Our Work Health & Energy Coal seam gas health effects need more scrutiny

Coal seam gas health effects need more scrutiny

This article by DEA Committee Member Marion Carey was published in Medical Observer 20 March 2012.  We thank medical Observer for permission to publish.

IMAGINE you are a farmer whose land has been in the family for generations. You’ve nurtured it through the tough times.

A coal seam gas (CSG) company informs you it will be coming onto your property to drill. You do not have the legal power to deny them access.

Should they choose to, they can extract gas with wells that may leak, take out as much water as they like, add chemicals in the process that may have long-term health consequences and persist for decades, and scar the land.

You have to go to court to try to protect your water table and the viability of your land. Far-fetched? Actually, this resembles some real life situations.

CSG in Australia is a multi-billion dollar industry, with exploration and production licences covering large sections of Australia and now encroaching on urban settlements and prime agricultural areas. Industry and state governments have been assuring us this rapidly expanding technology is safe for people and the environment. But where is their evidence?

In the US, some observers have called the gas drilling boom “an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale”.

Systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with gas extraction has been documented.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has recently advised a town not to drink its groundwater, as the aquifer is contaminated with compounds associated with gas production.

In Australia, an interim Senate report has noted concern about the potential impact of extraction of large volumes of water on aquifers, and the risk of water contamination. It also noted the risk of serious damage to agricultural productivity on some of our best farmland.

In reality, CSG development poses poorly assessed, yet potentially serious, health risks. Public health may be affected directly and indirectly through contamination of water, air and soil, as well as complex long-term impacts. Current assessment, regulation and monitoring of CSG impacts are not sufficient to provide adequate safeguards.

This industry extracts huge volumes of water and produces vast amounts of waste salt (for which there is no clear disposal plan). Some estimates are that there will be 40,000 CSG wells in Australia, with withdrawal of 300 gigalitres of water each year, producing 31 million tonnes of waste salt over the next 30 years.

CSG threatens water and food quality and security, which are key determinants of health.

Contamination of water supplies may occur from chemicals used during drilling and hydraulic fracturing and compounds mobilised from sediments. These can include toxic, allergenic, mutagenic and carcinogenic substances. There is insufficient information on the use, safety and fate of these chemicals.

Doctors for the Environment Australia is calling for the chemicals used in unconventional gas operations to be assessed for safety by our national regulator; for the protection of Great Artesian Basin aquifer water and agricultural land; for a health impact assessment under nationally developed guidelines; and for a moratorium on new CSG operations until the health and environmental consequences are adequately understood, and the appropriate monitoring and regulations are in place to protect human health.