Residents living near Cuadrilla’s fracking site in Lancashire have called for tougher action from the authorities.
At a meeting yesterday there were complaints that regulation of the Preston New Road site near Blackpool was fragmented and there was no overall control.
Residents who have been calling for radon monitoring said drilling should be delayed for six months so that baseline data could be collected.
There were allegations that planning conditions had been breached and calls for round-the-clock monitoring. One group of opponents said it would it was now watching the site 24-hours a day.
The meeting at Wrea Green brought together eight staff from the Environment Agency, along with officers from Lancashire County Council, Public Health England, Health and Safety Executive, Oil and Gas Authority and Fylde Borough Council.
Public Health England (PHE) gave details of its recent proposals to monitor for the radioactive gas, radon, in the air and homes around Preston New Road. (See DrillOrDrop report)
The organisation told residents it was now working on the arrangements and that letters should be sent to householders in about two weeks. PHE representatives said baseline data should be collected before drilling started and, ideally, over a period of six months.
But people living near Preston New Road said they were not reassured by the news.
They said the protocols used in North Yorkshire, which included six months of monitoring, must be applied to Lancashire. But this now looks unlikely. Cuadrilla has said it plans to start drilling in the second quarter of the year (April-June) and PHE confirmed it had no powers to delay operations because radon monitoring was not required under shale gas regulations.
PHE told residents that there was a low risk of exposure to radon from shale gas operations. But the residents argued there was no safe level of exposure to radon.
One resident said:
“I do not think that the powers-that-be have an interest in looking after this community.
“They cannot drill until they have the baseline data. Drilling needs to be postponed for six months.
“There is no mechanism for Cuadrilla to postpone drilling so it will not be a proper baseline. It is outrageous.”
Baseline radon data has already been collected in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, where Third Energy has permission to frack its well at Kirby Misperton. The research is part of a project co-ordinated by the British Geological Survey and is independent of monitoring required by the Environment Agency. The baseline data will be compared with results when fracking or production is underway.
Until recently there had been no plans to monitor radon at Preston New Road under a similar research project in Lancashire, which has been running since February 2015.
One person said: “[Radon monitoring] should have been started earlier” and a third person asked: “Who excluded Lancashire?”.
Preston New Road Action Group has also called for baseline monitoring for benzene, which has been detected in high concentrations in air around some fracking sites in the US.
Claire Stephenson from the group said:
“The government claims that ‘robust, gold-standard’ monitoring and regulation will be in place for fracking. There is still nothing to show for these claims, other than empty, meaningless rhetoric.”
The PHE said it may collect baseline data on benzene but it said the Environment Agency was responsible for regulation of the substance.
Alleged traffic breaches
Staff from Lancashire County Council acknowledged they had received complaints about lorries entering and leaving the Preston New Road site.
Some people said lorries had gone through the gates before the 7.30am start-time set in the traffic management plan.
Andy Mullaney, Lancashire’s head of planning, said:
“We have received a lot of complaints and allegations. But we have not received any evidence, any photographs or video”.
Bob Dennett, of Frack Free Lancashire, complained that the council would not accept the evidence of breaches collected by protesters at Preston New Road.
Mr Mullaney replied:
“If somebody provided evidence, we may use it to begin an investigation. It would be useful in starting the process. But to make a successful prosecution, we cannot rely on third party evidence. We don’t know whether the evidence is authentic or not.”
He added that Cuadrilla had to report breaches of the planning conditions and the council received information from the police.
But Mr Dennett said:
“This site needs to be monitored 24/7. Once again we are doing the regulators’ job for them and we are having to do the monitoring. This is totally unacceptable.
“We are gathering the evidence to get a stop order. We will be monitoring the site 24/7 and recording breaches.”
Mr Mullaney said a stop order was one of the most severe options open to the council. To pursue it, officers needed to demonstrate an immediate threat to public health or the environment. He said:
“We have to behave proportionately and reasonably. Where there is harm we will act but the first question is ‘is it a technical breach or has there been harm?’”
Mr Mullaney also countered accusations that the council did not have the resources to monitor Preston New Road. He said he was spending a third of his time on work connected to the site and another planning officer was spending two-thirds.
“We will do whatever it takes. Our monitoring is on a risk-based and proportionate basis. We can bring in more capacity. The allegation that we are strapped for cash or resources is not true.”
Mr Mullaney added that a council highways officer was “monitoring the situation” onsite approximately every couple of days, depending on what issues arose.
“Fragmented regulation” and “conflict of interest”
A resident of Carr Bridge Park, 1km from Preston New Road, said he was disappointed by the regulation so far:
“I don’t think we have made much progress over the years. The whole system is too fragmented. There is no overarching control.”
Tina Rothery, of the Lancashire Nanas anti-fracking group, said:
“The regulators are not working in a holistic way. They are working in separate departments.
“We have been going to meetings with regulations for years and nothing is any different today than it was in 2011. The amount of research has grown hugely since 2013 but they don’t seem to have absorbed it.”
Mike Hill, a chartered engineer and critic of the shale gas industry, suggested to the Oil and Gas Authority that its new responsibilities for regulation and selling revenue-raising exploration licences risked a conflict of interest. He said the OGA representative replied: “It’s been forced on us – it’s not ideal”.
Mr Hill responded: “Not ideal – it’s an absolute disgrace”.
The Environment Agency described the event, attended by 150-200 people, as positive and said many visitors had welcomed the opportunity to discuss the roles of the different regulators.
Mark Ellis-Jones, Onshore Oil & Gas Programme Project Executive, Environment Agency, said the event aimed not to change people’s minds about fracking but to explain what the rules were. He said:
“What can be required of Cuadrilla has to be proportionate and appropriate”.
One person said:
“I’m encouraged that people are coming. If all else fails it should bring across the strength of feeling in the local community”.
Another said he felt more confident having talked to an officer about the system to monitor seismicity induced by fracking.
But there was criticism of the drop-in format and the ability of representatives to answer questions.
One person said the room was too small. Another that it was too loud to hear answers easily.
Bob Dennett described the event as a “box-ticking exercise so that they can say they engaged with the communities”.
Tina Rothery said:
“The public have come with their questions that the people here are not capable of answering.”
Updated at 17.51 on 2/2/2017 to remove a section of this report following a conversation with the Environment Agency, during which the organisation stated that visitors were not required to sign in to the event .