Beetaloo gas field: Resurrect health impact assessments to save lives

Sep 21, 2022
Gas flare

Our new government walks both sides of the street on fossil fuels.

Humanity is slowly realising that our development away from an ecological way of life sustained for billions of years ‘carries urgent responsibilities to respect, heal and sustain nature. Because we fail to understand that our health and the natural environment are inseparable, we are damaging our personal and collective health.

This has become an issue of survival because increasing scientific evidence indicates climate change is becoming self-perpetuating; and yet our new government walks both sides of the street on fossil fuels.

This failure is evident from the recent history of environmental protection legislation in Australia.

The EPBC Act 2001 placed little credence on the concept of environment and health being indivisible. In the past two decades, attempts to legislate for protection of biodiversity and human health together have been an anathema to government, and environmental and medical organisations are very slow to embrace the concept.

In the Act, public health issues resulting from environmental damage were significantly divested to the states and territories to manage as a small part of their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of resource approvals.

In his wide ranging and thorough review of the Act, Professor Graeme Samuel detailed a litany of defects in environmental protection but mentioned human health only in passing – being outside his terms of reference. However he noted a bilateral state and Commonwealth agreement in the Act allowing the accreditation of State and Territory laws and management systems to serve development assessments and approvals.

He said, “The proportion of projects covered by an assessment bilateral agreement is limited, because not all State and Territory processes can deliver an adequate assessment of matters that are protected under the EPBC Act. This is largely due to a lower standard, or absence, of a process for certain impacts, in State and Territory arrangements”.

These are circumspect words for the fact that many assessments and approvals are not considering significant health implications, leaving them quietly ignored by the states and territories. This avoidance was explained in a 2013 report which concluded,

“In their zeal for economic growth and revenue, State Governments approve project development with scant regard for human health. They have a conflict of interest between budget bottom line and the health of their citizens. Health departments are poorly resourced and there is a lack of a consistency in approach and application of Health Impact Assessment (HIA) across Australia leaving some communities less protected than others. Decision making is not always transparent, proponents are not required to be accountable for impacts on communities and formalised appeals processes are not available”.

Let us be clear these malfeasances have resulted in many deaths, illness, community discordance, legal cases delaying projects and roadblocks against progress on Aboriginal reconciliation.

The basis for this distressing situation lies in the well-documented infiltration of governments by fossil fuel lobbyists whereby perceived economic need has overridden consideration of both climate change health impacts and the ill health from air, water and land polluting industries.

Health Impact Assessment (HIA) can richly support Environmental Impact Assessment but is neglected by the states. It is a collaborative public health process based on careful scientific and community assessment of possible harms, their risks and methods of prevention. Clean air, clean water and nutritious, uncontaminated food and ecological services are crucial contributors to good public health and all may be adversely affected by resource development.

In his report Samuel notes that “particularly important amendments to the EPBC Act are needed to:

  • enable the Commonwealth to complete an assessment and approval if a State or Territory is unable to do so
  • ensure agreements can endure minor amendments to State and Territory settings, rather than requiring the bilateral agreement to be remade or amended settings to be re-accredited (and consequently be subject to disallowance by the Australian Parliament on each occasion)”.

Currently the HIA process is rarely used when it should be. The decision is usually made by the same state department that is responsible for the EIA. The opinions of health officials, experts and communities are not necessarily sought before making this decision and outcomes often not reported.

The monitoring process of the health impacts of operations is also badly flawed. It is usually the responsibility of the proponent to fund pollution monitoring, but with no responsibility to identify impacts on people. This makes the limited monitoring less independent, and decreases public transparency.

The failure of the EPBC to address the environmental and human health aspects of climate change carry some responsibility for the impacts of increasing drought, floods, bushfires, heat, injuries and death of both humans and biodiversity.

Responsibility also rests with successive Australian governments for failing to understand the importance of protecting health. Health services are overstretched due to Covid but consultations and hospital admissions could be reduced by prevention actions. We spend $100 billion a year on curative health services, and just $2 billion on preventative health measures; much less than other OECD countries.

Australian air quality guidelines are inadequate by WHO standards, allowing states to avoid taking human exposure to air pollution seriously and focus solely on economic development.

Today, threats to human health and wellbeing, evident in most gas, oil and coal developments around the nation are inadequately assessed without HIAs. The impacts are social division, prolonged legal cases brought by communities and further damage to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and culture.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the proposed oil and gas development in the NT. There is now a large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence of multiple harms produced by respected North American researchers. This evidence confirms that this intensely industrialising activity sprawling across vast lands carries direct and/or indirect implications for health and wellbeing of people: locally, regionally and globally.

Our submission to the Reopened Senate Inquiry regarding the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program reviewed this literature.

Locally, gas developments bring fear, uncertainty, anger, disagreement and community division. Traditional Owners and residents are distressed about damage to integrity of their Lands, massive truck movements and influx of strangers threatening the safety of women and children.

Research shows that people living closer to gas developments experience higher rates of social, psychological and mental health disturbances, asthma, heart attacks and heart failure, blood cancers, birth defects, traffic accidents and all-cause mortality. US research also links low socioeconomic status and exposure to these risks –nowhere in Australia could this inequity be more evident than amongst Aboriginal communities in remote NT.

Regional concerns include water insecurity and contamination, especially of across the interconnected underground and flooded surface waters of the NT. Research confirms many such chemicals of concern, including endocrine disrupting chemicals. Furthermore, gas developments emit methane and particulate matter, increasing ground level ozone levels and exacerbating respiratory diseases.

Progressing with major development in the Beetaloo and beyond would knowingly emit very large carbon dioxide and methane emissions at a time when our very survival depends on rapid reductions. It denies our international obligations.

Denial of science has propelled inadequate action on climate change; unfortunately the Beetaloo assessments illustrate a denial of medical science which adds to humanity’s peril.

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