06/12/2011 10:28 EDT | Updated 08/12/2011 05:12 EDT

Flammable Well Water Fires Alberta Lawsuit

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- 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, fueled 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. The Rosebud River runs through the tiny community best known for the Rosebud Theatre. Its plays attract busloads of tourists to the hamlet almost daily.

Wildlife is plentiful. The grass is green. 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 proven 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 coal bed methane development and groundwater that is used for water wells," says Alan Boras, EnCana's vice-president of media relations.

"It's highly regulated. We've been operating in the area for decades and methane has been known to exist at shallow depths since people settled there and started drilling water wells."

The research council study in 2008 concluded methane found in the area's wells is naturally occurring and exists in areas where underground water supplies come from coal seams.

There is no doubt naturally occurring methane will show up in well water, says Ben Parfitt, a Victoria-based researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"The question is whether or not the appearance of gas at high levels in her water was linked in some way to the escalation in industry fracking activities," says Parfitt, who wrote a report on fracking and groundwater commissioned by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

Parfitt says there's evidence of "significant problems" wherever there's been fracking, which involves pumping water, nitrogen, chemicals and sand into the ground at the rate of 5,000 pounds per square inch.

"The incredible force that is required in these fracking operations is opening up channels in underground formations in ways that the industry either couldn't foresee or didn't foresee," he says.

"You'll end up with cracks and contamination corridors that allow for gas to migrate, that allow for contaminated water to migrate, that allow for the sand used in the fracking process to migrate. That's what gives rise to situations that Jessica Ernst and others are encountering."

Dawson says the coal beds in the Rosebud area have led the industry to use a different fracturing technique.Instead of using water, companies use nitrogen, which is natural and more effective.

"It is not absorbed by the formation and because it's a gas, it flows back and is vented to the atmosphere and doesn't do any damage to the formation."

Ernst recently had an opportunity to tell her story and make recommendations to governments at the 19th session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York City.

She says she has heard the arguments that her well water was contaminated naturally and rejects them. She now trucks clean water into her home.

She is realistic about her lawsuit.

"My chances of getting money out of this are quite slim and, in fact, it's going to cost me everything I have. I'm selling what I have to pay for this," she says.

"I'm using all my savings because I believe it's that important and I'm doing it to expose the truth. I'm not doing it for any money. I would rather not do this case.

"If it costs me my savings to get the truth, I think it's worth it."