OPINION: Fracking concerns for cattle

AGL’s coal seam gas well in Gloucester. Picture: Ryan Osland
AGL’s coal seam gas well in Gloucester. Picture: Ryan Osland

AGL has been cleared to resume coal seam gas activities near Gloucester, but doubt is cast on the co-existence of mining and agriculture in a new book, The Human and Environmental Impact of Fracking,  edited by Madelon Finkel, a professor of healthcare policy at Cornell in New York. 

This is particularly relevant to cattle farming, which occurs in the Gloucester Valley.

In November 2014, AGL fracked the four exploratory CSG wells in the Waukivory Pilot Gas Project. 

 Subsequently, residents were informed of the presence of  BTEX, suggesting a migration of  fracking chemicals and coal seam water, and most recently hydrogen sulphide in wells suggesting activity of bacteria, which can cause well failure. 

Investigations were instigated in January, and this week AGL was cleared by government investigations to proceed under tighter licence conditions.

Pumping of water and flaring gas from the wells was halted during this time, but pressure had built up with emergency flaring reinstated. A trial of spraying waste water on pasture has taken place (and been halted). Most recently, instead of sending toxic flowback water to a licensed agent, AGL is proposing to store it in an open dam 400metres from Dog Trap Creek.

Discussion so far has mostly been about human health risks, particularly following the detection of BTEX, which includes the carcinogen benzene. The above book initially highlights endocrine-disrupting chemicals, animal health and then food safety. These issues have hardly been mentioned so far in discussions involving the Gloucester Gas Project.

Though most evidence about fracking in the US has been obtained in relation to shale gas, the same toxins are found with CSG fracking. The chief difference is that the more intense fracking necessary for shale gas results in higher concentrations of the various chemical toxins and a greater risk of contaminants from the surrounding rock.  Chemicals that are still harmful at low concentrations thus deserve particular attention with CSG.

Drilling and fracking requires the injection of chemicals, many of which have been found to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC).  Many of these chemicals are high potency, active in low concentrations, and so may have particular relevance for CSG wells. The complex  geology of the Gloucester Valley requires  fracking to be used more extensively than some other localities.

Though Gloucester Valley residents have complained about the absence of a two-kilometre buffer zone, making air pollution more likely to harm humans here, the situation for stock is that they can have even greater proximity to wells than humans.

The endocrine glands produce hormones that control many body processes such as growth, fertility, foetal development and milk production, so they are of key interest to dairy and beef farmers. Much of the farming effort involves carefully monitoring and maximising these aspects of animal health.

In the book mentioned  clinical endocrinologist Adam Law writes: “EDCs may interfere with these systems and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and animals. ... Of special concern are effects on early development of both humans and wildlife because these effects are often irreversible and may not become evident until later in life.” 

Much secrecy and uncertainty exists about the exact composition of drilling and fracking fluids and so the US Environment Protection Authority has an extensive screening and testing system for detecting chemicals with EDC activity. We do not have this in Australia.

In the presence of such uncertainty, CSG mining should not be occurring in dairy and beef-producing areas such as the Gloucester Valley.

If there is a paucity of research into the effects of unconventional gas extraction on human health, there is even less on the impact on animals (wildlife, companion animals and farm animals).  

These animals in the past have often acted as the ‘‘sentinels’’ of potential dangers for humans. The practice of spraying waste-produced water on pastures rings alarm bells for food animals.

In beef cattle exposed to sulphur dioxide, benzene and toluene there has been increased calf mortality, respiratory lesions and depressed immune function in live-born calves.

This prompted vet and researcher Dr Michelle Bamberger and Professor of Molecular Medicine at Cornell  Robert Oswald to study health effects on farm animals in six states in the US.

They observed farmers and their animals sharing many similar health symptoms. Professor Finkel found milk production and the number of cows both reduced in areas with unconventional gas extraction. 

Dr Bamberger and Professor Oswald conclude that:  ‘‘Because industrial operations are often located on agricultural land, crops from exposed fields; milk, meat, and eggs from exposed animals; and fish from exposed waterways may be contaminated and should not be made available for human consumption without careful monitoring.’’

Steve Robinson is a member of Groundswell Gloucester