articles, and works with industry as an advisor and instructor.
Others, all experts in their fields, were already lined up with concerns related to groundwater impacts from the North Kent One project when Dusseault added his voice.
These include: John Cherry, director of the University Consortium for Field-Focused Groundwater Contamination Research at the University of Guelph; the executive director of the Ontario Groundwater Association, Craig Stainton; hydrogeologist Bill Clarke; lifelong well-driller Ken Wade, who has an intimate, first-hand knowledge of Kettle [Point] black shale; and the owner of Water Elite in Chatham, Bob Kennedy, who’s been working with well owners in Southwestern Ontario for 40 years.
Then there are the impacted well owners themselves, many of whom say that issues with their wells [began] only after pile-driving operations in the area commenced. They cite stunning visual evidence of contamination, water from wells literally black with suspended particles and, in two instances, plumbing systems clogged with particulates to the point that they need to be replaced.
The group has begun to gather allies including: members of the Walpole Island First Nation; area MPPs Bob Bailey and Monte McNaughton; area NDP candidates in the coming provincial election; and the Municipality of Chatham-Kent which called for a halt to North Kent Wind project last year despite having invested in the project.
The experience of the affected well owners appears to line up with Dusseault’s view of the situation.
Dave Lusk, for instance, recorded water bubbling up at the wellhead on his farm in the wake of pile-driving near his home.
A few miles to the west, Marc St. Pierre, said the level of turbidity in his recently constructed well appears to vary depending on the direction and intensity of the wind powering turbines near his home.
Kevin Jakubec, spokesperson for Water Wells First, said his own well has been contaminated. He and other well owners fear that the tanked water supply currently being provided by the North Kent Wind developers could soon be removed, now that the MOECC has concluded pile driving and turbine operation is not linked to the contamination of their wells.
Water Wells First members, frustrated with the response from the MOECC, are now looking to the Ontario Ministry of Health to look at the risks posed by the contamination.
The group has issued an alert to all water well owners in the region. Even if their well water is running clear, there may be reason for concern. An evaluation of black shale particulates in contaminated wells shows that the majority of the particles are smaller than what can be detected by the human eye.
There are longstanding concerns related to black shale deposits, including the Kettle [Point] black shale formation in southwestern Ontario. A 1990 report by the Geological Survey of Canada says the deposits are a potential threat to human health and the environment, including when they are in close proximity to sources of potable water.
The concerns have been dismissed by Chatham-Kent’s Medical Officer of Health who concluded that there is no health risk from undissolved particles in water when no bacteria are present. Jakubec, however, said there are at least two potential pathways through which the heavy metals in black shale particles can enter the human body.
Reprinted with permission from Ontario Farmer.