Technical terms in fracking consultation “misled the public” over harm from chemicals

pnr 190212 Ros Wills

Tankers at Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road, near Blackpool, 12 February 2019. Photo: Ros Wills

People have been excluded from a public consultation over fracking chemicals by the use of technical language, an industrial chemist has complained.

Dr Duncan Coppersthwaite, a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a chartered chemist, accused the Environment Agency, which organised the consultation, of failing to provide a fair and open process.

His complaint centres on Cuadrilla’s use of the phrase “non-hazardous” for two additives it wants to use in fracking at its Preston New Road site near Blackpool.

DrillOrDrop reported last month that a public consultation was underway on the company’s application to vary its environmental permit.

In the non-technical summary that accompanied the application, Cuadrilla described the substances as “non-hazardous” to groundwater.

Dr Coppersthwaite, who lives in Kirkham, about five miles from the Preston New Road site, said the use of this phrase was “entirely technical”.

It had been used correctly in the context of environmental legislation, he said. But it was not true in the context of potential harm to people and the environment.

Dr Coppersthwaite said:

“People would be forgiven for believing that something that is described as non-hazardous would be safe, benign or harmless and it would be entirely reasonable to conclude that it was incapable of causing harm to people or the environment.”

But he said:

“Under current environmental legislation … it merely means that such a substance does not meet the high levels of toxicity, environmental persistence and bio-accumulation for it to be classified as a hazardous substance.

“This means that a substance classified as non-hazardous in the context of environmental legislation can be extremely harmful to both public health and the environment.”

Dr Coppersthwaite said the hazards listed for one of the proposed additional chemicals included “Toxic if swallowed”, “Causes severe skin burns and eye damage”, “Fatal if inhaled” and “Very toxic to aquatic life”. But he said no such hazards were presented in the application.

He said:

“While Cuadrilla might be forgiven for allowing the public to misunderstand the term non-hazardous in the context of their application, we should all be concerned that the Environment Agency has allowed such an omission to be released for public consultation.

“The Environment Agency has allowed the public to be misled into believing that the proposed additives are safe, benign or harmless and in doing so, has excluded large sections of the public from the consultation process. We should expect much better from the regulator charged with protection and enhancement of the environment.”

Official guidelines say public consultation documents should use “non-technical language as much as possible, avoiding technical terms, detailed data and scientific discussion”.

The audience for Cuadrilla’s permit variation consultation was described as “anyone from any background”.

Dr Coppersthwaite said people were likely to have concluded that the additional chemicals would have no risks and they would be discouraged from commenting on the consultation.

“By allowing Cuadrilla to use the term non-hazardous without defining its meaning in the context of the application, the Environment Agency has excluded large sections of the public from contributing to this consultation and has failed to provide a fair and open process.

“I strongly suggest that the application is rejected and only reconsidered when the non-technical summary is written in language which is accessible to “anyone from any background”.

DrillOrDrop invited the Environment Agency and Cuadrilla to respond to the criticism.

Nick Mace, Cuadrilla’s  environment manager, said:

“We are happy that the details included in the documents submitted to the Environment Agency are in line with the regulatory requirement as part of our application to vary the fracturing fluid used at our shale gas exploration site in Preston New Road.”

We’ll update this post any response from the Environment Agency

The consultation closes on 20 March 2019. Documents and consultation form

12 replies »

  1. The header to this thread is misleading. It should include the word “potential” in the context of harm. I am surprised Dr Coppersthwaite has raised what he considers to be technical issue in this way. I suspect his motivation is really that he is against fracking, which is a view he is entitled to, rather than what he is flagging here. I suggest the public go very carefully through all the chemicals they use domestically & cosmetically -where they are directly exposed to such substances before getting over anxious about fracking fluids. Regarding the public going about their lawful activities & risk of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals outside there domestic environment they should take a keen interest in such issues as screen wash, which even if they chose to avoid using it themselves, they are likely to be directly exposed to via inhalation & skin contact whilst using the public highway, or being in the vicinity of such.

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