Doctors alarmed by water contamination from unconventional gas mining

Sunday 9 March

Health advocacy organisation, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is alarmed by water contamination in an aquifer associated with a Santos coal seam gas project in the Pilliga Forest, NSW.

A NSW EPA investigation found that storage facilities for contaminated water produced by the CSG mining project were inadequate, and that there was no evidence the necessary testing and quality controls occurred. Levels of heavy metals and radioactive substances are reported to be elevated in a nearby aquifer, with uranium levels well above Australian drinking water guidelines.

Spokesperson for DEA, Associate Professor Melissa Haswell-Elkins, said today, “This incident demonstrates that aquifer contamination does occur, despite the assurances we so often receive to the contrary.

“It highlights the environmental and potential health risks of unconventional gas mining, and the underestimation of these risks,” she said.

“While we have some comfort that this particular aquifer is not a source of water for humans, livestock or crops, we remain concerned about potential problems where mining is close to water sources that do have these uses, and the health implications that flow from this and many other aspects of the industry.”

A/Prof Haswell-Elkins said, “Doctors have been warning the government and community about the health risks of unconventional gas for some time.”

For example, DEA warned the NSW government during its 2011 CSG inquiry that, “waste water with additives returned to the surface pose problems with treatment, disposal and storage. This water can contain harmful volatile organic compounds, high concentrations of ions and radioactive substances.”

“A fine of $1500 for this pollution seems like a feather duster tap on the knuckles for the company,” said A/Prof Haswell-Elkins.

“We understand that the company, Santos, is planning to drill hundreds more wells in the area.

“Rather than suspending this contaminating project, the NSW government is fast-tracking it!

“It is clear that assessment, monitoring and regulation of unconventional gas activities is still not adequate to protect our precious water sources and the health of current and future generations of Australians,” she said.

DEA and the Australian Medical Association have both called on Australian governments to ensure that unconventional gas projects are subject to rigorous and independent health risk assessments before they are allowed to proceed.

A/Prof Haswell-Elkins said, “We are seeing governments ignore advice from health organisations about the risks posed by unconventional gas projects.”

An article in the Medical Journal of Australia this month has warned, “Natural contaminants present in wastewater can include heavy metals and radioactive materials, which have serious and well known health effects. Uranium and heavy metals have been shown to be mobilised by fracturing and drilling chemicals.”

A NSW government website states that its regulations, “ensure that the State’s rivers, streams, aquifers, ground water and vital catchments remain free of damage and pollution”, but this is not what we are seeing in the Pilliga.

“This contamination incident should be a wake-up call for anyone who values a safe environment, clean water and unpolluted food,” A/Prof Haswell-Elkins said.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is a voluntary national organisation of medical doctors working to protect health through care of the environment.

More information

Sydney Morning Herald report:

DEA submission to NSW Parliament:$FILE/Submission%200412.pdf


NSW Government website:

Medical Journal of Australia on CSG:


DEA spokespersons

Associate Professor Melissa Haswell-Elkins  M: 0415 568536

Dr Merryn Redenbach, DEA Research and Liaison Officer  M: 0407 825046


Doctors for the Environment Australia

67 Payneham Road COLLEGE PARK SA 5069, M: 0422 974 857 E: W:

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