Issue 17 / 19 May 2014

INDEPENDENT, cradle-to-grave assessments of the health and environmental impacts of unconventional gas extraction are urgently needed, says an expert on the health impacts of climate change.

Dr Jeremy Moss [PhD], director of the University of Melbourne’s Social Justice Initiative, has called for on-the-ground epidemiological studies of these proposed new developments, particularly in light of examples of contamination highlighted in a letter to the MJA this week. (1)

In the letter, Professor Marion Carey, associate professor at Monash University, and coauthors, wrote that the NSW Environmental Protection Authority had confirmed contamination of an aquifer by a coal seam gas (CSG) operation in the Pilliga Forest in north-western NSW. It found elevated levels of heavy metals and uranium in groundwater adjacent to a pond holding water produced as a by-product of gas mining.

The letter authors, all members of Doctors for the Environment Australia, wrote that despite several incidences of spills, leaks and accidents in Australia and other countries, the industry continued to downplay the risk of aquifer contamination.

Dr Moss and coauthors from the Nossal Institute of Global Health wrote in the MJA earlier this year about the health uncertainties associated with unconventional gas. He said these examples of contamination heightened the importance of pursuing independent evaluations. (2)

“Unfortunately, this is exactly what we said were the major risks when we finalised the report and sadly it’s come true. That just means there should be proper and independent studies of the potential health risks of unconventional gas”, Dr Moss said.

The call coincided with the suspension last week of gas exploration company Metgasco Limited’s right to drill an exploration well at Rosella, near Bentley in northern NSW. Drilling was suspended on the grounds that the company did not effectively consult with the community, a condition of its exploration licence. (3)

Dr Moss supports calls for a precautionary approach to unconventional gas. “This should be treated like a new medicine,” he said.

“The main thing about this issue is that we don’t know enough and what we do know is that it places too much risk on the public and not with the people who are doing the extracting, or who are benefiting from the extraction of the gas. I think that is frankly unacceptable”, he said.

Brisbane GP and activist Dr Geralyn McCarron, who last year conducted an unpublished survey of the health concerns of residents of the Tara estates near CSG fields in south-east Queensland, has repeated calls for independent assessments to be undertaken. (4)

Dr McCarron said even though it was known from spills in the Pilliga that there were serious consequences to the release of untreated CSG water into the environment, the Queensland Government had given approval for untreated CSG fluids to be deliberately applied to agricultural land.

“This land is in the middle of a flood plain in the Murray Darling basin. This permission has been granted without any environmental impact assessment or health assessment under a policy of ‘beneficial usage’. The implications for human and animal health are immense.”

Earlier this year, Dr McCarron had protested to the Queensland Government about the impact of CSG fields on the health of livestock and residents in rural Queensland. In her letter of reply, Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young said the overall conclusion of a government report last year was that a clear link could not be drawn between residents’ health complaints and the impacts of the CSG industry on air, water or soil in the community. (5)

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment told MJA InSight the Australian Government was funding a national assessment of chemicals associated with CSG extraction, which would examine the human health and environmental risks from chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing for coal seam gas in Australia.

The spokesperson said the assessment results would be available later this year. (5)
 

1. MJA 2014; 200: 523
2. MJA 2014; 200: 210-213
3. SMH 2014; Online 15 May
4. Doctors for the Environment Australia 2013; Media release
5. Department of Health Qld 2013; Coal seam gas in the Tara region
6. Department of Health; National assessment of chemicals associated with coal seam gas extraction in Australia

 


Poll

Are you concerned about possible health implications from coal seam gas extraction?
  • Yes - evidence is emerging (80%, 101 Votes)
  • Maybe - research needed (11%, 14 Votes)
  • No - it seems safe (9%, 12 Votes)

Total Voters: 127

Loading ... Loading ...

11 thoughts on “Gas mining health concerns

  1. Simon Strauss says:

    As most of your readers will know Australia’s eastern seaboard is on the cusp of dealing with an abrupt increase in both domestic and industrial gas prices. Existing off-take contracts and many billion dollars of investment will ensure that this will not be reversed. While the economics are likely irreversible the sources for the required gas could/might be able to be re-directed.

    It seems a no-brainer that coal seam methane extraction and farming are virtually mutually exclusive.  Australia has a vast amount of coal in very underpopulated areas and there are existing technologies that can convert these to methane, syngas and other energy sources. Moreover unlike CSM  criss-crossing of land by multiple pipelines can be avoided and a 95% smaller footprint is required for the same gas output. Additionally and importantly the liberation of the gas doesn’t require the extraction of billions of gallons of ground water that has to be disposed of. See: The Conversation.

    Personally I believe that gas can be used to bridge the gap between what we are doing now and take us to the point where renewables, solar, wind, tidal, geothermal – both conventional and hot dry rock, will allow us to enjoy abundant energy via much “greener” technologies.

    Australian ASX listed companies control around a third of the world’s uranium resources, however many would like Australia to not go down that path. Indeed Australia faces tough energy choices but if we become better informed and push our politicians hard we will become one of the world’s green nations.

  2. Chris Lawrence says:

    Yet again incredible distortions of the facts by the EDO . They state that the “EPA had confirmed contamination of an aquifer by a coal seam gas (CSG) operation in the Pilliga”. They did reference the Q&A document released by the EPA, but no one bothers to read. It stated “These are all naturally occurring elements in the surrounding soil and groundwater. Importantly, testing did not detect Uranium in the pond’s water. However, Uranium was detected in the natural soils on the site. This indicates that the naturally occurring Uranium in the soil is the source of the elevated concentrations of Uranium in the groundwater”.  The same effect could have been and likely has been caused by any body of water in the area ie an dam or pool of water – nothing to do with CSG. The EDO statements are largely sensationalist and playing on fears of the unknown, much like the logic of the Flat Earth Society saying “you can’t see over the horizon therefor the earth must end there”. The EDO chooses not to accept facts and research which are available. 

  3. Malcolm Brown says:

    EDO are talking extremist politics, not science. The way they selectively misquote the EPA findings is scandalous. And they are still calling calling climate change a “public health emergency” when such nonsense has been completely refuted in the peer-reviewed literature. Activists have been trying to politicise science since we emerged from the dark ages, and medical professionals should resist such dangerous nonsense.

  4. Kathleen Smith says:

    Chris Lawrence lighlights that critical need for base line studies, particularly water studies, before any approval for CSG or mining is given.  I understand that the levels of contaminants in the water tested was above that of water in nearby farm dams.  Efforts to discredit the EDO and the science  behind the precautions placed on the fossil fuel industry by the community is very retrogressive and will eventually lead to environmental and economic loss.

     

  5. Dee Wilkes-Bowes says:

    This research is yet another reason, in a quickly mounting pile, that the precautionary principle must be applied to CSG extraction. The long term environmental health and security of the food supply chain is vastly more important than short term revenue needs. Our productive agricultural land must be protected from chemical contamination and as yet no-one can tell what the long term (or short term) effects of CSG extraction might be.

  6. Neil Dix says:

    AGL agrees that research into the coal seam gas industry and potential impacts is important. That’s why we have been commissioning independent research, including three separate studies which conclude the risks posed to health, water and air are low provided best practice is met.
    AGL’s CSG operations have been conducted safely and without any evidence of harm to human health in Camden for more than 13 years.
    More information at yoursayagl.com.au

  7. Rosalie Schultz says:

    From my reading of the literature, coal seam gas and other sources of unconventional gas lead to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than coal, due to fugitive and other emissions. Because of the need for large numbers of wells we are seeing agricultural. pastoral and wilderness areas being turned into industrial zones.

    Therefore, unconventional gas is not an appropriate transition to a renewable energy future, rather it is on-going commitment to fossil fuels. 

    We need to invest in renewable energy, particularly reduced demand and increased efficiency – urgently. Australia has vast reserves of solar and wind energy.

    That is why public health and environmental professionals are concerned, and communities are protesting.

  8. Naomi Hogan says:

    CSG waste water can pose a risk to the environment, stock and health, and lead to changing soil chemistry and the movement of uranium out of soil and into an aquifer.  Apropriate treatment is still weak/missing by many CSG operations. This is not your average pond of water.

    Here are lab comments on a water sample taken from a CSG evaporation pond in North West NSW back in 2011.

    This water has an elevated level of total dissolved salts (TDS) sodium, in particular sodium, potassium, chloride and carbonate. This water is totally unsuitable for irrigation. This water is not suitable for any livestock to drink. In regard to drinking, this water is toxic. The upper limit in drinking water for chloride is 400mg/L, for sodium 180mg/L and TDS 500mg/L. Growths of iron bacteria, which concentrate iron, may cause taste and odour problems and lead to pipe restrictions, blockages and corrosion.

     

     

  9. Geralyn McCarron says:

    Today I heard of two more homeless families from Queensland’s Western Downs. Both are large families with very young children. Such is their concern regarding the very serious health issues their children have developed that the only choice left to them was to walk off the land and away from the homes they own with nothing apart from what they have been able to pack in their vehicles. The Queensland Government established the GasFields Commission to manage the co-existence of rural landholders, regional communities and the coal seam gas (CSG) industry in Queensland as co-existence was the Government’s stated policy from the beginning. The industrialisation is so extreme that the entire area where these children have been living is effectively a gas processing plan. However, the health of these children and their families has been systematically ignored.

  10. Adele van Rosmalen says:

    “Santos says it self-reported the contamination to the Environment Protection Authority — and was fined $1500 — and the presence of uranium was publicly reported by The Courier in Narrabri last August. Santos blames the contamination on its former partner Eastern Star Gas.” http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/03/20/santos-open-flame-can-it-snuff-out-the-protests-on-coal-seam-gas.

    There’s a heap of anecdotal evidence about the the harms associated with UGM and you can’t discount this, especially when there’s no scientific evidence to disprove it.  Taking a precautionary approach is common sense.

  11. Adrian Ingleby says:

    Why have the Queensland and NSW State governments past and present, Liberal and Labor, allowed CSG exploration to proceed without first conducting extensive independent reputable scientific studies. The answer to that is greed, the desire for easy money for the State Treasuries and importantly donations from the mining companies to their political parties’ election funds! 

    The Federal governments past and present, Liberal and Labor allowed the Queensland and NSW governments to commence coal seam gas mining?  Their answer, “Oh, mining is a state responsibility.”  But it is their responsibility. Those who died and were injured in World War I and II and later wars, prove that. they have done far too little.

    America is being fracked to death and the affected residents in the CSG industrial zones on farming lands are needing to have ‘non contaminated water’ trucked in for drinking and bathing. Confidentially agreements have to be signed to get compensation therefore no public record. 

    Phillip Pells, Groundwater specialist and Independent consultant to industry was interviewed on the 7.30 Report on 14.03.2014 and when asked about CSG mining contamination of aquifers said in part, “When the impacts do occur they’re irreversible, so we have to be very certain and very careful at the start that we don’t generate a system that causes unexpected and significant impacts which we can do nothing about, its too late then.” 

    I suspect that our State and Federal politicians CSG future bonanza is every Australians’ CSG toxic legacy.       A Federal Royal Commission now, please!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.