LETHBRIDGE: A well-known Canadian water activist has now lent her voice to the controversy over clean water in southern Alberta.
Maude Barlow, who was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Lethbridge this week, has a string of environmental protection credits to her name, chiefly her role as a former senior water advisor to the 63rd UN general assembly. She spoke to a crowd of about 100 people at the Yates Memorial Centre Wednesday about what she calls the commoditization of water in the province.
"We are literally witnessing the creation of a system where our resources in this country and around the world, particularly in First Nations communities, are being handed up to these transnational corporations," said Barlow, the national chairperson for the Council of Canadians. She warned the trend is spreading to southern Alberta.
One of the most controversial examples is a debate that's brewing on the Kainai or Blood reserve, over a multi-million dollar gas deal inked by the tribe this fall. The deal gives oil and gas drilling rights on the land to several energy companies, which has left some reserve residents concerned about one of the extraction methods that could be used in gas drilling, called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."
"This corporatization of our lands was done in the name of financial gain. They thought it would be good for our people. But the only real benefit will be to the oil companies," said Lois Frank in the introduction to Barlow's speech. "When they are gone, we will be left with contamination, social problems, and major health problems as well."
Frank's concerns on fracking spread beyond provincial, even national boundaries. The hydraulic fracturing technique, which forces large amounts of sand, water and chemicals deep into the ground, creates fractures below the earth's surface that release "unconventional gas." Though the method has been in use for many years, there seems to be a gap in scientific data on how fracking affects the environment and human health. There have been several anecdotal reports in recent months, particularly the stories of Americans featured in a documentary called "Gasland," where U.S. residents who live on fracking land said they and their pets experienced health problems, as well as pollution of the air and drinking water.
Reports like this inspired a broad grassroots movement of public outcry in the U.S., leading to some serious legislation on the matter. The New York mayor banned any fracking leases in the New York area until a comprehensive study on the effects was released. Administration very recently passed similar legislation for the entire country, with new fracking leases barred anywhere in the U.S. until the results of an in-depth study from the Environmental Protection Agency are released.
In Canada, there is no such legislation at the national level. Provincially, Quebec is the only province so far to ban fracking until the impacts and effects become clearer. Officials in Alberta say Canadian fracking operators are regulated to use a less toxic mix of chemicals than those used in the U.S. But the lack of data still remains. Operators are not required to measure baseline data of water sources in the area before and after drilling to see how their project affects the water. The situation has activists like Barlow calling for better management.
"Water has rights to be protected and restored. We need to conserve it, we need to leave it where it has been put, we need to come down as hard as we can on polluters," she said. "We need the rule of law."