Sulfolane-contaminated drinking water still plagues Edson, 6 months later

Six months after the government issued an advisory not to drink the well water near Edson, people who live there say nothing has changed and they feel "helpless."
Carrie Stone and her husband say they're having a hard time finding a lawyer to give them advice. Most they have called say the case would pose a "conflict of interest" for them, with either the oil companies or the government. (CBC)

Six months after the government issued an advisory not to drink the well water near Edson, people who live there say nothing has changed and they feel "helpless."

On March 14, Alberta Health Services told people in 80 homes within a five-kilometre radius of a gas plant in the area not to drink their well water after a chemical called sulfolane was found in wells at the gas plant and on nearby properties.

Six months later, that advisory is still in place.

Last Friday, AHS sent another warning not to drink the water.

Lynnette Klut, whose family owns a farm down the road from the plant, said she and her neighbours have serious questions.

"What are they doing? What are they trying to do, what are they trying to help us with?" she asked.

Her well is one of two that tested positive for sulfolane in June.

Lynnette Klut's livestock can drink the water - but her family can't. The well for her home has tested positive for sulfolane twice in the past six months. (CBC)
Sulfolane is an industrial chemical used in gas processing. There are limited studies about its impact on human health, but Health Canada says only minuscule levels are safe in drinking water.

"You fill the kids' swimming pool up with water and of course they drink it. So, that day, did they get sulfolane in their swimming pool or didn't they?"

"It's concerning. You're worried. It's your kids."

Information gap

CBC News spoke to several residents this week who say they have had few formal updates since the advisory in March. They're wondering what Bonavista, the plant’s owner, is doing to find out where the sulfolane came from and how far the chemical spread.

"There's not enough information known. So can you guarantee me that it's going to be safe?" asked Carrie Stone, who has owned a property near the gas plant for seven years.

"It's totally scary."

Soon after talking with CBC News, residents in the area say they received a letter from Bonavista.

"Bonavista Energy Corporation continues to take this matter seriously and apply the necessary resources to responsibly manage this issue," reads the letter, dated Sept. 15.

There's not enough information known. So can you guarantee me that it's going to be safe?- Carrie Stone has lived near the plant for seven years

The note outlines how the company has tested wells on personal properties every two weeks. Bonavista says it has also added new wells to monitor the groundwater on and off the plant's property.

The province`s new arms-length energy watchdog, the Alberta Energy Regulator, began investigating in March. A spokesperson said AER can’t comment on the status of the investigation while it’s ongoing.

In May, Robin Campbell, MLA for the area and then-environment minister, said his department had launched its own investigation into the contamination. Campbell, who lives in Jasper, has since left the department and been appointed Finance Minister.

An ESRD spokesperson told CBC News Thursday that investigation was also “ongoing,” but refused to provide further details.

‘You feel helpless’

Residents are worried about the value of their properties. With months, possibly years, until clean-up, their efforts to find legal help have come up empty-handed.

Stone said she and her husband called several law offices, looking for advice on a potential lawsuit. Lawyers in Edson called the case "too big." The couple called 14 larger firms in Edmonton, but were told the issue would be a “conflict of interest” with current or potential clients.

Two large oil companies could be involved if a civil suit were to go forward: Bonavista, which owns the gas plant right now, and Suncor, which sold the plant in 2010.

On September 12, AHS sent out a notice that it was still investigating the sulfolane release at the South Rosevear Gas Plant near Edson. (CBC)
One firm did eventually agree to look into it, but Stone says it asked for thousands of dollars in retainer fees, which she and her neighbours can't afford.

"You feel helpless," she said.

Bonavista says the groundwater near the plant was contaminated with sulfolane before the company bought the site. The company claims Suncor didn't tell them about any leak prior to purchasing the plant.

"Bonavista has completed a review of environmental and operational data related to the plant and no documented release of sulfolane into the environment was found," a Bonavista representative wrote to CBC News in May.

Suncor insists it followed the rules.

However, sulfolane was found in the groundwater at the plant in 2008, when Suncor owned it.

ESRD originally said the government didn't know about that leak until years later, because the company filed its mandatory annual groundwater monitoring reports for 2006 to 2011 all at once in 2012. The ministry later said Suncor reported the leak to the government in 2009.

In May, a spokesperson for ESRD said Suncor had not been fined or penalized for either failing to submit its annual reports or failing to report a leak to a 24-hour hotline right after it happened – both requirements under Alberta law.

Read Bonavista's full statement below:


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