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April 21, 2021

Enough to make you sick

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Dr Wayne Somerville during the launch of his report which blames many health complaints on CSG exploration and mining.
Dr Wayne Somerville during the launch of his report which blames many health complaints on CSG exploration and mining.

Melissa Hargraves

CSG affects human health, in some cases severely. That’s the stark reality facing north coast population centres, a scientific expert has warned.

Dr Wayne Somerville, who has launched his extensive report on the issue, says there is no scientific evidence that CSG can be mined safely.

Dr Somerville closely examined worldwide literature on the health impact of UG mining and concluded that ‘there is a high likelihood of catastrophic health impact from operating gas fields in populated areas’.

The CSG health report, which compiled factual and provable evidence about the health impacts of the unconventional gas (UG) industry, was launched in Kyogle over the weekend as the town declared itself CSG free.

‘There is no scientific evidence that CSG can be mined safely. If an industrial process is a serious threat, it has to satisfy three conditions,’ Dr Somerville said.

‘It has to use dangerous substances, there has to be a way that people come into contact with these substances and people have to be exposed to doses sufficient to cause illness.

‘CSG mining does all three things.’

According to Dr Somerville, CSG mining is flawed in three ways.

‘There is no regulation, there is no engineering solution for faulty wells and fugitive emissions, and the disposal of waste,’ he said, and the UG mining industry ‘will leave a legacy of suffering for generations to come.’

These findings oppose the view from the industry and government that there is no risk to public health or the environment.

‘They say this because CSG burns a bit cleaner than coal, but they don’t tell you about the terrible price paid by Australians who live where the gas is produced,’ Dr Somerville said.

‘When we export coal we do so with its impurities. But with gas the impurities are taken out here and they are dumped on the environment and the local community.

‘Arrow Energy released figures from their Dolby gas field for one year. It included 140 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 13 tonnes of formaldehyde and 30 tonnes of volatile organic compounds plus a whole lot more,’ he said.

When introducing a new product, he said, a pharmaceutical company has the burden of proof to show their product is safe.

‘They must compare health data taken before and after a person uses the medication. The CSG industry refuses taking any health data before they drill.

Chemical impact

Dr Somerville said that many of the chemicals used in CSG mining have health impacts, even in minute quantities.

‘Volatile organic compounds can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, respiratory distress, visual disorders, memory impairment, loss of coordination, nausea and damage to liver, kidney and the central nervous system. Some can cause cancer and other irreversible health side effects.

‘Radium is a very toxic carcinogen that is associated with bone, liver and breast cancer. Radon is a decay product of radium, and is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.’

Dr Somerville listed further compounds that have adverse health impacts, saying that even exposure to minute quantities of chemicals is enough to disrupt the nervous and endocrine systems.

‘The damage may not be evident at the time of exposure but can have unpredictable delayed lifelong effects on the individual and/or their offspring and may last generations,’ he said.

Of concern to Dr Somerville is that children are more vulnerable than adults.

‘They are the first to come down with symptoms, they are closer to the ground and spend more time outside. They eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air per kilo of body weight than do adults.

‘They will also live longer than adults which means they will be at more risk than adults for things like cancer which take years to develop.’

In 2011 Ronald E Bishop PhD put out a report on the chemical and biological hazards to communities living near drilling exploratory shale gas wells in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River basin.

He described ‘Down-winders Syndrome’ as being those symptoms suffered by the communities living near gas operations.

Dr Somerville referred to this report when observing the health impacts on the residents of Tara Qld from CSG.

‘This is a terrible de facto experiment on the impacts of CSG. The industry began in 2006 and in 2008 residents started reporting symptoms like those of Down-winders Syndrome,’ he said.

‘Toluene has been found in the air around Tara homes and in 2013 a high level of a toluene metabolite was found in the blood of a young boy that lived in the Tara estate,’ said Dr Somerville.

He referred to interviews conducted by Dr McCarron in 2013 of the Tara rural and residential estates and environs.

‘Sixty-five adults and 48 children were interviewed. Fifteen of the 48 children reported symptoms of paresthesia.

‘Almost all of the 31 children aged 6 to 18 suffered headaches and for over half of those children the headaches were severe.

‘Before mining no child often suffered a nose bleed, after mining nearly a third of the children often bled from the nose.

‘For the seven littlies aged zero to five years, parents reported that six children exhibited twitching and unusual movements, six showed poor colour and blueness of the mouth and lips, nine bled from the nose, eight suffered headaches, five had showed symptoms of paresthesia, five children when walking showed unusual clumsiness and unsteadiness, seven were lethargic, seven suffered eye irritation, five had coughs and three had muscle spasms.

‘Rip off their skin’

‘Some children constantly rub their fingers and complain about having ants in their hands, some kids have skin irritations so bad they want to rip off their skin.’

Dr Somerville added that disturbed sleep from CSG activity contributes to lack of sleep.

He said that statistics can help us think about the health impacts but can dull our sensitivities to suffering of real people and their families.

‘I ask at what point does ignoring harm that is being done to children shift from negligence to criminal negligence?’

‘I predict that the gas fields of southeast Queensland will become unfit for human habitation.’

Dr Somerville said that residents of Casino will have already been exposed to pollutants.

‘The ponds have been there for years, then flaring went on for years and we had a well blow out. Even if Metgasco never comes back, the safety cannot be assumed for the 60 or so wells that we have here on the northern rivers. The wells may be capped but they will continue to be a health hazard.’

Dr Somerville said that the responsibility for the community’s health is falling back on to individuals.

‘It shouldn’t be like this but it is,’ said Dr Somerville. ‘If people are to protect themselves, they need to know how they will be injured. If people are harmed, the symptoms need to be recognised immediately.

‘We have heard sad stories from Tara in southeast Queendsland where people went to doctors and did not get proper diagnosis. Our doctors need to understand the symptoms so they can treat appropriately.

‘Removal from exposure is needed as soon as possible, especially children.’

Dr Somerville, as part of his health review, has put together a list of self-help risk assessment questionnaires that can be found at the end of his report.

‘I am not conducting base line studies but helping people help themselves,’ he said.

‘But none of this solves the problem, surveys keep showing that people do not want CSG in populated areas.

‘This is the fight for the lives that our children deserve and for all future children. CSG is the poison and we are the antidote. To protect our community we have to end the gas field madness.

‘Metgasco are returning next year to drill at Bentley (midway between Lismore and Casino) where creeks start their journey to the Wilsons River.

‘Metgasco have said if they find commercial gas they will build a gasfield and they will put a pipeline through Lions Road,’ said Dr Somerville.

Senior advisor to the National Toxics Network (NTN) Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith has worked in the area of chemicals policy and waste management for over two decades and spoke at the event.

Dr Lloyd-Smith said ‘there is a belief that the only people that oppose this industry are extremists, alarmists, anarchists and other insults.

‘You cannot find a more august body than the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

UN warning

‘At the end of last year UNEP put out an environmental alert that said “unconventional gas exploration and production may have unavoidable environmental impacts. Some risks result if the technology is not used adequately, but others will occur despite proper use of technology.”

‘What they are saying is that you cannot regulate this industry into safety and that it is inherently unsafe.’

Dr Lloyd-Smith said that copious amounts of drill fluid as well as chemical additives are used in drilling the wells.

‘We don’t have publically available data on just how much drilling fluid is used because the industry won’t tell us,’ she said.

‘But we do know with fracking fluids, that for each frack for each well, that anything up to 18,000 kilograms of chemical additives are used and about 40 to 50 per cent remains in the ground.

‘With tight gas the EU estimate around 16,000 kilograms of acutely toxic substances are used.

‘With fracking, only two of the three chemicals used have been assessed for their impacts on human health and the environment,’ Dr Lloyd-Smith said.

After heavy lobbying, Dr Lloyd-Smith said that an assessment will be undertaken on the most commonly used chemicals.

‘We were pleased with this but for the last 12 months we have asked for the list of chemicals they are assessing but it remains secret,’ she said.

‘Supposedly about half way through next year we will find out what has been assessed.’

Dr Lloyd-Smith said that much of the data on the chemicals is protected under trade secrets.

‘If you look at the safety data sheet that comes with the chemical and you look for the name of the active ingredient, many will have proprietary data written instead of the name of the chemical.

‘For the lay person you can interpret that as a bloody big industrial secret.

‘Unfortunately they are legally allowed to do that,’ she said.

Of the chemicals that are known, Dr Lloyd-Smith said that many are chronic and have long and short-term health effects.

‘What we are talking about is unassessed, unquantified and unqualified mixture of carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins that go down and a large proportion stay down in the soil and water tables,’ said Dr Lloyd-Smith.

‘The idea that these practices are safe is a myth and fallacy that we would like to explode.’

Proppants is another mechanism used by the mining industry to encourage the gas to flow.

Not a benign process

‘The mining companies say that it is just sand, it is in some cases.

‘But in the majority of cases it is a silica polyamide made by man.

‘About 50,000 kilograms are used for every frack for every well. It is not a benign process,’ Dr Lloyd-Smith said.

She is ‘absolutely fed up by the industry saying there is no evidence of pollution to water from fracking.

‘The US EPA for example, said that compounds associated with hydraulic fracturing from shale gas contaminated aquifers at or below the depths used for domestic water supply.

‘Another example of proven water contamination is the EPA in Pennsylvania listed 161 incidents of water pollution from the industry over a four-year period.

‘The idea it is not a risk to water should be put to bed as soon as possible.’

Dr Lloyd-Smith brought the evidence back closer to home.

‘B-tex was found in five of the 14 monitoring wells of Arrow Energy, this comes from their own website. Benzene was found at six times the Australian drinking water standard.

‘We tested at a well head 24 hours after it was fracked and we found a range of volatile organic compounds and some of them carcinogens. We also found benzene and other heavy metals.

‘A private drinking water bore has been tested in Queensland and toluene and methane have been found in the bore and the air above it.

‘In the Pilliga Forest, seven months after a spill of produced water we found lead, mercury, chromium, hydrocarbons, and phenyls and methane at the discharge site was 68 times higher than upstream where no methane was detected.’

Waste from the mining industry is an area that is often swept under the carpet according to Dr Lloyd-Smith.

‘Produced water cannot treat the water completely,’ she said.

‘With produced water it is 0.8 to 1 mega litre per day per well.

‘This water is contaminated with benzene, toluene, heavy metals, naturally radioactive substances that are safe in the ground but not when they are released to the environment.

‘What do we do with it? They used to go into evaporative ponds but now they go into holding ponds which makes us all feel terribly so much better.

‘Untreated produced water is used for dust suppression which when that dust dries out gets blown around and our children breathe that in.’

Another means of managing waste is selling the produced water to farmers.

‘This water is being sold or given to often the same farmers who no longer have access to water as their bores have been drawn down by the industry,’ said Dr Lloyd-Smith.

Once the water has been handed or sold to the farmer, the liability is also handed over.

Liability with farmer

‘So if that farmer uses that product and has a problem with the crop or cow or milk, the liability remains with the farmer, not the company who gave them the contaminated water,’ said Dr Lloyd-Smith.

She referred to a major milk producer in New Zealand who has announced that they will not take milk from any farm that uses drilling waste or the wastes from CSG on their property.

‘One of the reasons is that they were concerned about contamination but the other reason is the cost of testing for that contamination was around $80,000 per sample.’

Dr Lloyd-Smith said that other industries were investigating the use of CSG waste into their business.

‘NUGROW landscaping thinks it is a brilliant idea to incorporate drilling and fracking wastes into compost.

‘They have a proposal in now to spray this product as soil improver on a property near Brian Monk in Queensland.’

Dr Lloyd-Smith said the local CSG industry denied the existence of massive evidence of air pollution.

‘The National Pollutant Inventory (www.npi.gov.au) shows there is significant contamination to the air from the gasfields and their infrastructure,’ she said.

Flaring is also an area of concern with air pollution.

‘The US EPA has now banned it, but in Australia the industry has said that it is common industry practice,’ she said.

She also referred to the SCU testing for methane and radon that showed there is an issue with contamination of air by the industry.

Dr Lloyd-Smith said that ‘testing for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) showed that the industry was producing and releasing these into the atmosphere.’

To download Dr Somerville’s full report go to


Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, of the National Toxics Network says even the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has warned of the 'unavoidable environmental impacts'.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, of the National Toxics Network, says even the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has warned of the ‘unavoidable environmental impacts’.


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  1. Excellent article. So how will the QLD, NSW and Federal Govts respond to this factual analysis? With a robust scientific argument? Or will they just ignore it and say ‘there, there, don’t worry, trust your government and the CSG industry, it’s all safe and we’ll tap this guy’s phone to keep an eye on him so you can all sleep safely hoping your gas bill will be lower”.

  2. Sadly the so called “conspiracy theories” are beginning to look more and more feasible – it may not only be about corporate “greed”…profit motive, at all and ANY cost. They are not worried about health impacts as reducing population is a goal?


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