SAFETY ISSUES: Dr Rowena Knoesen is concerned about the potential health effects of CSG mining in the Northern Rivers.
SAFETY ISSUES: Dr Rowena Knoesen is concerned about the potential health effects of CSG mining in the Northern Rivers.

CSG mining and your health

RICHARD Shields, who is the external relations manager for the mining company Metgasco, believes so firmly in the safety of CSG mining he has drunk the produced water from Metgasco's holding ponds near Casino.

"It hasn't hurt me," he told The Echo. "Except for the salt content, which is one tenth that of ocean water, the produced water pretty well meets Australian drinking water standards."

Despite his company's assurances and Mr Shields' choice of drink, the imminent profusion of CSG mining on the North Coast has raised fears about potential health effects, especially after a rise in the number of people near Tara in Queensland presenting with symptoms consistent with gas-exposure.

Australian Medical Association Queensland's Dr Christian Rowan says the association is aware of a concerning number of patients who claim CSG activities are making them sick.

"A number of people live near where CSG exploration is occurring and they are reporting symptoms that are consistent to gas exposure," Dr Rowan said.

Those symptoms include rashes, bleeding noses, severe headaches and vomiting.

The Tara estate has five coal seam gas wells within it and many around it, but Queensland Health says it does not believe coal seam gas exploration is causing the health problems.

As far as the idea that the headaches, nausea and nose bleeds are linked to gas leaks from coal seam gas production in the Tara area, the CSG industry association - the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association - believes that the "industry has operated in Queensland for nearly 20 years and methane has been seeping naturally in the Surat Basin for more than 100 years. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest the two are linked."

The CSG industry in the Northern Rivers is less advanced than in Queensland but some residents are concerned about possible health effects as the wells multiply.

The Echo talked with Dr Rowena Knoesen who until very recently lived in Clunes and worked at Lismore Base Hospital as an anaesthetist.

Dr Knoesen is a member of Doctors for the Environment - an Australia-wide group of concerned doctors. She has just moved to Sale in Victoria with her husband and two young children.

"I'm hoping that because the gas industry here (in Victoria) is a couple of years behind Queensland and northern NSW, the people here can speak out and make a difference while there's still time," Dr Knoesen said. "There's a meeting about CSG tomorrow in Sale. I'm going to that. I'm prepared to speak out."

A major problem for doctors dealing with potential health threats from CSG mining, according to Dr Knoesen, is the non-disclosure of the chemicals being used in the fracking process.

"The chemicals in fracking fluid are a trade secret," she said. "The non-disclosure agreement means that mining companies don't have a requirement to disclose what chemicals they use or to do any environmental impact statements. These chemicals do end up in the air, water and soil."

Mr Shields disagrees, telling The Echo that Metgasco has only fracked once and all chemicals used were listed and presented to the State Government.

But in 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald's environment editor Ben Cubby wrote, "In NSW documents obtained from the Department of Industry and Investment show that a coal seam gas drilling site near Lismore, run by the Sydney company Metgasco, was permitted to use fracking after supplying a generic list of hazardous materials safety guidelines."

Mr Cubby also asserted, "Emails between department staff and Metgasco show that testing for coal seam gas using fracking can go ahead without approval being sought or required from the Environment Department."

Human health effects depend on dose, the chemical mix, and the type and duration of exposure, Dr Knoesen explained. Thus the need to know what chemicals are involved.

"Because I don't know what we're dealing with, I, as a community doctor, don't know how to help people who are exposed."

Doctors for the Environment are very concerned about adverse effects on health from CSG mining, she said. They submitted statements to the NSW parliamentary enquiry on CSG. But without adequate information and regulation, they're working in the dark.

"The whole business needs tighter regulation," Dr Knoesen said. "We need to put pressure on the government to provide information so we know what we're dealing with.

"If there's nothing to hide, why hide it? If the illnesses presenting up at Tara are not from CSG then why not reveal what chemicals are being used?"

On a personal note, Dr Knoesen admits the battle to maintain people's right to a healthy life in the face of huge mining interests can sometimes be overwhelming. She takes comfort from Tim Flannery who believes some change is better than no change at all - and that the small change is worth fighting for.

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