The rapid expansion of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland’s Darling Downs¹ has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in local hospital admissions for circulatory and respiratory conditions, according to report by a local GP, published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies.
The GP, Geralyn McCarron, has called for a comprehensive investigation of the health impacts of the unconventional gas industry in Australia.
McCarron found that, between 2007 and 2014, hospital admissions for acute circulatory conditions increased by 133 percent in the Darling Downs area, rising from 2,198 to 5,141, and admissions for acute respiratory problems increased by 142 percent, from 1,257 to 3,051.
The GP reports that, over the same period, there was a huge increase in the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere in the area.
Emissions reported by the CSG industry to the National Pollutants Inventory (NPI) have escalated since expansion of CSG from 2006 onwards, she says.
“The unchecked expansion of unconventional gas companies into what was previously an agrarian area of the Darling Downs has led to the generation of extra emissions attributable to a single industry.
“Communities in the Darling Downs have been exposed to significant pollution associated with the rapid and extreme industrialisation by the gas industry and with toxins directly attributable to that industry.
The considerable growth in hospitalisations for acute respiratory and circulatory conditions, concurrent with the increase in toxic pollutants in the local atmosphere, suggests that controls to limit exposure are ineffectual, McCarron says.
McCarron reports that, between 2006/2007 and 2013/2014, the presence of PM10 (Particulate Matter up to 10 micrometres in size) in the air over the Darling Downs increased by a staggering 6,000 percent to 1,926 tonnes. The presence of sulphur dioxide increased by more than 1,000 percent to 12.97 tonnes and the reported emissions of PM2.5 increased from zero to 301 tonnes.
The presence of nitrogen oxides increased by 489 percent to 10,048 tonnes, and that of carbon monoxide increased by 801 percent to 6,800 tonnes. The presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) went up by 337 percent to 670.6 tonnes, and that of formaldehyde increased by 12 kg to more than 160 tonnes.
A further escalation in emissions has been seen in the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 reporting periods.
Hospitalisation data was obtained from the Darling Downs Hospital and Health Services (DDHHS), and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) emissions data is from the NPI.
The emissions statistics in McCarron’s report are from CSG operations within the DDHHS catchment area.
“Increased cardiopulmonary hospitalisations are coincident with the rise in pollutants known to cause such symptoms,” McCarron writes.
“The burden of air pollution from the gas industry on the well-being of the Darling Downs population is a significant public health concern.
“Despite appeals from health professionals to improve oversight, state and federal regulatory bodies have failed to act.”
McCarron (pictured left) has been researching the adverse health effects of coal seam gas exploitation for several years.
There is evidence, she says, that outdoor air pollution, especially in an industrial context, has multiple negative effects on human health.
“Some effects are long-term and causation can be difficult to prove. For instance, a heart attack or stroke resulting from exposure during a day of high ambient PM concentration may be a consequence of chronic disease progression associated with long-term exposure.”
Since 2008, the Darling Downs Public Health Unit has received a variety of health complaints related to the CSG industry, including headaches, sore eyes, nosebleeds, rashes, respiratory symptoms, and paraesthesia².
However, McCarron says, there has been a remarkable lack of substantive investigation into potential human health impacts of the CSG industry in the Darling Downs.
“No baseline environmental studies, human health risk assessments, or health studies were undertaken before large-scale extraction took place.
State-based research organisations expected to be active in the space have disclosed little research investigating the possible physical health impacts of unconventional gas emissions.”
The significant 2010 Australian Research Council linkage project “A Human Health Risk Assessment for developing CSG water resources in Queensland” wasn’t pursued, purportedly, McCarron says, because the industry partner, Santos, withdrew funding.
A notable exception to the dearth of research, McCarron says, is the study by Werner et al, published in February 2016. The researchers reviewed hospitalisation data from 1995 to 2011 in three areas in Queensland: a CSG area, a coal mining area, and an agricultural area.
They found that certain hospital admissions rates (for neoplasms and blood/immune diseases) increased more quickly in the CSG area than in the other areas studied.
McCarron says that, in other jurisdictions, specifically the United States, an increased rate and severity of asthma attacks; increased hospitalisation for asthma, cardiac, neurological, and skin conditions; and an increased incidence of congenital heart defects, childhood leukaemia, low birth weight, and early infant death all correlated with the presence of the unconventional gas industry.
“International researchers have documented significant declines in air quality correlating with gas industry activities.”
In 2013, the Australian Medical Association warned that the health impacts of CSG had not been adequately researched, and effective regulations were not in place to protect public health.
In the same year, Queensland Health released a report on an investigation into the health complaints of Darling Downs residents, which stated that there was “some evidence” that might associate some of the residents’ symptoms with exposure to airborne contaminants arising from CSG activities.
Queensland Health recommended that the regulator, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP), monitor overall CSG emissions and the exposure of local communities to those emissions.
The DEHP acknowledged that it did not have access to data to allow for comparisons with the air quality objectives set out in the Environmental Protection Policy, but, despite this, said it found no cause to expand monitoring.
The regulator’s rejection of Queensland Health’s recommendations is of serious concern, McCarron says.
The CSG industry self-reports pollution figures to the NPI.
McCarron has noted many anomalies in the emissions figures reported by the gas companies. For example, she says, Santos consistently failed to report formaldehyde emissions while QGC, which undertook comparable activities, reported up to 219 tonnes per year.
“Although reporting is a statutory requirement, data are self-calculated (estimated, not measured) and are not reported below a threshold. It is difficult to know how such reporting could be audited. It is plausible that emissions have been substantially underestimated.”
In 2008/2009, Arrow gave detailed reports about a wide range of toxins, yet many were not reported in previous or following years.
In the same period, McCarron says, the levels of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen that were reported were significantly higher than those recorded in the preceding and following years.
“No explanation is apparent. After 2009/2010 several projects across the Darling Downs and South West no longer reported benzene, though previously reporting significant volumes.”
McCarron says the gas companies act on the assumption that pollutants will be dispersed in the surrounding air to “safe” levels and dilution is assumed to be the solution.
“Since there is an unexplained rise in hospitalisations for health conditions associated with exposure to CSG emissions coincident with the expansion of the industry, it is questionable whether this management strategy is effective,” she writes.
“Such a method for the neutralisation of harmful wastes largely ignores local environmental effects: large-volume point emissions, wind strength/direction and day/night temperature differences, which could lead to adverse levels of exposure.”
McCarron says air monitoring has been infrequent, ad hoc, episodic, and reactive.
“Often, air monitoring did not occur until weeks after the local community reported extreme pollution events, such as intense flaring.
“Monitoring and reporting practices for air quality appear inadequate to protect public health.”
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McCarron concludes: “Whilst the full range of factors underlying the escalating hospitalisation of Darling Downs’ residents for acute respiratory and circulatory conditions is unknown, the DDHHS statistics are significant and warrant full investigation as to causal factors.”
Vicki Perrin from the Lock the Gate Alliance national grassroots coalition told journalist Eve Sinton that McCarron’s research “must prompt the Queensland government to undertake 24-hour, real-time air quality monitoring in and around gas fields”.
The people living in the gas fields deserve open and transparent information, Perrin says.
The gas companies must be required to report, not just estimate, all their harmful emissions, she adds.
“The level of government ineptitude exposed here is staggering. The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection didn’t have the data, yet ignored Queensland Health’s recommendation,” Perrin told Sinton.
“The Queensland government has utterly failed in its duty of care, leaving locals to be guinea pigs in the gas field experiment.”
The new report was welcomed by the anti-CSG campaigners the “Knitting Nannas”.
Spokeswoman Karen Auty told Sinton, who is herself a Knitting Nanna: “Residents in the Chinchilla-Tara area have complained repeatedly to the Queensland government agencies and gas companies for years about the impacts they have experienced since the roll-out of the industry.
“The response has always been woefully inadequate and totally lacking in their duty of care with regards to public health.”
Auty said it now appeared that the government’s own records vindicated residents’ concerns.
“I can only hope that our government will accept their responsibility and move quickly, and with integrity, to address these issues.”
In a report about air pollution in the Darling Downs area, published in 2015, the author, Wayne Somerville, gives even higher figures for pollution in the Darling Downs.
Citing NPI data about reported emissions from twenty gas industry operations, he says that, in 2013-14, about 1,383 tonnes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), 13 tonnes of acetaldehyde, 2.2 tonnes of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX), 241 tonnes of formaldehyde, 8,788 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 12,189 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, and 2,325 tonnes of particulates were emitted into the air above the entire Darling Downs area.
On an average day during 2013/14, Somerville says, 3.79 tonnes of VOCs, more than 57.4 tonnes of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, and more than 6.37 tonnes of particulates were released into the air above the Darling Downs.
- The Darling Downs, west of the Great Dividing Range in southern Queensland, has long been noted for its robust, diversified agricultural industry and natural beauty. The Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service covers an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometres, with a catchment population of about 277,000 people.
There has been rapid development of coal seam gas exploitation, Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), and coal mining in pre-existing rural, farming, and small-town communities in the area, which is now often known by its geological name, the Surat Basin. UCG has now been banned in Queensland.
2. An abnormal sensation, typically tingling or pricking (“pins and needles”), caused chiefly by pressure on, or damage to, peripheral nerves.
The headline photo of flaring is by John Jenkyn and shows the twin field processing gas plants seven kilometres south of his house.
For the full story of the effect of coal seam gas exploitation on communities in the Darling Downs see my article “Australian landholders pit their strength against the might of the gas companies”.