Cuadrilla reassured after Government report describes fracking as low risk

LICHFIELD-based energy company Cuadrilla Resources says it is reassured after a Government health body said the risks to public health from fracking are low as long as operations are properly managed and regulated.

Public Health England (PHE) based its view on the “currently available evidence” but admits there is “little peer reviewed research”, basing much of the report on tests carried out in the US.

Environmentalists have long argued that fracking can pollute the water table and cause minor earthquakes.

The controversial shale gas extraction process carried out by Cuadrilla and other energy companies involves pumping large amounts of water, mixed with chemicals, underground at high pressure.

PHE looked at the chemicals used, the issue of air pollution around shale wells, and the risk of groundwater pollution. Its findings were welcomed by Cuadrilla even though the report acknowledges the threat of air and water pollution and questions the viability of using large quantities of water.

It said emissions from individual wells are low and unlikely to have an impact on air quality but the cumulative impact of a number of wells “may be locally and regionally significant”. The report also says that sourcing the large volumes of water required “may be difficult where water is scarce such as in drought or low rainfall conditions”.

When this water is pumped into the ground a significant amount is lost and between 10% and 70% returns to the surface as “flowback”. Its disposal may present “potential health risks due to the chemical constituents.

The report says: “Flowback water can be treated, recycled or stored. Some operators in the US have stored flowback water on site in man-made ponds or open pits, but stored water may evaporate which can increase the concentration of dissolved substances and so further increase the potential public health risks associated with storage on site.

“However, the UK regulatory approach is not expected to permit this practice.”

It adds: “There is also the risk of stored fracking fluids and flowback water entering nearby surface water bodies or infiltrating into the soil and near-surface ground water. Such leakage may potentially affect drinking water resources if formal accident and contingency plans are not in place.”

Flowback water from Cuadrilla’s site at Preese Hall, near Weeton in Lancashire, was analysed by the Environment Agency which found “high levels” of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as elevated values of lead, magnesium, zinc chromium and arsenic compared with the local mains water.

John Harrison, director of PHE’s centre for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards, said: “The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to emissions associated with the shale gas extraction process are low if operations are properly run and regulated.

“Good well construction and maintenance is essential to reduce the risks of ground water contamination.”

A Cuadrilla spokesperson said: “The report provides welcome reassurance to people about hydraulic fracturing and should dispel scaremongering about its safety.

“We are complying with all of the agency’s recommendations, such as the public disclosure of the contents of our fracturing fluid and environmental monitoring before, during and after our operations.”