KwaZulu-Natal - SA’s top water research body has warned the government to think carefully about the serious risk of water pollution from cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive compounds from future underground “fracking” operations across huge swathes of the country.
A new report by the state-funded Water Research Commission says shale gas rock-fracturing (fracking) will not only happen in remote sections of the Karoo. In fact, the government had already issued fracking exploration permits in six of the nine provinces, including a massive chunk of southern KwaZulu-Natal stretching almost as far north as Pietermaritzburg.
The scientists note that future fracking, at depths 4km below the earth’s surface, could be over a much wider area of the country – including most of the high-lying areas south of latitude 29°C in KZN (a line which starts at Mtunzini in the east and stretches inland past Estcourt towards Bloemfontein and Kimberley).
The report also identifies a number of risks to human health, water and the natural environment from fracking wells. These risks included:
- Widespread pollution of groundwater, rivers and lakes with dozens of cancer-causing fracking compounds and other “highly toxic” pollutants such as benzene, hydrochloric acid and isopropanol.
- Accidental release of underground uranium and other radioactive elements into the water and soil.
- Underground mini-earthquakes, cave-ins and land subsidence.
- Privatisation of parks and other state land where the public is excluded from fracking land and gas fields for safety reasons.
- Above-ground air pollution from methane and other shale gas wells.
- Lower property values.
However, water pollution is the main emphasis of the 84-page Water Research Commission report by Gideon Steyl (University of the Free State chemistry department), Gerrit van Tonder (University of the Free State Institute for Groundwater Studies) and Luc Chevallier (Council for Geoscience).
The scientists note that gas-drilling companies in the US have been trying to hide the toxic nature of many fracking chemicals.
However, the commission cites a report from the US House of Representatives last year which identified at least 29 commonly used fracking chemicals that were known or probable cancer-causing agents, or were regulated as hazardous to drinking water and air.
These chemicals are mixed with water and pumped underground at very high pressure to fracture and crack the rock formations to release buried pockets of methane and other gas formed millions of years ago from rotting mounds of mud, vegetation, algae and other organic matter.
Some chemicals included benzene (a known cancer-causing chemical) along with a variety of acids and petroleum products.
A study by the University of Buffalo in the US last year also raised concern about the possible release of underground uranium and other radioactive compounds when rocks are cracked up with hydrochloric acid.
Another US study published last year showed that the methane gas level in underground drinking water was generally 17 times higher in fracking areas compared with well water where no fracking took place.
However, Steyl and his colleagues voiced dismay over the difficulty in tracking down truly unbiased international studies on the impacts of fracking, since most were done by industry and private interests.
Even official US government reports claiming no damage to public health or the environment stood in contradiction to numerous adverse reports by US citizens and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The commission researchers note that a single fracking event in a single well used the same amount of water needed to irrigate eight to 10ha of maize during a growing season.
Every time a well was fracked, large volumes of chemicals were added to the water-pressure mixture. Although chemicals only made up between 0.5 and 2 percent of the mixture, the volume of hazardous chemicals in a single fracking event could total between 34 000 and 136 000 litres.
Even if just 1 percent of dangerous fracking chemicals leaked out of the concrete well drillings during a single fracking, Steyl estimated that 490 litres of hazardous chemicals could contaminate underground water. This could pose “serious hazards” to the environment and to underground water drunk by people and livestock.
Despite these concerns, the scientists appear to recognise that fracking is a fait accompli and they have listed a set of 10 recommendations to limit harm. They include compulsory “full disclosure” of every chemical used. Any fracking well should be at least 10km away from residential areas to reduce chemical exposure risks.
All drilling records should be freely available to the public, and a thorough baseline study should be done to measure pre-fracking quality of water, soil and air by an “unbiased” body such as a university.
Legal action should also be taken against any drilling company after a first offence. They should be forced to clean up damage, and be banned from future fracking in SA. However, even in the US, there were fewer than 10 inspectors to monitor more than 3 500 fracking wells in Pennsylvania. - The Mercury