Baseline Water Quality in New Brunswick

 

The quality of drinking water in New Brunswick has received quite a bit of attention recently, particularly with respect to the threat posed to water quality from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), either from drilling activities or disposal of waste materials produced during the process. Several reviews have called for collection of baseline water quality data so that any adverse impacts of fracking on water quality can be assessed. However, water quality issues in this Province pre-date fracking, despite the mistaken belief held by some that water in N.B. has always been ‘pristine’, pure and safe. It wasn’t that many decades ago, after all, when many municipalities (not to mention industries) dumped sewage and processing waste into the St John River with little or no treatment.

Given that the Provincial government estimates that there are over 100,000 private water wells in N.B., the safety of groundwater should be of concern. If you live in rural N.B., when was the last time you had your water tested – not just for bacteria, but for chemistry? Urban centres now are surrounded by sprawling rural 1-acre lot suburbs; each house has its own well and septic system. How well is water quality being managed in these locations?

For that matter, if you live in an urban area, how much do you know about the water testing and reporting done by your municipality? Sewage treatment plants dump treated wastewater back into the environment, usually into the nearest watershed; how much do you know about the quality of the grey water released?

It’s my opinion that these questions all pertain to baseline water quality, and that quality should be of concern to us all. In this post, I will review some information available on a number of topics relating to water quality in N.B. and pose a few questions.

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What the peer-reviewed science says about shale gas

Shale gas exploration and extraction via hydraulic fracturing is a controversial and polarizing topic in New Brunswick. The public is divided on the issue and, as is often the case these days, social media are being used to rally supporters to one side or the other. Inflammatory rhetoric and exaggerated claims appear to dominate the discussion. That being said, it is far from clear yet whether NB has a sufficiently large and economically extractable reserve of gas to create a significant industry; it may turn out that shale gas may not exist in sufficient quantities,  or prices may not be sufficient to justify development at this time.  On the other hand, the gas is a public asset and so discussion of how to develop (or not develop) and utilize the asset is merited. For a useful outline of the shale industry in New Brunswick, see an article by A. Park of UNB (16) and an opinion piece by various UNB researchers.

The development of hydraulic fracturing technologies over the past 30 years or so has made extraction of shale gas economically feasible and attractive prices have allowed the industry to expand rapidly. An abundance of gas in the marketplace pushed down prices in 2011-2012 and the expansion of the industry has slowed somewhat. Information in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with respect to adverse environmental and health impacts from shale gas extraction is now beginning to appear. A number of these articles are available for free download and I would encourage people to read them, rather than accept the interpretations that appear in various media (or my interpretations, for that matter). It is fine to have opinions, but much better to have opinions based in verifiable data. Then we can have a rational discussion.
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Saint Savoie mounts his white charger, and gallops off in all directions….

Professor Donald Savoie was invited recently by Brunswick Press to pen a series of articles outlining New Brunswick’s fiscal predicament and providing his remedies to the situation. Dr. Savoie is a very well-respected expert in issues pertaining to public administration and the relationships between the public service and politicians. On the other hand, he does not appear to have any particular expertise in economic development per se. While he can speak to administration and governance issues with a great deal of authority, his views on how economic development and fiscal matters are perhaps less valuable. It might have been more useful if Brunswick Press had found a group of subject experts and had them tackle those issues pertinent to their expertise (that raises the question as to why we get so little in analysis and commentary on New Brunswick issues from taxpayer-funded university staff). In any event, here is a brief rundown of his commentaries:

June 5 Fiscal Crisis Sparks Call to Action

Dr Savoie starts off well-enough; he reviews the financial issues the province faces and points out that, while the Province relies upon transfer payments for significant amount of its revenues, there is growing resentment in some parts of the country with respect to these transfers. The federal government is taking steps to slow down the growth in funds they transfer to the ‘have-not’ provinces. Add to that a stagnant economy and a significant debt, and it is clear the province is in difficulty. What to do?

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What is Ted Flemming up to?

Ted Flemming, Minister of Health, has certainly received plenty of press recently. Praise from some, condemnation from others, and befuddlement from a few. He has engaged in a dispute with the province’s doctors over billing practices and wants to cap billing. What is he up to? It seems to me that Flemming is trying to portray doctors (who, let’s face it, earn far more than the average New Brunswicker) as major players in driving health care costs upwards. However, if we examine the inflation-adjusted data, physician payments have been fairly steady over the past few years. His other target, administration costs, also do not appear to be increasing, and, in fact, represent about 2% of the total health care expenditure. Drug costs and nursing home costs appear to be the major contributors to increasing health care expenditures over the past decade, although the largest proportion of the bill comes from hospital operations.

Doctors and administrators do share one thing – they are both seen as well-paid positions and thus are targets of populist anger. So is Flemming after credibility with the volatile populist voter? Is he trying to build up support amongst the public for a future bid for the Premier’s Office? Or is he just a loose cannon? We will have to wait and see, I guess.

Some observers have claimed that Flemming’s comments and his now – abandoned plan to eliminate student intern positions from doctor’s practices will discourage doctors from working in NB. That might be the case, and it might be a deliberate, albeit Machiavellian, strategy. After all, fewer doctors means fewer patients being examined and fewer tests being ordered. Perhaps the media should be asking some health care economists to weigh in on the issues of physicians per capita and salary vs fee-for-service as they relate to holding down health care costs.

Meanwhile, back at the Department of Health, I expect that those in charge of the two remaining health regions are occupied with things other than doctor remuneration. They have a mandate to hold costs down and their largest target is hospital operations. So, while Mr Flemming is entertaining the media with his ‘blunt talk’, they are deciding which ERs and which hospitals to close.

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