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This article was published 12/6/2011 (3084 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ROSEBUD, Alta. — Jessica Ernst fills the empty water-cooler bottle from her garden hose.
The liquid bubbles and hisses like club soda and a thick white cloud floats to the top. Something isn't right with the well water on her Alberta property.
What happens when she removes the cap from the bottle and drops in a lit wooden match is even more disconcerting.
There's a loud poof and a flash of blue flame.
Ernst quickly snatches her hand away.
"I've done that hundreds, probably thousands, of times and I can't help but move," she apologizes.
She repeats the procedure. This time, it's a yellow flame that lasts a little bit longer. Ernst jokes that it's her magic trick.
"I might just have to take this act on the road to pay for my legal fees," she laughs.
Ernst has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against energy giant EnCana (TSX:ECA), Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board in which she accuses them of negligence and unlawful activities.
The 54-year-old environmental consultant in the oil and gas industry blames her water problems on shallow gas wells that were drilled near Rosebud eight years ago using a method called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. It involves blasting water, chemicals and sand deep underground to break up coal formations and release natural gas.
The oil and gas industry defends the long-standing and increasingly common practice as a highly regulated and safe way to tap gas supplies that are otherwise hard to reach.
But controversy swirls, fuelled by lawsuits such as the one Ernst has filed and by mass media attention such as the 2010 documentary film Gasland, which focused on communities in the United States affected by natural gas drilling.
"It's a mainstay of the industry," says Mike Dawson, president of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas.
"The low-hanging fruit is gone from many of the oil and gas opportunities and so companies are now focusing their efforts on less productive wells. They require hydraulic fracturing."
Ernst thought she had found her own slice of heaven when she bought her rural property in 1998 about 130 kilometres northeast of Calgary.
Wildlife is plentiful. It's a place where her Jack Russell terrier, Magic, can lounge outdoors with goldfinches singing in the background.
She says she started noticing changes in 2004. The water that once seemed so soft was causing a rash on her skin. Cracks appeared on her hands and knuckles. Her taps started making a whistling noise as if air was being forced out with the water.
She had the water tested. Her well had become contaminated with methane gas.
"The tap in the kitchen — there was so much gas coming out of it, I couldn't close it. I actually had to go to the barn and turn my well off in order to be able to close the tap."
A year later, she learned gas wells had been drilled all around the Rosebud area. Ernst says she "started putting two and two together."
None of the allegations made in Ernst's lawsuit has been proved in court. EnCana has declined to discuss the legal action, but a spokesman says the company takes great care with water and the environment.
"The connection between water wells and natural gas development in Rosebud has been studied extensively, including a detailed study by the Alberta Research Council, and there was no connection found between coalbed methane development and groundwater that is used for water wells," says Alan Boras, EnCana's vice-president of media relations.
— The Canadian Press