Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to shatter rock strata and force coal seam gas to the surface. It is then refined into natural gas for fuel. The emerging problems of water contamination from fracking are being reported from many sources. They raise the entire question of government responsibilities to the community in the sphere of public health.
In Queensland, ground water and bores used for stock were contaminated recently with benzene and toluene near to the Cougar Energy project at Kingaroy. Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) ordered Cougar to stop its underground coal gasification trial.
In July Minister Garrett intervened to call for a review of the impacts of two Queensland coal seam gas projects on water supplies and land, and their potential to contaminate the Great Artesian Basin which lays under 20% of Australia and is a crucial source of water for much of the interior. The Great Artesian Basin Co-ordinating Committee has expressed its concern. The Queensland Government has now banned use of some of the chemicals in gasification.
In Pavilion, Wyoming, 11 of 39 private water wells were found to be contaminated in regions where fracking was occurring. Some were contaminated with the solvent 2-butoxyethanol a chemical used in the process which can cause kidney disease and liver cancer. Traces of benzene, a carcinogen, were also found. Many medical symptoms reported in the community were compatible with exposure to these chemicals and are being investigated by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Problems have been reported in many other States in the USA and in August in New York State the Senate issued a moratorium on fracking until there is a comprehensive review of health and environmental concerns.
These adverse findings are at variance with the statements by industry that the process is safe and there are no cases of human health are being affected. Such statements often hide the fact that contamination and health have not been monitored.
The coal industry is regarded as a public health hazard. Coal pollutants, particularly the air borne particulates affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S., heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic respiratory disease. Coal pollution interferes with lung development and increases the risk of heart attacks. Coal seam gasification whilst avoiding the major air pollution impacts of coal mining and power generation nevertheless is responsible for some local air pollution. Its contamination of productive land and the pollution of water tables and aquifers are unacceptable in a world where these resources are increasingly limited.
It has to be asked what considerations were made by the NSW Planning Department in approving drilling near to water sources for human consumption. There is little point is testing in such environments, for gasification processes can be prohibited from present knowledge. The States are too enthusiastic in approval processes that will bring revenue, jobs and electoral hope.
The science and distribution of aquifers and other groundwater systems is rudimentary. Yet the coal seam gas sector and indeed the mining industry are currently exempt from the National Water Initiative which is responsible for water reform and water security. The water management rules which apply to every other industry, do not apply to the one sector that needs more regulation than any other. (There is potential for long term contamination and damage to aquifers)The National Water Initiative was signed in 2004, and although it was agreed that the mineral and petroleum sectors needed specific management arrangements there has been little progress to define these. Urgent reform needs to be instituted by the federal government which can accrue a body of expertise with recommendations that have to be followed by states. The prime consideration should be human health and the sustainability of land, particularly prime farming areas, and water resources. The precautionary principle should be paramount when there is potential for long term contamination and damage to aquifers with impacts on human health.
The national agenda today must be to limit the use of coal and to move to alternate forms of energy which do not affcct our health. Fracking does not fit into this agenda.