Baseline Water Quality in New Brunswick

Is your water safe to drink? That might not be a question we ask ourselves very often; we expect our water to be safe. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the 1800s, workers in New Brunswick often preferred rum to water during their meals or breaks. Why? As water supplies were often contaminated with harmful bacteria or toxic materials, it was often safer to drink rum.  

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 / Wolastoqey 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.  Here’s a  review of some information available on a number of topics relating to water quality in N.B. And I have a few questions.

1. Bacterial contamination of drinking water.
2. Chemistry of groundwater.
3. Methane in groundwater.
4. Leachate from Regional Landfills.
5. Conclusions


1. Bacterial contamination of drinking water.

Coliform bacteria, and, in particular the coliform bacterium known as Escherichia coli (E. coli), are considered to be the main bacteriological threats to human health found in drinking water. Most coliforms are not considered to be threats themselves, but high coliform numbers in drinking water are indicative of a sanitary problem. Certain strains of E. coli, on the other hand, can be deadly. For those reasons, many jurisdictions regulate water quality and impose what amounts to a zero tolerance for coliforms in drinking water. However, regulations are one thing, enforcing those regulations is another. For those using private well, testing is largely voluntary.

Extensive bacteriological testing of water samples from private wells in N.B. took place in 2006 and 2007. The resulting survey data were published in ‘Know Your H2O’ – Department of Environment, New Brunswick (2009): “During the period from July 2006 to November 2007, all private well owners in New Brunswick could submit a water sample to test for total coliforms and E. coli at no cost. In total, 14,338 wells were sampled and 5,565 wells were re-sampled for a total of 19,903 samples. Results were reviewed based on 14 different regions throughout New Brunswick. The regions were selected to correspond to local Public Health offices. In total, 35.6% of the 14,338 wells sampled were contaminated with total coliform bacteria, ranging from a high contamination rate of 53% in Campbellton (Region 5), to a low contamination rate of 24% in Miramichi (Region 7). Overall, 4.4% of the samples were contaminated with E. coli bacteria, ranging from 9% in Edmundston (Region 4) to 2% in Miramichi (Region 7). “

Summaries of water quality reports for various watersheds provide some more recent data on E. coli contamination in New Brunswick water and suggest that a great deal more work needs to be done to fix this problem. In some areas, 10% of samples had detectable levels of E. coli. Clearly, there is either not enough testing going on, or remedial steps taken to fix the problems are not being done.

Questions that arise from this information:

a. Given the high frequency of bacterial contamination, what steps have been taken by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Health and/or the Department of the Environment to address the bacterial load issue? What steps have been taken to reduce bacterial contamination in wells?

b. Are surveys being conducted by CMO of Health on an on-going basis, or was this just a one-off? If surveys are on-going, where are the data?

c. What is and what should be the role of Chief Medical Officer of Health in water quality assurance and testing? Several Departments appear to be involved in water testing, but who is in charge and who takes responsibility for an apparent lack of progress?

2. Chemistry of groundwater

The Groundwater Atlas for N.B. (note: if you intend to view or download this document, it is >100 MB in size) reported on water chemistry samples collected between 1994 and 2007. Elevated levels of arsenic, manganese, sodium, fluoride, iron, lead and chloride, for example, are not uncommon. All of these are associated with various health problems, depending upon exposure and concentration. Two percent of wells sampled had uranium concentrations that exceeded the minimum acceptable concentration (MAC) (Methane and other hydrocarbon contaminants were not included in the study). Uranium implies radioactivity, and, if two percent of wells exceed the MAC for uranium, that extrapolates to over 2000 wells (assuming that the 100,000 well number is correct) with unacceptable levels of uranium.

Summaries of water quality reports for various watersheds provide some more recent chemistry data for New Brunswick water. Only a few areas received an ‘excellent’ rating.


a. With respect to water chemistry, is there a public database where data from well water surveys are added on an annual basis? If not, why not? Should the public not have access to an active database that contains this information, not only for current residents of a particular area, but as a guide to those planning to build in a particular area? Should water chemistry analyses be a requirement prior to sale/purchase of residential properties served by groundwater wells, and should results of those analyses be publicly available?

b. If exposure to these contaminants (most of which are ‘naturally – occurring’) can lead to health issues, then surely that is an issue for the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. If preventive health care is a concern of the Office, then what actions are being taken to reduce exposure?

3. Methane in groundwater

There have been a number of studies of methane and related hydrocarbons in groundwater and, most recently, with respect to impacts of hydraulic fracturing on methane levels in groundwater. Baseline surveys for methane in Nova Scotia found that about 15-20% of groundwater samples had detectable methane, although concentrations were generally low (for a North American summary of baseline methane surveys, see Table 3 in the above link).  In New Brunswick, only a few studies have been done with respect to baseline methane data. I’ve provided the citations and abstracts of these below. (In the articles below, I have bolded some parts for emphasis)

Al, T.A., Leblanc, J., and Phillips, S. 2013. A study of Groundwater Quality from Domestic Wells in the Sussex and Elgin Regtion, New Brunswick: with Comparison to Deep Formation Water and Gas from the McCully Gas Field.;
Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 7449, 40p. doi:10.4095/292762

Abstract: The exploration for shale gas in Canada has led to the identification of a huge volume of in-place and marketable natural gas with the potential of supplying clean burning fuel for many decades. However, some controversies exist on the technique used to unlock these new riches; that is hydraulic fracturing from high-pressure injection of slickwater, a mixture of water, chemicals and proppants (sand) in order to create and keep open small fractures in the target shale.
   The Carboniferous Frederick Brook shale and the overlying Hiram Brook sandstone in southern New Brunswick are identified as promising sources for shale gas. Preliminary evaluation of in-place resources by one operator in the Moncton sub-basin suggests 67 Tcf of natural gas in their acreage. At the McCully gas field, there is production from one vertical well in the Frederick Brook shale but most of the production is from tight sandstone of the Hiram Brook Member. Initial exploration specific to shale gas has led to high expectations but inconclusive results. In the same period, societal concerns about the risk of groundwater contamination from shale gas exploration activities have increased significantly in New Brunswick. The Geological Survey of Canada, in collaboration with eastern Canada provincial stakeholders has initiated a four-year research project (2011-2015) designed to evaluate the potential of natural connectivity between the deep-seated shales and the shallow groundwater.
   In 2012-2013, the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of New Brunswick carried out a sampling program of 26 water wells from the area around the McCully gas field near Sussex; the operator of the McCully gas field provided gas and brine samples for chemical and isotopic comparison. This gas field has experienced multiple hydraulic fracturing events in vertical wells for the development of the tight sandstone gas reservoir from 2000 to 2008.
The research program consisted of field measurements (pH, redox and alkalinity) as well as groundwater sampling for isotope analyses (18O and 2H) and inorganic chemistry, measurements of dissolved hydrocarbons (methane, ethane and propane) and isotope analyses (13C and 2H) of dissolved methane. Methane from the gas field was isotopically characterized as well as the inorganic chemistry of the brine.
   The McCully brine has concentrations of Na, Cl and Br that are hundreds of times higher than that of shallow groundwater. Concentrations of K, Ca, Mg and SO4 are also higher than those of shallow groundwater; from its chemistry, the brine is likely derived from seawater and comparison with shallow groundwater does not indicate mixing.
   Gas produced at McCully is methane (91 – 94%) with ethane (2 – 6%) and propane (0.1 – 1%). Isotopic analyses of the methane suggest a thermogenic origin. No ethane or propane was measured in the groundwater and methane was detected in 3 domestic wells. Concentrations are very low (0.01, 0.11 and 1.17 mg/L); the 3 samples are outside the McCully gas field area. Two of these samples had enough methane for 2 isotopic analyses, one suggestive of a thermogenic origin and the other is enriched in 2H that could be related to oxidation of methane.

Note (by NBdatapoints): 3 of 28 (or 3 of 25, depending upon whether or not you count the duplicate samples) tested samples of water had detectable methane. That’s about 12% of samples, and methane was found only in samples taken outside the gas field area. Ethane and propane were not detected. This area (McCully Field) is where gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing operations have taken place for several years. The results suggest that methane contamination of groundwater by fracking operations in the McCully Field is uncommon.

Loomer, D.B., MacQaurrie, K.T., Connor, D., Bragdon, I., Leblanc, J.F., and Lewey, T. 2014. A Baseline Assessment of Domestic Well Water Quality in Potential Shale Gas Regions of New Brunswick: Initial Results for Dissolved Gases.
Abstract of presentation made at the Exploration, Mining and Petroleum New Brunswick Conference 2014, November 2-4, Fredericton NB.

Abstract: The production of oil and natural gas is an activity that generates public and regulatory issues concerning fresh water resources. These issues are relevant to the protection of water supplies for domestic, municipal, and industrial uses, and to maintaining the ecological health of surface water systems such as rivers and lakes. The recent exploration activities for natural gas in New Brunswick have highlighted the keen interest and concern over potential impacts to groundwater.
   The collection of scientifically-defensible baseline groundwater quality data is crucial because it can provide the public, regulators, and industry with a better understanding of groundwater quality conditions. Furthermore, baseline data can assist in identifying water quality consequences, if any, of industrial activities such as shale gas production. Such regional groundwater quality studies can also assist in determining if hydrogeological conditions (e.g. aquifer confinement) or water well construction are important factors in controlling the occurrence of dissolved gasses such as methane in well water.
From May to September 2014, private water wells were sampled in two areas in southern New Brunswick: northeastern Kent County, and the area between Havelock, Sussex and Elgin. Along with field parameters such as pH, dissolved oxygen and oxidation/reduction potential, water samples were collected for inorganic ions, dissolved gases (methane, ethane and propane), and stable isotopes of water and methane. The results for dissolved gas concentrations will be the focus of this presentation.
   To date (September 2014), 149 wells have been sampled in the Sussex study area. Methane has been detected in 49% of the sampled wells. Of the wells with detectable methane, 84% had methane concentrations between 0.001 and 1.0 mg/L. Only 4% of the wells with detectable methane had concentrations greater than 10 mg/L. Ethane was detected in 8% of the sampled wells with concentrations ranging from 0.001 to 1.441 mg/L. Propane was detected above the blank-corrected detection limit of 0.002 mg/L in 2 of the samples.
   In the Kent County study area, 101 wells have been sampled and methane was detected in 69% of the wells. Of the wells with detectable methane, 97% had methane concentrations between 0.001 and 1.0 mg/L and no wells had concentrations greater than 10 mg/L. Ethane and propane concentrations were at or below the detection limit (0.001 mg/L) for all samples in the Kent County area.
   The results will be briefly compared to findings from similar studies in other areas.

Note (by NBdatapoints): These baseline data suggest that naturally-occurring methane contamination of groundwater is widespread in some parts of New Brunswick. Concentrations found were low for the most part. Ethane and propane were detected in a few samples.  Generally, methane in groundwater is not considered to be a health hazard if ingested, but odours from methane can be objectionable.

If you have an interest in the geology of the McCully Field and adjacent areas, or New Brunswick itself, I suggest the following:
Carboniferous Maritimes Basin
Hinds, S. and C. St. Peter. 2005. The McCully Gas Field Project.

4. Leachate from Regional Landfills.

Several years ago, many small landfills in the Province were closed and new large regional landfills were established. A feature of these new regional landfills is the installation of leach pits at each disposal area. These are designed to collect materials leaching from the landfills and thus prevent them from flowing into local aquifers, which might result in contamination of groundwater used for drinking. The collected leachate (which may contain a wide range of naturally-occurring and synthetic organic compounds, pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, etc) is usually treated on-site prior to removal to sewage treatment plants for disposal. Treatment is usually designed to reduce solids, alter pH (to support biological decomposition), and encourage biological decomposition. The Fredericton regional landfill, for example, treats leachate for approximately 120 days prior to transfer to the sewage treatment plant operated by the City of Fredericton. In 2013, over 40 million litres of treated leachate were sent to the sewage treatment plant.

 Although some analyses of leachates are available, composition of leachate will likely vary throughout the year, depending upon rainfall, material being deposited at the landfill, treatments applied to leachate, etc. We also do not know much about what happens to the components of the leachate after passage through the sewage treatment plant. Remember that sewage treatment plants discharge treated wastes into the local watershed; that includes treated landfill leachate.

“The leachates are a mixture of high concentration organic and inorganic contaminants including humic acids, ammonia nitrogen, heavy metals, xenobiotics and in-organic salts, and need to be removed due to their toxicity or unfavourable effect on the environment.”

Some questions:

1. I’d assume that, given the potential toxicity of materials in the leachate, monitoring of leachate composition, before and after on-site treatment, would be of interest to both the Department of the Environment and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. Have either of them compelled landfill operators to produce such data and make them publically available? If not, why not?

2. Given potential health impacts of leachate delivered to sewage treatment plants, have either the Department of the Environment or the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health compelled sewage plant operators to monitor grey water to determine if toxic materials in leachate are present in discharged grey water? Have they undertaken their own analyses? If not, why not? (I am not claiming that leachates pose a particular threat, but I do find the alarm raised over fracking waste peculiar when not accompanied by similar levels of alarm over the current method of leachate disposal. Many municipal governments in New Brunswick operate waste water treatment plants that release treated water back into the watershed.)

3. Given the public concerns expressed by a previous Chief Medical Officer for Health re disposal of waste materials from hydraulic fracturing, what, in the opinion of the CMO of Health is likely to be the relative threat to public health from leachate disposal versus hydraulic fracturing waste disposal in terms of quantity and quality of toxic materials?


Some issues get lots of attention from media and opinion-makers; other issues get buried or ignored. Although testing of groundwater shows an on-going high rate of failure with respect to bacterial contamination and troubling levels of heavy metal contamination, there is little evidence of public or media concern. And not much evidence of concern, either, from the Chief Medical Officer of Health or the Department of the Environment.

There also certainly seems to be a double standard among some with respect to concern over disposal of wastes from hydraulic fracturing versus problems such as leachate disposal. Given the volumes involved and the potential toxicity, you might think that leachate disposal would raise at least as much an alarm as disposal of fracking waste, but no, that does not appear to be the case.  There’s an apparent lack of interest in demanding more testing and greater public access to the resulting data. Another example of poor transparency in New Brunswick, and the public’s acquiescence to that situation.