The north coast’s local health authority has refused calls to seek a public-health impact study of the coal-seam gas (CSG) industry before it starts mining in the region, in the wake of a similar call by a Sydney health authority.
The state government’s own health department, through its southwest Sydney branch, has called for a full assessment of risks to human health in relation to CSG drilling in western Sydney, a move that could stop plans by energy giant AGL for 66 new gas wells near Camden.
Lock the Gate Tweed spokesperson Michael McNamara said the South Western Sydney Local Health District call for a full community health impact study before operations begin was ‘a welcome voice of sanity and reason from within a government’, and called for local health authorities to adopt a similar position.
But a spokesperson for the Northern NSW Local Health District said the authority wouldn’t be making a comment ‘at this stage’.
The spokesperson added that the Sydney Morning Herald article detailing the call made in an official submission by a senior health bureaucrat was ‘a misquote’, which referred ‘only to a specific project in southwest Sydney’.
The report told how chief executive of the South West Sydney Local Health District, Amanda Larkin, wrote to the Planning Department last month, saying it had spoken to the department’s environmental health branch and the two agreed it was impossible to judge potential health impacts without more research.
In the submission on the AGL plans, which are on public display until February 8, Ms Larkin says the company’s environmental assessment was ‘incomplete without a screening-level environmental health risk assessment, which would consolidate the likelihood and severity of risks to human health into a single document’.
Ms Larkin said a comprehensive assessment was needed to establish the full range of potential health risks of CSG, including those associated with air and noise pollution and ground- and surface-water contamination.
Mr McNamara agreed, saying reports of severe health impacts from the Tara area in central Queensland, where the CSG industry has taken hold, were a real worry.
‘Doctors in the Tara area are so concerned about seeing a pattern of “symptoms consistent with gas exposure” that they reported their concerns to the Queensland branch of the AMA,’ he said.
‘Residents near Tara report children with nosebleeds, bleeding from the ear and severe skin rashes since CSG operations commenced. We do not want these problems in the Tweed.’
He said the Tweed was under threat from the exploration licence held by Arrow Energy and the application for a Special Prospecting Authority by the NSW State Aboriginal Land Council.
‘Before any work is allowed to commence there should be a comprehensive, independent study of community health,’ he said.
In her submission on the AGL project, Ms Larkin says that while her local health district was not a regulatory authority, it did ‘play an important role in providing advice in relation to the risk to human health for major developments’.
She said the health district worked ‘closely with local councils on various environmental issues that affect human health’ and that both councils affected by the AGL project opposed the plans.
‘Their reasons include lack of scientific certainty around the environmental and health impacts from coal-seam gas mining and a possible conflict with new urban development in these growth areas.
‘For any significant development where there is potential for a range of environmental emissions in both the long and short term with possible human health effects, the SWSLHD would ask the proponents for a specific human-health risk assessment to estimate the potential health impact on surrounding populations.
‘This would generally follow the Environmental Health Risk Assessment: Guidelines for assessing human health risks from environmental hazards (Department of Health and Ageing and EnHealth Council, Commonwealth of Australia (June 2002)).’
The state opposition has also called for a delay in the planning process until a thorough assessment had been done.
The SMH report says a group called Doctors for the Environment assert that health problems at drilling sites on Queensland’s western downs could crop up in Sydney if drilling went ahead.
Meanwhile, north coast miner Metgasco has not responded to an Echonetdaily request for comment on the company’s future plans if its current test-drilling shows that CSG extraction and production would not be cost-effective.