22 January 2015

Scientist call to test Karoo drinking water before fracking starts

Health experts and anti-fracking advocates have issued an urgent call to test drinking water quality in the Karoo before proposed shale gas mining, which carries potential cancer risks, commences.

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) has officially announced its campaign to promote scientific analysis of drinking water on Karoo farms, given the potential risk of contamination with carcinogenic chemicals associated with the fracking process.

The announcement was made at a media briefing in Cape Town this week. Jonathan Deal, CEO of anti-fracking organisation Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), and eminent water expert Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector of Research at Stellenbosch University, were also present to voice their support for baseline water testing.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping large volumes of fluid at high pressure underground to force the release of natural gas deposits trapped in shale rock, may well get the go-ahead in the Karoo in the next couple of years.

Fracking is hailed by its proponents as a viable way to meet growing energy demands, but it has received considerable criticism in South Africa and internationally because of its numerous potential negative environmental and health impacts.

Of these, CANSA is focusing on the carcinogenic chemicals found in fracking fluid and their potential to harm local communities.

Speaking at the briefing, Dr Carl Albrecht, CANSA's Head of Research, said that toxic chemicals are typically added to fracking fluid to facilitate the amount of gas released from the rock. Of the 700-plus additives, over 100 are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors (implicated in developmental and reproductive problems).

These include the carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde, both linked among other negative health effects to leukaemia. Formaledehyde, said Albrecht, is a potent antiseptic, and is used as the cheapest way to prevent the fracking well pipe, and the cracks made in the shale, from getting “gummed up” with micro-organisms. In addition to its cancer-causing risk, a further concern with formaldehyde contamination in drinking water is that it may exacerbate bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Other hazardous chemicals, such as the heavy metals cadmium and lead, are released by the hydraulic fracturing process itself.

Fracking wells generally pass through aquifers, which they can contaminate with chemicals (yellow in image) if leaks in the well casing occur. Image: Shutterstock.

Wells drilled for fracking usually pass through aquifers; the groundwater these contain supply drinking water in many areas. The concern is that the carcinogens in the fracking fluid will spill into the aquifer and contaminate it because of leaks in the well casing. Over 1000 such spills have been recorded in the United States, causing drinking water contamination and cases of respiratory and neurological damage.

Spills aside, Albrecht pointed out that contaminated wastewater from the fracking process needs to be disposed of, and, he said, “There is no clarity how this will happen in the Karoo.”

Why baseline testing is essential

Albrecht stressed the importance of conducting initial baseline tests on water quality before fracking commences, so that these can be used as evidence for comparison should contamination to aquifers occur afterwards.

“Cases in the US with people seeking compensation for pollution have been thrown out of court because there haven't been proper baseline data. There is loss of value of the aquifer, and the farm on which it depends – if you kill the drinking water, you kill the farm – but without a baseline study the farmer or community affected doesn't have a leg to stand on.”

CANSA has already lead the charge for baseline testing by taking samples of drinking water from a borehole 14 km outside the Karoo town of Cradock in March 2014. No unexpected compounds were found; this “flat” baseline can now be used for comparison should fracking, and possible water pollution, take place nearby. The baseline data results are available here.

As well as putting future potential complainants in a stronger position legally, said Albrecht, “It’s hoped this initiative will induce fracking companies to conduct their operations with the greatest of care and protect the Karoo, plants, animals and humans from carcinogenic harm.”

Professor Cloete stressed that South Africa can ill afford further risks posed to water quality by fracking, as the situation in the country is already grave: “Ten million of our people do not have access to safe water and sanitation. We need to safeguard every clean drop.”

Hold fracking companies accountable

Jonathan Deal pointed out that South Africa's current legislation and draft regulations around fracking do not cover baseline monitoring at all adequately.

Together with TKAG, CANSA has compiled a set of recommendations for fracking companies and government going forward. Legislation, say these organisations, should require fracking companies to have baseline and further monitoring tests conducted.

Furthermore, they must release all analytical data gathered before, during and after fracking to the Department of Water Affairs as well as an independent non-profit organisation such as CANSA, which will make the information publicly available.

Fracking companies should also publish comprehensive, publicly available information about chemicals added to fracking fluid before authorisation of fracking activities is given.

Jonathan Deal summed this up as follows: “The burden of proof should be on the developer and the government, not on the man in the street, to show that fracking can be conducted without significant health implications, and also that it offers sustainable economic benefits.”

Also read:

Fracking may be as bad for our health as tobacco and asbestos
Chemists in big push to make chemicals safer
Beware of Benzene


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