Coal seam gas mining (CSG) is developing rapidly in New South Wales and Queensland and is commencing in other states. The legal and administrative protections are inadequate to ensure that public health is not harmed and that environmental damage does not leave a legacy for generations.
The public health responsibilities of state and federal governments are to prevent harm by careful scientific assessment of possible hazards, their risks and methods of prevention. Therefore they deal particularly with clean air, clean water and uncontaminated food.
Industry and state governments have frequently reassured the public that there are no dangers from CSG to water supplies and to their health. But what is their evidence?
Overseas health concerns are emerging. A ban on shale gas mining in France and moratoriums in parts of the USA and South Africa are recent developments. The United States Environmental Protection Authority has begun a comprehensive study to investigate the potential adverse impacts that hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.
There are differences between shale gas mining -- the predominant process overseas, particularly in the US -- and coal seam gas mining in Australia, in the depth of drilling and the volume of water brought to the surface, but there are health impacts common to both: the potential for contamination of water for drinking and agricultural use and for air pollution around wells.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), often used in the mining process, involves the pressurised injection of a large volume of water, as well as chemical additives, into rock. The large volume of saline water returning to the surface contains injected contaminants and those leached from rocks and sediments. Nearby aquifers, ground water, soil and air may be contaminated.
Some chemicals used in mining or leached from underground into water have the potential to harm human health given sufficient dose and duration of exposure, and this potential harm includes increased risks of cancer and other serious long-term outcomes.
In a recent submission to the Senate Inquiry into Management of the Murray Darling Basin and the impact of CSG mining operations, Doctors for the Environment Australia has highlighted these concerns, recommending application of the precautionary principle, putting in place protections until sufficient research can be undertaken to adequately document health risks.
Food quality and security is essential for good health. Agriculture, already under threat from more severe and prolonged drought conditions associated with climate change, will be further compromised by the CSG industry. As the industry expands, the vast quantities of water diverted from agricultural use to CSG operations and the loss of productive cropland may well diminish Australia's ability to feed itself and the world.
Water and air pollution, water shortages, permanent degradation of productive agricultural land and loss of livelihood and landscape, all have mental health consequences for communities living in a gas field. The CSG process can divide previously close-knit rural communities, increasing tension and disharmony, impact on local economies, and threaten other industries such as tourism.
But climate change is also an important health issue, and the carbon footprint of CSG over coal is said to be lower. Does this override other considerations? Not at all. Proper monitoring of fugitive emissions is needed to enable accurate comparisons with coal. The International Energy Agency has warned that there is a danger that over reliance on CSG will delay the vital transition to renewable energy.
What needs to be done to protect human health?
In any new development, health should be an integral part of the assessment process.
State Departments of Health should have had a major role on the safety of a CSG development via a health risk assessment process. This is not currently happening in each state, and logically there should be one best practice national process.
Adequate information is needed to support risk assessment and health protection and this is largely lacking. Greater transparency of industry practices and improved monitoring would start to fill this gap.
There is a strong case for an independent, national Health Impact Assessment process, providing a uniform regulatory framework for the industry in all states and territories.
While these protections are being developed, the precautionary principle should be exercised to recognise potential harms and err on the side of caution with any new CSG development.
Human health relies on the maintenance of a healthy environment, clean drinking water, secure food production, the cohesion of community and family life. The new gold rush represented by coal seam mining should not be allowed to endanger these basic health needs of Australians.