Residents in a Derbyshire smallholding settlement have accused a fracking company of contaminating their drinking water. And thanks to a veteran Labour MP, the issue just went very public.
The Beast is not happy
Immediately after PMQs on Wednesday 18 October, Labour MP for Bolsover Dennis Skinner asked Theresa May if she was:
aware that Ineos, the fracking company, have been accused… of creating a massive deterioration in the water supply run by Severn Trent?
Skinner’s question related to an exploratory fracking site in his constituency. Since 5 October, residents of the Oxcroft Estate in Bolsover have claimed their drinking water is contaminated. And many of them blame a fracking company which is working in the area:
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Petrochemical company Ineos has applied for planning permission to do exploratory work near Bramleymoor Lane between the villages of Apperknowle and Marsh Lane, in north Derbyshire. If the council grants permission, Ineos would be allowed to carry out “underground drilling and investigation but not the process of fracking”.
Currently, Ineos is carrying out 3D seismic surveying across 35 square miles of Derbyshire, which it can do without planning permission [pdf, p4]. This involves two main techniques. One is using ‘vibroseis’ trucks, which sweep the area sending out simultaneous vibrations into the earth. The vibrations bounce back and are recorded to give an indication of the type of rock, minerals etc below the ground. The other way is ‘shotholing’, which uses small amounts of dynamite to create the same vibration effect as the vibroseis trucks. The holes for the dynamite to be put in are created using “lightweight 6WD Polaris quad bike or small tractor”, according to Ineos [pdf, p16]:
Protection of utilities… will involve ensuring utilities service providers are aware of the survey… Vibration could also affect utilities such as buried pipelines…
And it’s this seismic surveying which residents are blaming for their contaminated water.
Severn Trent Water
Severn Trent Water, responsible for the supply in the Oxcroft area, has said it reviewed Ineos’s proposals. A Freedom of Information request (FOI) from April, though, shows that Severn Trent has had “no correspondence” regarding the main site on Bramleymoor Lane as of July 2017. And residents were told by Severn Trent Water on 6 October that it was “unaware” of any seismic surveying being done in the Oxcroft/Bolsover area.
Residents have also spoken of the history [pdf] of the Oxcroft Estate, claiming that their water pipes run between the houses, through, and adjacent to, the fields, and beneath Oxcroft Lane and the private roads. But residents say they believe Severn Trent Water and Ineos are unaware of this.
Ineos claims that its seismic surveying was being carried out “more than” 3km from the leak. But residents disagree, citing this map they have produced (nb. the houses coloured pink are those where drinking water has been discoloured, and the dashed black lines are the routes taken by the trucks carrying out the survey; all based on eyewitness accounts):
Where are the leaks?
Originally, Severn Trent Water told residents on 6 October that a leak at Mooracre Lane in Bolsover was causing the water discolouration. But this is just under two miles away from the Oxcroft Estate, and residents told The Canary that eyewitnesses claim there were no water works, or leaks, on Mooracre Lane; and also, that this leak never showed up on Severn Trent Water’s interactive mapping app.
Eventually, on 13 October, Severn Trent Water identified the location of a leak in the Oxcroft Estate, which residents claim is 300m away from a survey area, and which has sections of pipework within 150m of a survey area:
But residents have told The Canary that, on 16 October, Severn Trent identified a second leak, in a field where Ineos was actually surveying on 5 October. And they also claim an engineer told them he was “fully convinced” that seismic surveying could have caused the water disruption.
Residents claim that the ‘vibroseis’ trucks which do the surveying were seen on the Oxcroft Estate just before the water discolouration began, around 5 October:
And around the same time, residents claim shotholing tractors were also in operation; again in the Oxcroft Estate area:
A spokesperson for Ineos Shale told The Derbyshire Times:
Ineos takes its responsibility for all its works very seriously and takes into account all relevant environment and infrastructure before working on site. Underground imaging surveys have played a long-time role in understanding the UK’s geology, particularly in the era of coal.
In this case, our survey was carried more than 3km from the leak reported at Bolsover. There is zero evidence that links the Severn Trent water leak to our work. Severn Trent is currently investigating the reported water supply issues in the area.
In the meantime, we are disappointed that Mr Skinner chose to make his comments in Parliament before receiving our response to his letter. As a former miner, he knows better than most what is underground and the work we are doing in Bolsover. Our invitation to him stands, to meet with our geologists to discuss our activity and its proximity three kilometres from the Severn Trent leak.
The Canary contacted Ineos for a statement, but no response was received at the time of publication.
Skinner bites back
Not in a month of Sundays. Who are they kidding? That’s not my style. I’m opposed to fracking. We live cheek-by-jowl in Britain. In America you can do fracking in some sites and not be within five miles of people. We are not a country like that.
And residents told The Canary that Ineos was intentionally being misleading in its statement, as it was referencing the alleged leak in Mooracre Lane, not the reported leaks in Oxcroft Estate.
A spokesman for Severn Trent also told The Derbyshire Times:
We’ve received complaints from customers about discoloured water at their homes, and we investigated fully by taking samples directly from their taps. We’ve now analysed those samples and believe the discolouration was caused by a burst water pipe stirring up harmless sediment in our network.
Severn Trent gave exactly the same statement to The Canary, when asked. But in addition, it said regarding the leak:
The pipe burst after a third party damaged the pipe with a digger. We don’t normally name and shame, but we don’t believe it was Ineos.
We have been in contact with Severn Trent Water who have collected and tested a sample of the water and are satisfied the water is safe to drink.
The discolouration is most likely as a result of a change in flow within the distribution mains supplying the area derived from sediments such as iron and manganese. They have informed us they have no evidence to suggest there has been any damage to their pipes or that the seismic surveys have been a factor in the discolouration.
A fracking scandal?
The latest reports from residents indicate that the water is now clear. But they have written to the Drinking Water Inspectorate to request an independent investigation into whether there were failings in the methodology of the seismic survey consultations and/or Severn Trent Water’s handling of the situation.
But the bizarre situation in this small, Derbyshire smallholding between residents, a petrochemical giant and a water company encapsulates the wider issues surrounding fracking. Public concerns about it are overarching, ranging from polluted drinking water and earthquakes to its contribution to carbon emissions. What makes it such a hot topic, though, is the public anger it provokes, witnessed at sites such as Preston New Road and Kirby Misperton.
In Oxcroft, something has undoubtedly happened to residents’ water. But it seems as if it will come down to which story people wish to believe: the residents’, or that of a giant multinational corporation.
– Support campaigns against fracking.
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