McCarron, Dr G. Submission Senate Committee on Unconventional Gas Mining

Dr Geralyn McCarron,
Submission No. 12, January 31, 2016

Submission: Select Committee on Unconventional Gas Mining (Bender Inquiry)

Contents

 

  1. INTRODUCTION
  2. REPORTED HEALTH IMPACTS
  3. THE QUESTION OF CANCER
  4. MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS
  5. THE ENVIRONMENTAL FOOTPRINT
  6. ONGOING IMPACTS: PLIGHTS OF FAMILIES
  7. RESPONSE OF THE QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT
  8. DISPOSAL OF TOXIC WASTE- JUST CALL IT “BENEFICIAL USAGE”
  9. DISPOSAL OF TOXIC WASTE- SHIFTING THE PROBLEM BETWEEN STATES.
  10. LACK OF APPROPRIATE SCIENTIFIC RIGOUR AT FEDERALAND STATE LEVEL
  11. INTERNATIONAL EVIDENCE REGARDING UNCONVENTIONAL GAS HEALTH IMPACTS
  12. CONCLUSION

UNCONVENTIONAL GAS IN QUEENLAND

Excerpts

1. INTRODUCTION

No baseline studies and no health impact assessments were done prior to the Coal Seam Gas production licences being issued in Queensland, and in Queensland comprehensive health studies have still not been done. Real time air quality monitoring has never been done. Science has been singularly lacking. There has been no comprehensive assessment of the level of fugitive emissions from the Queensland gas fields. In Queensland there are effectively no limits on emissions from each well or the wider reticulation system. The gas companies can flare or vent 3 million cubic meters of gas from each well during production testing before having to even pay royalties. Emissions from the thousands of high point valves are not used in any calculation of emissions.

Unconventional gas, in the form of coal seam gas, and underground gasification was forced on the people of rural Queensland. Even now, the government is actively seeking development of shale and tight sands. Landholders have been denied the right in legislation to refuse Coal and Gas on their land. They were required by the government, who had given the permits to the resources industry, to accept the intrusion and were “forced to negotiate merely the price of entry”. The surrounding community, heavily impacted by the activities of the gas industry but without physical gas infrastructure on their property, were accorded no rights or protections at all.

“Co-existence” was the mantra under which the coal seam gas industry was forced upon the people and the gas field commission was set up to facilitate it. The people in Brisbane were assured in TV advertisements that the environmental foot-print of this industry was very small (half the size of a basket ball court); it was the “clean-burning” alternative and it meant jobs and prosperity. The reality in Queensland turned out to be very different.

The boom in rural towns such as Chinchilla was short-lived and now less than 6 years later, they are firmly in the bust stage of the cycle. During the boom, some people, such as the publicans, made money. But many people suffered. Rents rose rapidly with the influx of fly-in, fly-out workers. Long-term resident renters, low-income families and pensioners found themselves priced out of their homes and left town never to return. Low-income house owners on fixed incomes found that their rates doubled as the rateable value of the houses in the town increased. House prices rose rapidly and investors funded an ill- conceived building boom, resulting in houses being build on inappropriate sites, causing flooding and expensive remedial drainage funded by the local rates. Now in the bust, hundreds of houses stand empty, unsold and not rented. House prices in Chinchilla have fallen by 30-40% in the past year. During the boom pre-existing business not associated with the mining industry found themselves in serious difficulties. Business owners in town and on the land found they could not compete with the inflated wages being offered by the gas companies, lost their skilled workers and in some cases folded. Brand name businesses such as McDonalds and BP came to town and the distinctive locally owned shops typical of a country town closed their doors. The tourist industry suffered major damage. Tourists simply couldn’t stop. Hotels and motels were block-booked by the gas industry, as were the caravan parks. The grey nomads in particular had nowhere to go. Now, with the end of the construction phase of the gas industry, there is a second round of business closures and there is nothing to fill the vacuum. Proponents of the unconventional gas industry promised billions of dollars worth of investment in infrastructure. Any reasonable person would innocently assume they were talking about bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, etc for the benefit of the resident population. There was no benefit here for the people. Infrastructure meant, in this instance, gas wells, and gas pipelines, and gathering lines, and processing plants, and power plants to power the gas infrastructure, and powerlines to supply the gas infrastructure, gigantic waste dams and waste facilities. Much of the infrastructure was imported.

2. REPORTED HEALTH IMPACTS

Twenty to thirty kilometers away from boom-town Chinchilla, living in the midst of the actual gas field infrastructure, residents were feeling not only the financial, but also the physical impacts of the pollution accompanying the gas industry. In 2013, I conducted a health survey1 of 113 residents from the Tara rural residential estates and surrounding areas. The pattern of reported symptoms was outside the scope of what would be expected for this small community. 58% of people surveyed were certain their health was adversely impacted by CSG. Of particular concern was the impact on the children. 15 of the 48 children were reported to experience abnormal sensations such as numbness and pins and needles, while 31 children reported headaches, many of them severe. Other possible neurological symptoms reported in all groups included severe fatigue, weakness and difficulty concentrating. Eye and skin irritation were constant background complaints, particularly when outside, and were linked to malodourous events. With changes in wind direction residents could identify distinct odours and tastes often coinciding with exacerbations of symptoms. These included smells like rotten eggs, sickly sweet, like pine tarsal, acetone, creosote, and the after burn from cigarette lighter. Some residents were not sensitive to smell but complained of metallic taste and nausea. Increases in cough, rashes, joint pains, muscle pains and spasms, nausea and vomiting were reported.

Approximately one third of residents age 6 and above were reported to have spontaneous nosebleeds. People reported that symptoms improved when they left the area and recurred when they returned home. Two of the four residents employed by the gas industry reported similar symptoms. One was so severely affected they could no longer work.

3. THE QUESTION OF CANCER

In recent years, during my visits to Queensland’s gasfields, residents have repeatedly voiced concerns about the frequency of cancers, as well as unusual types of cancers occurring within the rural triangle bordered by Dalby, Chinchilla and Tara. I approached Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service for cancer statistics pertaining to the area. The data, which I received in September 2015, only included statistics up to 2012. The data combined the total cancers in all the Darling Downs and South West with no detail about the specific area of interest. I asked for more detail of the cancer statistics from the area in question. In reply, Dr Gillies wrote: “Cancer Statistics are not collected and held by the Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service (DDHHS) other than at a very high level.” In November 2015 I personally asked Dr Jeanette Young, Queensland Health’s Chief medical officer for more data, and to date I have had no feedback.

The data I received, crude as it was, is concerning. In 2005 the incidence of invasive cancer in the Darling Downs was 1366. In 2012 the incidence was 1693, an increase of 23.9% on the 2005 figures.

Leaving aside for a moment speculation on possible causes, this is a significant change and is, in itself, cause for question.

With regards to residents’ concerns regarding cancer I will give three specific examples

  1. In Ducklo, one of the earliest -developed parts of the gasfield, three men who lived within 10km of each other were diagnosed and have subsequently died from pancreatic cancer. This is in a community of less than 50 people. In 2011 the age-standardized incidence for pancreatic cancer in Australian men was 13 per 100,000. In other words it is not a common cancer. One pancreatic cancer in this small community could be considered unlucky. Three raises serious questions as to cause. Questions were in fact asked regarding this cluster of cancers. Ray Hopper who is the local member raised the issue in the Queensland parliament and it was in theory investigated. One wonders with what rigour. In May 2014, on hearing of the demise of the third man, I wrote to Laurence Springborg, minister for health regarding the progress of the investigation and received the following disgraceful reply:

Despite repeated attempts to encourage other individuals with pancreatic cancer to come forward, there was no response to the investigation could not progress any further.

Unfortunately these are not the only cases of pancreatic cancer. In 2014 a lady who lives just across the Moonie Highway from Ducklo was diagnosed and died from Glucogonoma, an even rarer form of pancreatic cancer with a risk of 1 in 20 million.

2.Immediately to the west of Brentleigh Park gas facility there are rural residential blocks. There are multiple blocks mapped, but only three family homes, of which two have had continuous long-term occupancy. In 2006 QGC build a huge unlined pond on one of these families property. This was a massive 3.9 hectare pond holding 3ML. In theory it was meant to hold the flowback from one well on the property 800metres from the home. However QGC went on to drill more wells at Brentleigh park but did not have a pond there, so ran an overground pipeline from Kenya east 3 and other wells, and for years pumped drilling waste into this unlined pond. In 2012 they decommissioned the pond and sucked out the sludge in

The family asked for results of tests taken to confirm safety after decommissioning, and to date have received nothing. In 2005 the family had been given rights to use the water in the pond: In 2009 QGC revoked their rights to use the water.

In 2009 the family’s adult son, age 28, was diagnosed with leukaemia.

As you can see from the graph, leukaemia is not a common cancer in young adults. In 2011 a second young adult in the same household, a sibling age 29 was also diagnosed with cancer, a very rare cancer called chordoma with an incidence of one case per million per year. In 2013, their immediate neighbour, an 8 year old child who had been ill for more than two years was also diagnosed with leukaemia, with the diagnosis occurring after moving from the property.

3. Local residents have been very concerned about reports of childhood cancer. In the local media there has been significant coverage of the problems faced by two children, aged 12 and 17 enrolled at Tara State College who have been diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma (a rare type of bone cancer.) The age standardized rate of Ewing Sarcoma in Australians age 0-14 years between 2003 and 2009 was 4.6 per million. The age standardized rate for 15- 29 year olds over the same time frame was 4.5 per million.

Tara State College is a small school with, in 2012, an enrollment of 381 pupils.

These are discrete examples of some the reported concerns, but they are no by no means the only ones. For example, in one street of 6 houses, 5 people have cancer. During the early years the gas company took water from the lagoon to clean their pipes and then sprayed the contaminated water on to the dirt roads around the estate. There are more cases of very aggressive leukaemias, and there are lymphomas. In one household both parents of toddlers have cancer. I believe that the residents concerns regarding the incidence, types and spatial clustering of cancers are justified and worthy of rigorous and open investigation. These cancers are not explained by chance, (bad luck) or genetics.

This raises the question of environmental contamination, and warrants full investigation of all possible sources.

4. MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS

There have been very serious mental health impacts both on the original population as well as the FIFO workers, with an escalating level of suicides in the region. George Bender, for whom this Inquiry is named, by his suicide, brought to the nation’s attention the bullying and the extreme unremitting stress that landholders have been subjected to by government agencies and the resource companies for 10 years. Darling Downs Hospital and Health Services are unable to provide any reliable data on completed suicides.

Patients who are deceased on arrival are not entered in either emergency or inpatient data sets. However what the DDHHS statistics does show is that admission for attempted suicides in the Darling Downs and South West where the patient’s residence was recorded as Chinchilla and Dalby, jumped from 2 in 2006 and 7 in 2007 to 60 in 2013 and 66 in (2015 statistics incomplete).

On September 26th 2015 while addressing a Health Expo at Tara, organised by the Tara Health Expo, Mayor Brown, who is also a gasfield commissioner, reported that in 2014 there had been 11 suicides of workers in the man camps, all within the Western Downs Regional Council Area.

…………………………….

12. CONCLUSION

In December 2014, New York State banned HVHF on the grounds of public health38. The studies mentioned above are just a small sample from the rapidly expanding body of medical evidence linking human health harms and unconventional gas development. Of importance are the gaps in evidence, and the rising realisation that children may sustain permanent and serious harm when exposed to mixtures of low levels of toxins that would cause no discernible effect in an adult. When extreme industrialisation and pollution is superimposed onto a resident population as it is with unconventional gas development, then this is a critical factor for decision makers. The public health doctors who authored the report on which the New York decision was based were looking at the “entire process of natural gas well development and production” This Public Health document contains 90 pages of references and abstracts from studies which informed the report. Howard Zucker, New York’s acting health commissioner said the study had identified “significant” public health risks. Dr Zucker39 went on to say: “I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”

That is the standard of care that should be, but has not been, applied in Australia. In 2010, the GLNG projects were pushed though despite Simone Marsh, the public servant charged with drafting the environmental response stating clearly that serious environmental harm would ensue.

Unfortunately, her warnings were entirely accurate and the people of the Western Downs are now living with the health, environmental and economic consequences of negligent and unlawful decisions.

 

Decision makers need to understand that healthy co-existence with unconventional gas is a myth. Healthy communities cannot thrive in the middle of an unconventional gas field. The choice to be made is between pre-existing industries such as agriculture or gas. It is a choice between healthy food production or gas. It is a choice between the long-term safety of the water supply or gas. It is a choice between tourism or gas. Any land earmarked for gas is a sacrifice zone.

In making a decision on the future of unconventional gas, decision makers need to learn from the painful lessons coming out of Queensland and internationally, and do everything in their power to protect the health of the people now living in their communities as well as those not yet born. They can protect and develop established communities and enduring jobs in agriculture and tourism rather than allow them to be decimated by a destructive, short-term industry. They can make a choice not to risk the security of their food producing land and safe water supply for generations to come. They can ensure that the sacred sites representing 40,000 years of Australian culture are protected. They can ensure that their efforts and energies are directed towards fast tracking research into, and developing a truly clean, renewable energy industry with all the jobs that will come with it. Australia must transition rapidly to zero net emissions, and due to the growing evidence of fugitive emissions from unconventional gas processes it is obvious that that is not the route. Contrary to previous hype and scaremongering by vested interests, there is adequate conventional gas to make the transition to renewables. The nature of the unconventional gas process is such that it cannot be safely managed or regulated. Even if it were not intrinsically unsafe, which it is, it is apparent from many disasters such as the Hazelwood mine fire in Australia, and the Porter Ranch disaster in America that regulatory processes can and do fail, with devastating results.

Geralyn McCarron 31st January 2016

Download Dr McCarron’s Submission →

Download Attachment 1: Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction).

Download Attachment 2: Symptomatology of a Gas Field: An Independent Health Survey in the Tara Rural Residential Estates and Environments

Visit the Select Senate Inquiry Submissions Website: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Gasmining/Gasmining/Submissions