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Public health regulators ill equipped to police fracking

Stuart Spear12/10/2016 - 16:08

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New research will fuel protests against fracking
New research will fuel protests against fracking

Regulatory bodies including local authorities are ill equipped to properly assess the public health risks posed by fracking according to new research published this week.

The research from Stirling University explores existing evidence looking at regulation and industry practice from a public health perspective. Its findings raise a serious question mark over Government claims that regulators such as the Environment Agency, HSE and local government will be able to ensure the safety of fracking.

First joint co-author of the report and head of occupational and environmental health at Stirling, Professor Andrew Watterson, said: ‘A constant refrain from a number of UK inquiries into fracking and from the industry itself is that everything will be fine as long as there is robust regulation and good industry practice. The evidence to support this view from our analysis is remarkably thin and nor is it supported in any way by Westminster’s current de-regulatory regime.’

In particular Prof Watterson questions whether the resources available to local government are sufficient for the potential task ahead.

 ‘Our focus is very much public health so the environmental health aspect is strongly in the report when looking at air pollution, water pollution, noise and dust so all the things EHOs deal with,’ points out Prof Watterson.

‘We believe there is a major issue about regulators understanding fracking so they can control or even identify the problems and there are big issues from our point of view about the capacity of regulators to check the development and for monitoring and inspection to occur.’

The review looks at scientific and academic papers along with professional, government agency, industry and industry funded reports. Each case study is examined from the perspective of public health and regulation.

The review warns: ‘These reports frequently fail to draw on independent expertise in the fields of public health, fail to adequately explore different regulatory systems and their drivers, and do not deal with evidence of industry malpractice. These are all areas that should be essential to any rigorous assessment of past and future fracking activity.’

Gary McFarlane, director of CIEH Northern Ireland, said: ‘The point made in this report concerning the capacity and resources within regulatory agencies in the UK is a fundamental and salutary one and something that CIEH has been warning government on for some time,’

It also looks at experiences in America arguing that the conventional view that regulatory standards in the USA are generally weak is false. The report highlights comparatively high public health standards covering fracking set out by a number of federal health and safety bodies including the USA Environmental Protection Agency. This undermines the Government argument that fracking will be much more tightly controlled in the UK.

The review is likely to fuel protests about last week’s decision by communities secretary Sajid Javid to overturn Lancashire County Council’s decision to reject Cuadrilla’s application to drill and hydraulically fracture four wells at Preston New Road in the Fylde area.

Responding to the Stirling University review a Health and Safety Executive spokesperson said: ‘HSE has sufficient resource to enforce the current stage of unconventional gas exploration. We have recently recruited new wells specialists and will continue to review resource demands should the industry start to develop further.

‘HSE has also been allocated an extra £500k per year to 2020 to help meet the demands of the initial phase of unconventional gas exploration. This is being used to upskill existing specialist inspectors, so increasing the number available for us to respond to associated demands and to increase engagement with communities near potential well sites.’

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: ‘We take the environmental risks associated with oil and gas exploration and production very seriously, including hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. We are committed to ensuring that people and the environment are protected.

 ‘Our regulatory controls are in place to protect people and the environment. If the activity poses an unacceptable risk to the environment, the activity will not be permitted.’

The CIEH has been calling for regulatory services to be adequately resourced with the independence and expertise necessary to ensure public safety, public health and public confidence.

‘The bottom line is that that ultimately requires appropriately qualified and competent professionals which our members are,’ said McFarlane.

‘The reality is that current environmental health capacity within many English Local Authorities in particular have already been significantly reduced through central government funding cuts. They are already struggling to deliver an effective system of public protection. The same is true in other central government health protection services.’

The Stirling university research is titled A rapid evidence assessment of regulation and regulatory practices involved in fracking and it public health implications.  

The review's conclusions:

  • The evidence base for robust regulation and good industry practice is currently absent. There are multiple serious challenges surrounding location, scale, monitoring and data deficits facing regulators overseeing onshore UGE and fracking in the UK.
  • The evidence from peer-reviewed papers suggests fracking in the UK will not be effectively regulated. It is highly likely that regulatory agencies may lack the staffing and resources necessary to monitor and enforce effective regulation of the industry;
  • US and UK peer-reviewed analyses and EU law identify both the precautionary principle and prevention as keys to dealing with fracking. This is underpinned by findings from the peer-reviewed public health literature that already identifies significant hazards and major potential risks from the industry. 

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