Saint John Mayor Mel Norton says he did not make any deals for the city to accept wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations.
Norton issued a statement on Friday in response to comments made by Energy Minister Donald Arseneault after they met earlier this week to discuss the impacts that the Liberal government's moratorium on shale gas is having on Saint John.
"There was absolutely no deal made to take wastewater only an offer to discuss the possibility of working with the government to find a solution to safely treat and dispose of the water," Norton said in the statement.
'Our discussion was about potential solutions and collaboration not deals or commitments.' - Saint John Mayor Mel Norton
"Our discussion was about potential solutions and collaboration not deals or commitments."
On Thursday, Arseneault told Radio-Canada that the former Progressive Conservative government had created a de facto moratorium on shale gas through regulations that require the industry to have plans in place for treating fracking wastewater before they begin their work.
"What I found ironic, just yesterday [Wednesday], I had a meeting with the mayor of Saint John and he told me that the City of Saint John would be willing to treat contaminated water from hydraulic fracturing — and this really surprised me," said Arseneault.
"And, I asked myself, 'Is this a conversation the mayor of Saint John had with the previous government? Was the previous government aware that the mayor of Saint John was willing to treat contaminated water? Is this a conversation they had to offer industry, the services of the municipality? What moves did they make in this direction?'
"Certainly, we've seen what's been going on in Amherst, the discussion on this file. We've seen what's been going on in Dieppe too on this file," said Arseneault, referring to Amherst recently rejecting the idea of accepting treated fracking wastewater and Dieppe mulling over the issue for months.
"Why didn't the mayor of Saint John bring this up, this initiative, before this all came up? He did yesterday in our meeting, and I encourage you to ask the mayor of Saint John what his intentions are for the future," Arseneault said.
In his emailed statement, Norton said he visited the Premier's Office on Wednesday to discuss economic development, specifically the impacts that a moratorium on shale gas is having on jobs and business confidence in the city.
"Early in the meeting the energy minister told me that one of the obstacles to the Premier's Office supporting shale gas development was the need for a wastewater treatment facility," Norton said.
"In the spirit of co-operation I extended the offer to start the discussion on how Saint John can play a role in overcoming the barriers to moving this industry forward in an environmentally safe manner."
Moratorium decisions needed first
But Norton says he was told there will be a moratorium "and that the discussion on what the moratorium will look like, whether it be regional or province wide, as well as what type of hydraulic fracturing will be included, are ongoing.
"As a result, the discussion on treating water didn't go any further," he said.
"Saint John wants to be part of the solution to further economic development and job creation in New Brunswick. But first the government needs to decide not to put a moratorium in place."
Saint John Coun. Donna Reardon says she was surprised to hear that the city accepting fracking wastewater was something that "could be on our radar."
Any decision on the contentious issue would be up to council as a whole, and should not be made hastily, she stressed.
"In the past, we’ve seen the LNG terminal come and we’ve seen them get the nice deal of getting locked into a 25-year tax that was very good for them but is not of great benefit to the city, and I don’t want to see another mayor taking on a liability for the city without some consultation on this," said Reardon.
She noted that even communities that get the economic benefits associated with fracking don't want the wastewater. "So why not? I’d like to know that," she said.
"I understand that the mayor is trying to, you know, light a fire under economic development and I do appreciate all of the efforts but … this is a liability and a huge one in my opinion, and I think that it warrants a lot more discussion and a lot more information from people who actually have some real facts about it."
If a decision is made to accept wastewater, there may be no turning back, said Reardon.
"And it could be a huge risk for everyone who lives here, so right now, I would be a definite 'no' until I hear more information."
Coun. Gerry Lowe says he wasn't happy about the way he heard about the mayor's meeting or his comments.
"I don't think he just went for a drive and ended up in Fredericton in the minister's office. It was pre-planned. But I wish he had told council," said Lowe.
Still, he thinks the idea of treating wastewater is worth looking at, provided council can get more information.
"Maybe we can take this water. I think we've got to find out what's in it. And you know, it wouldn't be Corridor [Resources] to tell us, it would be people that would know exactly what the ingredients are," he said.
Norton did not respond to repeated requests for an interview to clarify his comments on Friday.