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Nova Scotia says fracking waste can be cleaned, but critics cast doubts

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HALIFAX - Anti-fracking activists are raising red flags after the Nova Scotia government said a local waste management company has found a way to clean up millions of litres waste water left over from hydraulically fractured wells.

Environment Minister Randy Delorey released a statement Friday saying the process developed by Atlantic Industrial Services in Debert can clean the waste water to the point that it poses a "minimal risk" to the health of Nova Scotians and the environment.

Delorey also said independent lab results show the filtered water meets disposal guidelines set by Health Canada and the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.

About five million litres of fracking waste water — including some from New Brunswick — is being stored in holding ponds in Debert. Another 20 million litres is in two ponds near Kennetcook, N.S., where three test wells were drilled and fracked by Denver-based Triangle Petroleum in 2007-08.

The three wells were the first and remain the only wells to be fracked in Nova Scotia. The province imposed a two-year moratorium on fracking in April 2012. An independent panel on the process is expected to release recommendations later this year.

Delorey shared the test results at a public meeting Thursday in Truro, saying the government won't allow the company to dispose of the treated water until further toxicity testing is done.

Ken Summers, who lives near the fracked wells west of Windsor, said he was pleased to see the minister talking to local residents about a cleanup plan. However, he said it would be a mistake to assume this new process could be used on a larger scale.

"When you have production on a larger scale, there's dozens, if not hundreds of different chemicals used," said Summers, a member of the East Hants Fracking Opposition Group.

He said the lab results cited by Delorey listed only 12 chemicals typically used in hydraulic fracturing.

"What might be acceptable for the two ponds doesn't have a whole lot to do with the whole fracking issue," he said, adding that Delorey had made that point during the meeting.

Delorey said he understands that the new cleaning process has limited value beyond dealing with the long-standing problem near Kennetcook.

"I'm not looking at treatment from an industry perspective," he said in an interview Friday. "We are not regulating an industry. This is a problem that we have now, waste water left over from a pilot project from a number of years ago."

Jennifer West, a co-ordinator with the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition, said she was encouraged by Delorey's approach. But she, too, warned that the province is far from ready to deal with a rapidly expanding industry.

"If fracking occurs here, the scale of what we would be dealing with would be exponential," she said, adding that Triangle had tentative plans to drill 680 wells in Windsor area alone.

"We're not looking at one pond here if fracking goes ahead. We're looking at hundreds of ponds, thousands possibly."

Of the approximately 700 chemicals used in fracking, many are not covered by federal water safety guidelines, she said.

"This really highlights the need to slow down and not allow fracking to happen in Nova Scotia," West said. "I passionately hope (the panel) will see that it's not worth risking the potential contamination of our water and air."

Hydraulic fracturing involves blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well bore to split the surrounding rock and release trapped hydrocarbons, usually natural gas, coal bed methane or crude oil.

Critics say the process can contaminate groundwater, but the industry says the process is safe.

Follow @NovaMac on Twitter.

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