Diagnosing the health risks of unconventional gas by David Shearman, November 28, 2012, RenewEconomy.com.au
In 2010, Doctors for the Environment Australia first raised concerns about the potential health impacts of coal seam gas mining in Australia. We subsequently detailed these concerns in a submission to the Senateand to the NSW Parliament.
The fundamental public health issue is the potential for water contamination by chemicals which could seriously affect human health decades after exposure. Health impacts may arise from the use of fracking chemicals or from the release of hydrocarbons and other contaminants from the coal seams. Pollutants – particularly volatile organic compounds – may be released into the air at the well head. In the United States, control measures determined by the US EPA in response to elevated levels of pollutants measured in several gas fields will be phased in by January 2015 In Tara, Queensland, it seems possible that the high recorded levels of fugitive methane may also reflect the presence of pollutants which are causing illness in local communities – similar symptoms are under investigation by the USEPA. Public health experience indicates that in a range of environmental contamination issues prevention is the mainstay to protection. Think of lead or asbestos for example; adequate assessment and regulation are key measures. The debate has failed to focus on these important issues because industry has placed the onus of proof of contamination on exposed communities. It has refused on many occasions to disclose what chemicals are actually used in fracking, and has circulated information inaccurately suggesting the procedure uses only benign substances.
Australia should have learned from the US 2005 Energy Act, which excluded fracking from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Act. This clause – which has become known as the “Cheney-Halliburton loophole” – meant that many shale gas operations began without a proper environmental impact assessment. Because they had no measurement of the “baseline”, they could not be properly assessed after the event either.
In Australia, baseline studies on aquifer water and air quality have not been done before CSG mining development. This is a failure of regulation in states. The second and related failure is in chemical assessment of fracking chemicals by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme. Some assessment of chemicals is taking place after their widespread use and there is no national uniform means of imposing regulation. Assessment is just beginning, may take years, and there is no uniform requirement for disclosure. This is federal failure.
The third failure resides in the disparate and inadequate assessments in all states apart from SA, which has not yet completed its regulatory review. Despite potential environmental and health impacts, proper processes have been avoided by most states. A recent example of how the states should be made aware of the potential health issues is provided by the report from the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the province of New Brunswick in Canada, which details what every operator and regulator should know about the public health aspects of unconventional gas mining.
In 2012, unconventional gas mining is expanding rapidly. Billions of dollars are being invested without adequate research, regulation and public health surveillance. We are trusting that the lucky country will get away with it. And as with coal the externality costs with be foisted onto to the public purse. [Emphasis added]
David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at University of Adelaide