Editors note: We are publishing this release because we support all movements against extractive industries. But we want to make clear that bypassing safety precautions is standard for the oil industry and extractive corporations around the planet, and that even when the best available technologies and precautions are used, these things still kill the planet by their very nature. For example, it’s not gas drilling “done irresponsibly” that is the problem. It’s gas drilling as a whole, and by extension the entire industrial economy.

Featured image: Okavango River by Dr. Thomas Wagner, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Media Release

ReconAfrica fails to place a leack proof lining system in the drilling fluid containment pond. Drill site 6-2 Kavango Namibia

ReconAfrica is a Vancouver based Canadian petroleum exploration company that has acquired an exploration licence for the PEL 73 area located in Kavango East and West in Namibia. Drilling of the first of two permitted exploration boreholes began in December 2020. The borehole, referenced BH 6-2 is situated approximately 600m from the ephemeral river Omatako Omarumba, and all earthworks required to facilitate the drill rig have been completed. This includes a below ground level drill fluid containment pond.

The pond is approximately 45m in length, 30m in width and some 3m in depth and capable of holding almost 4.2million liters of liquid waste It is not known if the capacity of the pond has been designed to contain at least 110% of the largest expected wastewater volume at any given stage as is standard practise. During the drilling process waterbased drilling fluids are used to provide lubrication to the drill bit and to stabilise the borehole amongst other reasons. The drilling fluids are circulated down the borehole and pumped back to the surface for storage in the containment pond.

As drilling progresses the borehole will initially intersect shallow ground water aquifers that typically occur at a depth of 10 to 30m below ground level, At greater depths, at the base of the Kalahari beds and beyond into the underlying Karoo formations, beyond an anticipated depth of about 900m, highly saline groundwater will be intersected. This was revealed in the Environmental Impact Report prepared by Risk Based Solutions. As drill fluids circulate they will bring rock cuttings and a quantity of groundwater back to the surface which is stored in the containment pond built for the purpose. Due to the proposed ultimate borehole depths of 2500m, hypersaline fluid brine will be intersected in the deep Karoo sediments. The return drill fluids that will be placed in the containment pond will therefore contain drilling mud and rock cuttings from the Karoo sediments that are known to contain natural occurring radioactive materials (NORMS), and hypersaline brine – a cocktail that must be treated as hazardous liquid waste.

An onsite visual assessment of the containment pond located adjacent to BH 6-2 has revealed that the containment pond has not been lined with an appropriate water proof barrier system. Although not explicitly stated as a requirement in the Environmental Management Programme prepared by Risk Based Solutions, the requirements for a liner are implied. The report makes it a requirement of ReconAfrica to “…Never allow any hazardous substance to soak into the soil”. Furthermore, the document also requires that upon completion of the drilling, ReconAfrica must “… allow the pollution control dam to evaporate completely, scrape all waste that has collected in the pond and dispose of these and the pond lining at a suitable site”

No lining or efforts to render the containment pond impervious have been made despite the implied requirement that there should be at least a single pond liner. As reported by National Geographic on 29th January 2021 a spokesperson for ReconAfrica indicated in a written reply in October 2020 that potentially toxic drill cuttings from the oil test wells “will be managed in lined pits, cleaned, and disposed of offsite as per company and regulatory requirements.”

Given the vulnerability of groundwater at this site, it would be expected that a double lining system would be required, coupled with monitoring of the pond lining, the interstitial pond fluid (i.e. the fluid between the two liners), the returned wastewater quality for selected parameters such as electrical conductivity (EC) and radioiactivity. Regular monitoring of the groundwater quality in the immediate vicinity of the site must also be implemented.

Management guideline for saline fluids for hydraulic fracturing published by the British Oil and Gas Commission in April 2019 provide detailed requirements for the impoundment of saline flowback such as anticipated in Kavango East and West. Among the many design requirements specified in Canada some include:

The primary synthetic liner must be a minimum of 60 mil (1.5 mm) thick, have hydraulic conductivity of 10-7cm/s or less and must have properties that are fit for the purpose intended and conditions and temperature extremes encountered.

The secondary synthetic liner must be a minimum of 60 mil (1.5 mm) thick, have hydraulic conductivity of 10-7cm/s or less.

The design must incorporate a leak detection system within the engineered seepage pathway leading to at least one leak detection well, vault, or port. This must allow for water sampling from the lowest point of the pond, positioned between the primary and secondary liners and be designed for accurate measurement of leakage rate.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission also provide guidelines for the management of containment ponds which include some of the following actions:

The pond must be constructed and bermed in a manner that does not allow surface runoff from the site to enter the pond. A minimum of 1.0 m freeboard must be maintained within the containment pond at all times. The primary containment liner be regularly inspected for evidence of leaks and damage and that records of issues related to inspections and corrective actions be maintained.

A groundwater monitoring program must be developed by a qualified professional to evaluate potential groundwater impacts that could be associated with the pond. Monitoring wells must be used to establish baseline conditions for groundwater levels and chemistry prior to use of the containment pond and the baseline monitoring. Samples from the leak detection system and sub-drain must be collected and analyzed on a weekly basis.

Visual evidence obtained from the site indicate that ReconAfrica are not in compliance with their own declarations made in October 2020, and do not comply with the requirements of the EMPR. They are therefore in violation of the Environmental Compliance Certificate issue by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. In addition, ReconAfrica have chosen to ignore Canadian industry approved guidelines issued by the Oil and Gas Commission in British Columbia, the state in which the companies head offices are located.

Despite the fanfare and extensive publicity that ReconAfrica have generated over the drilling of water wells adjacent to each exploration borehole will be made available to the communities once the exploration holes are completed – there will be no benefit accrued if the groundwater is contaminated by drilling effluent. The conclusions and inferences that can be drawn from the cavalier attitude of Recon Africa is that there is a lack of respect for the rural indigenous people of Kavango East and West who’s livelyhoods are total dependent on access to clean groundwater.