Coal seam gas is indeed a potential disaster if present attitudes and lack of regulatory control prevail.
An important part of public health is to enact precautions based on potential impacts.
The CSG industry may have hidden impacts on health that have not been assessed. What are the concerns?
Only a minority of the chemicals used in fracking have been fully assessed by the National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS). Some unassessed chemicals may be carcinogenic.
The process of fracking releases chemicals and toxic substances from the coal seams which are brought to the surface in the effluent. Some of these chemicals are likely to be carcinogenic. To put this in context, the combustion of coal leads to particulate air pollution which increases the risk of cancers in coal mining areas of the USA and other countries. It is presumed the particulates contain carcinogens. Until proven otherwise we have to assume the fracking effluent also contains carcinogens. The long term health impacts of human exposure to any carcinogen must always be of concern.
Studies from the US suggest that some contamination of water sources for human and agricultural use is inevitable and the concerns over this are evident in a report from the US Congress In addition, there are reports that abandoned wells continue to be a health hazard.
In 2010, in response to growing concerns from reported symptoms in CSG communities, the US EPA announced a $1.9 million, two-year study into the potential adverse impacts of fracking on water quality and public health.
There are concerns about air pollution adjacent to the wells. This has not been fully assessed.
The fugitive emission of methane in fracking has not been fully assessed. US estimates have increased recently and indicate that this is an important greenhouse emission issue which might significantly undercut the supposed greenhouse advantage of CSG. Australia’s greenhouse emissions are an international health consideration and we cannot divorce ourselves from our obligations.
My assessment is that state and federal regulations have been inadequate to deal appropriately with the inevitable demands arising from industry and from the need for royalties by the states.
Senators Milne and Heffernan are right to blow the whistle and indeed a NSW spokesperson has already suggested a national approach.
The implications for agriculture and food production must be considered and we must ask, “what if we are sacrificing a sustainable source of food for a short term financial gain in a world moving rapidly to food shortage?”
US experience suggests that we are.
What are the solutions?
It is wasteful and too demanding to have each state defining their own regulations after consulting their EPAs and health departments. A national, independent process of health impact assessment is needed to protect the public.
This would enact the safeguards for all states and territories. Since contracts have been signed, it would also make retrospective assessments.
The state process would then be to look at the local water implications and balance these with environmental and agricultural losses.
Looking at the evidence so far, I suggest that if CSG is necessary to the national effort it might be best to define zones for CSG mining that can be sacrificed because of a defined ground water profile.
Doctors for the Environment Australia has advocated Health Impact Assessment for major projects. This could be used both retrospectively and prospectively.
We recommended this approach for the very complex Olympic Dam expansion and it’s vital to look at the expansion of the coal industry which we know has serious health hazards in the same way.
The need now is for a Health Impact Assessment on coal seam gas. The Senate Committee must consider reform processes in its deliberations on coal seam gas.
There should be no half measures with human health; we should have learned this from the asbestos disaster.