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Byron Shire
February 26, 2024

Behind the Seams: who’s asking questions about coal-seam gas and health?

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by David Shearman and Marion Carey, of Doctors for the Environment Australia

Almost a quarter of the disease burden and deaths in the world can be attributed to environmental factors. We need clean air and water, and safe food to maximise our health at the most basic level.

No matter how we try to deny it, damage to the environment often ends up being reflected in our health. Any major new development therefore should ensure human health is protected. But is this the case with a rapidly expanding coal-seam gas industry?

You would have thought a booklet on CSG distributed recently to householders by the Queensland government would have talked about whether this industry would affect their health. But there was not a word about health.

In the close relationship between industry and government, where government gives industry the right to override citizens’ rights to their land and industry promises cash-strapped governments a windfall, who is really ensuring the health of the environment, the health of our citizens and the health of future generations?

The CSG industry calls for definite proof of health effects, just as tobacco and asbestos companies did for decades. Do we wait for long-term damage to appear years down the track? Does monetary compensation, even if available, give us back clean water and air and uncontaminated soil? Who is collecting data relating to health impacts?

The Interim Independent Expert Scientific Committee, recently established, allegedly to provide reassurance to the community, does not even have a health representative.

In response to complaints of contamination incidents and health symptoms, the US EPA is investigating the potential adverse impacts that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.

The CSG industry extracts vast volumes of water and produces huge quantities of waste salt. It is estimated there will be 40,000 coal-seam gas wells in Australia, with withdrawal of 300 gigalitres of water per annum (300,000,000,000 litres) from the ground, producing 31 million tonnes of waste salt over the next 30 years. As yet the industry has no solution for this major waste disposal problem.

A recent Australian Senate interim report noted concern about the potential impact of the extraction of large volumes of water on aquifers, the risk of water contamination and serious damage to agricultural productivity on some of our best farmland.

Several claims are repeatedly made to reassure us there is no need for concern or further action. When we look at the evidence, however, these claims fail to convince. Let’s look at four major claims that relate to health.

Claim 1: The chemicals used in fracking are really only household chemicals (the inference being they are all harmless).

‘The compounds are not specific to the CSG industry and have many common uses such as in swimming pools, toothpaste, baked goods, ice-cream, food additives, detergents and soap.’

Reality 1: We do not have a complete list of chemicals used for fracking in Australia as there is no requirement to make them all public. APPEA has listed about 45 compounds used during fracking in Australia but NICNAS, our national chemical regulator, has counted at least 60 and still does not have a complete list. How many chemicals used in fracking have had safety assessed by NICNAS? Only four.

Potentially hazardous chemicals reportedly used in Australian fracking operations include ethylene glycol, glutaraldehyde, fumaric acid, 2-butoxyethanol. Ethylene glycol, for example, is used to make anti-freeze. In the body it breaks down to form chemicals that crystallise and collect in the kidneys, affecting kidney function.

Just because we may have hair bleach or antifreeze in the cupboard does not mean it is safe to drink it.

Overseas, fracking operations use hundreds of chemicals and some may have long-term health risks of hormonal system disruption, fertility and reproductive impacts, and cancer. The companies argue that only a very small percentage of fracking fluids consist of these chemicals, but because of the huge volumes of fluids used, the cumulative chemical load may still be hazardous.

We are told not to worry as the BTEX group of chemicals (Benzene, Toluene, Ethyl benzene and Xylene), volatile organic compounds found in petroleum compounds, have been banned as fracking fluids. (Long-term exposure to benzene can affect the bone marrow, causing anaemia and increasing the risk of leukaemia). However, we are not generally told that the fracking process itself may release BTEX from sediments into surrounding air or water.

Claim 2: There is no possibility of water contamination or damage to aquifers.

‘Given the nature and dilution of chemicals used in Australian operations, fracking does not impair water quality. Indeed, even in the US where stronger chemicals have been used, government studies have repeatedly shown fracking has not affected water quality.’

Reality 2: Research in the US has found systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction.

The USA EPA has advised the residents of Pavilion Wyoming not to drink their groundwater because their aquifer contains compounds associated with gas production including methane, petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemicals.

The Senate interim report noted that in Australia, fracking caused leakage between the Walloon Coal Measures (part of the Great Artesian Basin) and the Springbok aquifer. Government has acknowledged impacts on groundwater with reductions in water in landholder bores and inter-aquifer transfer of poorer-quality water.

Chemical additives used in fracking, their degradation products, and compounds mobilised from sediments during the process can pose a risk to animal and human health by contaminating water used for drinking, washing, stock watering and food production. Waste water coming to the surface may contain volatile organic compounds, high concentrations of ions, heavy metals and radioactive substances.

Claim 3: CSG does not affect food security.

‘APPEA therefore considers… that agriculture and CSG can coexist.’

Viewpoint magazine, issue eight, February 2012.

Reality 3: CSG development involves progressive industrialisation of rural areas. As gas in coal-seam wells dries up relatively quickly, new ones continually need to be developed. The Senate interim report noted: ‘Exploration for, or production of, gas has the potential to severely disrupt virtually every aspect of agricultural production on cropping lands and, in extreme circumstances, remove the land from production.’

Sustainable food production in Australia and food security may be threatened in a wide range of ways: from impacts on rivers, groundwater systems, and ecosystems, to increases in water contaminants and salinity, loss of land area to CSG infrastructure, contamination of land and damage to soils and potential contamination of food.

Claim 4: Adequate safeguards are in place to prevent harm to the environment and health.

‘Coal-seam gas operations are subject to stringent controls.’

Reality 4: Contamination of the environment is already happening.

The Queensland government reported that in the first six months of 2011 there were 45 CSG compliance-related incidents, including spills and uncontrolled discharges of CSG water, exceedance of discharge limits, overflows of storage ponds, and other incidents relating to vegetation clearing and BTEX contamination. The number of penalties applied to companies as a result of these incidents? Zero.

Recently 10,000 litres of saline water leaked at the Narrabri CSG Project, operated by Eastern Star Gas. The incident was not reported at the time despite an obligation to do so under the conditions of the petroleum exploration licence.

Statements by industry (‘We want gas’) and government increase the concerns of the public and doctors that responsibilities relevant to health are being disregarded. Government says that operators must get a ‘social licence’ but it is the government’s responsibility to apply appropriate, efficient and transparent safeguards.

Some US public health experts are pointing to a growing litany of accidents and contamination problems from unconventional gas operations there and advocating the need for the precautionary principle to be observed.

In Australia, health impacts are not part of any formal assessment process before CSG development. The only federal input is anachronistically placed in the EPBC Act, which does not protect human health. State governments should provide an independent transparent health assessment process assisted by national guidelines.

Doctors for the Environment Australia recommends a moratorium on any further approvals to give time for assessment of all risks.

It is important that governments make real commitments to reform. Both government and opposition in Queensland should clearly state their position on CSG, before the election, to give the community a voice.

CSG development poses poorly assessed, yet potentially serious health risks to the community, through contamination of water, air and soil, as well as complex long-term impacts. Current assessment, regulation and monitoring of impacts on the environment, public health and vulnerable communities are insufficient to give confidence of adequate safeguards. If we do not act now and demand that our health be protected we may find that no amount of money can compensate us later.

This article was first published in Crikey and is republished with permission.

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