Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has, for years, been warning governments that coal seam gas (CSG) mining is toxic to public health.
It said in a 2011 inquiry into the management of the Murray Darling Basin that CSG may have “adverse effects on human health by contamination of drinking and agricultural-use water, and air”.
“Contaminants of concern include many of the chemicals used for fracking, as well as toxic substances produced through this process and mobilised from the sedimentary regions drilled. Some of these compounds can produce short-term health effects and some may contribute to systemic illness and/or cancer many years later.”
Public health is not mentioned in discussions around CSG mining, DEA said, although the public is being exposed to dangerous health hazards. Publicly available information on the chemicals used in CSG mining is inadequate, as is their assessment and regulation.
Evidence from several countries shows that environmental exposures may put people at risk “and these concerns have led to moratoria on further mining operations”.
CSG water is often highly saline and not suitable for agricultural or domestic purposes. Flowback water and produced water from CSG fracking can also contain volatile organic compounds and radioactive substances.
A 2011 report from the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, Britain, noted that “flowback fluid is likely to be of greater concern than that of the fracturing fluid itself, and is likely to be considered as hazardous waste in the UK”.
It said fracking chemicals and produced water, held in evaporation ponds, can also be released into the local atmosphere and inhaled.
Methane exposure risks human health and fugitive emissions from the production process contribute to overall greenhouse gas emissions. This colourless, odourless, flammable gas, even at levels of 5%, can form an explosive mixture.
Victorian residents recently won a class action of $23.5 million, after being evacuated from their homes in Cranbourne’s Brookland Greens Housing Estate due to explosive levels of methane gas from a neighbouring landfill.
The large volumes of methane erupting from the Condamine River present serious health and safety concerns. It is not only the effects of each chemical that may be dangerous, but the potential for unpredictable chemical combinations.
The chemicals benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX) are frequently found together in petroleum compounds. These chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), easily vapourise, so people can be exposed through drinking water, bathing or breathing in vapour.
Long-term exposure to benzene, even in very small amounts, can affect bone marrow, cause anaemia, increase the risk of leukaemia and can affect foetuses.
Toluene and ethylbenzene can damage the nervous system, liver and kidneys, and ethylbenzene is a possible human carcinogen.
DEA said the fracking process “can release BTEX from natural gas reservoirs, allowing them to escape into aquifers or the surrounding air”. BTEX chemicals have been found after at least two fracking operations in Queensland.
The federal environment department’s 2010 assessment of the impacts of proposed CSG operations in the Murray-Darling Basin noted: “No data has been made available to examine the possible implications of hydrocarbons, for example, BTEX, in associated water.”
DEA concluded that “the Environmental Impact Assessment processes used have been inadequate and inconsistent and have failed to assess health impacts appropriately and have not protected the public health”.
Water expert Professor Stuart Khan, who was commissioned to do an independent expert appraisal of the Baking Board waste storage facility at Chinchilla with a capacity for 15 million tonnes, said that as salt does not biodegrade in the environment; it “has an infinite environmental residence time”.
He said salt storages “need to be maintained on a permanent basis (decades or longer) or until the salt is re-mined and removed from the facility. Failure to do so will guarantee that the salt will eventually contaminate the local environment including groundwater and surface water.”
A 10-year action plan and landfill disposal for 10–15 years is a risky postponement, not a solution.
When it comes to estimating the volume of salt likely to be generated, Khan stated that the “product salt”, had been miscategorised as “geotechnically benign” and “marginally dissolvable”. “In fact the salt can be expected to be composed primarily of sodium bicarbonate … all highly water-soluble salts.”
The draft report calculation of the 5 million tonne volume of toxic salt, likely to be generated over the estimated 30-year lifespan of the industry (and thus the potential risk it poses), is far too small when gauged at the volume of water currently produced by the existing 8600 CSG wells in Queensland, which is the only concrete figure applicable.
The total proposed CSG wells by the industry in Queensland are many more than the present 8600 assessed by the Queensland Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment.
Local daily temperatures are higher than 20°C most days of the year, rising to the 40s in summer. Both mean exponential increases in the total volume of toxic salts that will be produced.
Khan concluded that “an operation such as this to be a high risk”, because the “likelihood of contaminating groundwater and surface water over the long term is considerable”.
Khan’s 2013 report to the New South Wales Chief Health Scientist stated that “stored concentrates and residuals from produced water treatment pose risks to adjacent soils, surface water and groundwater”.
He said produced water “can be effectively treated” using water treatment technologies, however, such processes “merely concentrate the salts and other contaminants, rather than eliminate them”.
“Disposal by landfill or land application poses environmental risks unlikely to be manageable over the long term. This is because the hazardous substances [salts] in produced water are non-degradable and their ongoing effective containment may only be achieved for a finite period.”
An Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) spokesperson at a meeting on the draft brine management action plan last year said he believed that the health and environmental consequences of CSG extraction and its by-products and wastes were not the mining industry’s responsibility, and that the public should pay for their management and disposal.
“Waste is waste, and all wastes should be treated the same, and the industry should not have to be responsible for its own waste,” he said.
Farmers are directly financially responsible for any contaminants found in beef produced, and the Property Identification Code system can trace responsibility back to each farm. Why should the mining industry be any less accountable, particularly when its waste is permitted to contaminate our water?
CSG is a short-term industry, with a maximum lifespan of 30 years. The agricultural industry will continue to grow food, communities, gross domestic product and jobs, as will the tourism industry, if they are not destroyed by poisoned water.
When former Independent MP Tony Windsor negotiated the water trigger legislation in 2011, he said: “CSG and coal mining projects can no longer be given the green light unless independent scientific advice concludes they won't damage our precious water resources.”
Even shadow environment minister Greg Hunt said during debate on the water-trigger law, which eventually received bipartisan support, that: “We do not play dice with our underground water resources, our aquifers, the resources of the Murray Darling Basin or the Great Artesian Basin; we simply do not take risks on that front.”
The facts show that successive governments’ refusal to put a moratorium on CSG and coal mining until waste disposal problems are resolved means they continue to gamble with the country’s most important natural resource — clean water.
The CSG brine management report stated that conclusions are based on medium-term solutions. But salt is a persistent long-term problem. A 10-year plan is useless when salt is a toxin that doesn’t break down.
Queensland’s coal seam gas brine management report said that the priority in managing saline waste (after trying to manufacture saleable products) is “disposing of the brine and salt residues in accordance with strict standards that protect the environment”.
Page 5 of the 2012 CSG Water Management Policy states that: “The operator must: dispose brine and salt away from sensitive receiving environments.” That means the CSG industry must get out of the Murray-Darling Basin catchment.
APPEA told the Queensland government that regulated waste landfill is the best management option. If so, the only environmentally responsible solution is to stop production of CSG until a long-term solution can be found for the safe disposal of industry wastes.
[Elena Garcia and Glen Beasley are regenerative graziers on the Western Downs in Queensland.]