Residents’ worries over silica regulation on fracking site

People living near Cuadrilla’s Lancashire fracking site have reacted with concern following news that the Health and Safety Executive is facing questions from MPs about its monitoring of silica sand.

Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site near Blackpool, 27 April 2020. Photo: Maxine Gill

DrillOrDrop reported today that the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is seeking answers after an 18-month investigation reported shortcomings in regulation of the Preston New Road site, near Blackpool.

The investigation by Dr Barbara Kneale, a consultant in occupational medicine, and Dennis May, an industrial health and safety practitioner, revealed that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):

  • Carried out no site inspections during fracking at Preston New Road, despite a previous commitment to do so
  • Did not report on the management of silica sand after other site inspections
  • Did not review the risk of exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica, which can cause lung cancer, because it had “finite resources” and RCS was not regarded as “major accident hazard potential”

More details in DrillOrDrop report

The HSE confirmed it was preparing a response to a letter from the committee chairman, the MP Stephen Timms. An HSE spokesperson said: “It would not be appropriate to comment until this has been issued.”

Nick Danby from Frack Free Lancashire said:

“From the very start, we have received assurances from Ministers, from the industry and from the various regulators that fracking would be subjected to the closest scrutiny. We were told repeatedly that there would be “gold standard” regulation.

“The truth is that Cuadrilla have largely been allowed to mark their own homework and that, when there have been breaches, the sanctions have amounted to little more than a very light slap on the wrist.

“As regards to the issue of silica, we have expressed regular concerns about safe handling and secure storage but our concerns have not been taken seriously. It is now clear that HSE has relied upon information provided by Cuadrilla and has not been proactive in assessing and managing any risk.”

Miranda Cox, member of the Preston New Road community liaison group, told DrillOrDrop:

“I am deeply concerned about the impact that silica sand may have had on workers at the Preston New Road site.

“This highlights, yet again, the fact that the regulatory bodies are not up to the job.

“Operations on the site are taken on trust because the regulators are under-resourced. The regulators need to be properly resourced.

“In the early stages of fracking, the company and our MP were trying to tell the community that the regulations would be gold standard. But as a community we knew they would not and we have been proved right again.”

Susan Holliday, chair of Preston New Road Action Group, said:

“It is worrying to find out that the strict regulation that we believed was in place at PNR was not being adhered to in the stringent manner that we would have hoped by the HSE.

“It is obviously a health concern for those working on the site, but equally so for those of us living close by, as these tiny silica particles will also have potentially been distributed in the air that we breathe.

“It remains a concern that this silica sand is still stored on the site in sacks some of which are deteriorating and some of which are open.”

Dr Frank Rugman, a retired consultant haematologist who lives near the Preston New Road site, said:

“Local residents will be grateful to my colleague Dr Kneale, who has performed a great service, by revealing the total failure of the HSE to regulate or control the potential hazard of Respirable Crystalline Silica at Preston New Road.

“These dangerous ultra-fine particles may be carried on the wind to nearby local homes with the potential to cause fatal damage to the lungs of residents.

“This latest revelation only confirms the worst fears of the local community at Little Plumpton.

“For our peace of mind, the Cuadrilla PNR site must now be immediately decommissioned and returned to safe agricultural land.”

In a reply to the community liaison group meeting in December 2020, Cuadrilla said it was continuing to remove sand from Preston New Road when it was safe to do so. The company said there was no threat to air quality. Monitoring by the Environment Agency had not detected sand-related issues, it said.

24 replies »

  1. Drilling substances, such as silica or crystalline quartz and cristobalite, used as weight additives and bridging agents, are known to be carcinogenic with the primary malignancy associated with exposure through inhalation. Exposure to respirable crystalline silica, as experienced in the fracking Industry, is known to cause silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases, pulmonary disease and chronic kidney disease.1 The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a Hazard Alert, in 2012, identifying exposure to airborne silica as a health hazard to workers in the UG industry.2
    While workers experience the most direct exposure, silica dust may also be an air contaminant of concern to nearby residents.3

    1 NIOSH Hazard Review, Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. National Toxicology Program [2012]. Report on carcinogens 12th ed. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
    3 Seth B.C. Shonkoff, Jake Hays,and Madelon L. Finkel, (2014) Environmental Public Health Dimensions of Shale and Tight Gas Development, Environ Health Perspect; Vol 22: 8 DOI:10.1289/ehp.1307866 6 World Health Organization/International Programme…

    • Dr Frank, the risk of exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica (RSC) is not just limited to fracking and can occur in many industries including construction, demolition, quarrying, slate mining and slate processing, potteries, ceramics and ceramic glaze manufacture, brick and tile manufacture, foundries, refractory production and refractory installation, concrete product manufacture, monumental and architectural masonry manufacture, stone fireplace and
      kitchen worktop manufacture, grit and abrasive blasting etc.

      Unfortunately this report doesn’t mention the UK regulations in place to prevent and reduce exposure to RSC, but more importantly the report and the investigation featured in it, do not appear to address if and how those regulations were implemented and regulated.

      Download a free copy –

      • John Harrison: The full confidential report has not been published and as far as I am aware you have not seen it. This article refers to the letter sent by the DWP committee as a result of our report and references only parts of it . I can assure you that relevant H and S regulations were cited.

  2. It’s about time the inadequacies of oversight and regulation of the fracking industry were brought to light. Well done for the tireless work.

    • Thanks John,
      Yes, of course, I am well aware of the history and prevalence of silicosis as an industrial disease.
      But close residents are understandably concerned now, because they are being forced to live 24/7 about 300 meters from the site.
      Moreover, ”silica sand is still stored on the site in sacks, some of which are deteriorating and some of which are open.”
      Perhaps we should just hope that the wind always blows away from these homes ?
      It would be far better if the Cuadrilla PNR site should now be immediately decommissioned and returned to safe agricultural land.

      • There will be other studies, but here is one relating to the mining (quarrying) of such sand and its impact on the surroundings. Concerned locals could read this as a starter. If the site stored bags of foundry sand, would there be as much concern?

        The UK produces around 4 million tonnes of such sand per year at various quarries around the country, this is without there being an HPHV fracking industry in place.

        Click to access UK%20Frac%20Sand%20Resources.pdf

        My gut feel is that the sand will not be going anywhere in a hurry, but that it should be stored in an appropriate manner until removed, but sand storage is not specific to fracking- of course.

        • Hewes62;
          Thanks, but I am not convinced that local residents will be reassured by your ‘gut-feel’.
          (Nor would those of us who may have made peer-reviewed contributions to medical research)

          The paper you cite also states: ”short-term elevated PM concentrations occurred when wind blew over the facility… aerosolized sand was shown to produce respirable-sized particles, containing 6% to 19% crystalline silica …several excursions were observed for PM10 when winds blew over the facility.”

          As for ‘stored in an appropriate manner’
          As a close resident observes: ”this silica sand is still stored on the site in sacks some of which are deteriorating and some of which are open.”

          • Monitoring by the Environment Agency has not detected sand related issues at the site. However, if local residents are concerned about the storage conditions on the site, they can contact the HSE to investigate if the manner and methods the sand is stored under still meet the requirements of the COSHH regulations.

      • But many residents very local to Preston New Road were happy to accept very small inconvenience payments from Cuadrilla rather than help local activists legally fight against them when requested!
        They cannot have it both ways!
        Also may I point out that earthquake damage was caused to people’s homes well beyond the Cuadrilla payout area
        and nobody gives a toss.
        Worryingly these same local residents are not raising stink with the esteemed Gold Standard Monitors and Lancashire County Council about the continued presence of two flare stacks when Cuadrilla’s permission to carry out Extended Well Pressure Testing expired ages ago!

  3. If the concern is the risk of exposure to Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) through the use of silica sand, shouldn’t the investigation have been based around how Cuadrilla managed those risks under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) 2002 and how the HSE audited and ensured compliance under those regulations, rather than why exposure to RSC was not considered during an HSE inspection which was focused on activities with a major accident hazard potential that could occur when fracking operations commenced?

  4. The issue of silica dust applies to any industry which uses sand high in silica, nothing new here. Construction, glass industry, sand blasting etc etc.

    John and Hewes62 are of course correct.

    Perhaps Drs Kneale and Rugman would be better to apply their skills to ensuring local builders wear appropriate PPE when dressing stone for local house building and extensions?

    • Paul Tresto

      Indeed, though all I usually get is a load of verbal from the builders (not the large companies) cutting stone or brick, in clouds of dust, drifting over school children when done next to a school. While the risk to the public is low (intermittent and if indoors negligible) the risk to those merrily cutting away in a cloud of dust (without hearing protection, gloves and eye protection of course) is somewhat higher. All so easy when all you need to do is dribble water on the cutting disc. A letter to the HSEx is always in order of course (and then there is the gash scaffolding which was a local curse in the solar panel boom).

      It looks to me as if the HSE were applying good sense to the issue and concentrating on the MAH issues (given the level of fear produced by many an apocalyptical prediction). Now they have to explain to MPs exactly how the UK regulatory system works (again) and the concept of goal setting regulations et al. Some will never be satisfied until there is an HSex inspector on every site they wanted one to be on.

      I will have to get the link which explains that exposure needs to be over time (which is a point not brought out well in the various comments on the consequences of exposure).

  5. I wonder if those responsible for the well being of the police officers on duty at PNR are aware of this discussion?
    After all they each probably spent more time there than many workers or community protectors!

    • Peter K R

      The discussion may not be of interest to the police, but just in case – here is an example MSDS sheet for something similar.

      Key issue – were the police exposed to clouds of dust which was the sand used for fracking – for many months or years when policing the site? I suspect it is in the same bucket as the H2S concerns raised on here (DOD passim) . I suspect death from traffic would be a greater risk?

      Click to access Seguridad-7992-Arena.pdf

  6. Dr Frank Rugman

    Thanks – yes, a broader explanation of gut feel would be warranted for anyone living near a number of bags of refectory sand.

    I am au fait with the effects silica dust on humans, as it formed part of the mining engineer syllabus, and then I worked in dust rich atmospheres for a while using the risk reduction measures of the day (but no face fit testing in those days). No escape underground other than being upwind and a lot less dilution due to distance.

    My gut feel was for it being a storage area, with bagged sand, as opposed to a quarry (completely open and with extraction and vehicle movements) it would pose less of a risk.

    1. The sand is bagged, so what is bagged will not be picked up and distributed other than via an open top of a bag
    2. Where the bags are open, they will have been exposed to the rain, so wet. This until the top layer is dried off, and then may be picked up by the wind.
    3. It is noted that some sacks are deteriorating. But not yet split open (looking at the picture), if they are of similar construction to the usual bags you get from the builders merchant they do not deteriorate over 2 years. I will dig out some data on that, but I have a bag of sand (1 Tonne) that has been there for 10 years, and its still ok, so the cause of deterioration for the bags would need to be determined. If they were hessian sacks, we may have more concern.
    4. There are 21×28 bags of sand in the picture (roughly), so lets say 22×30 = 660 bags of sand available to the atmosphere. Most of the bags are double stacked, so I will only deal with those with exposed tops. If we assume each bag to be 90x90x80cm, – we could say each bag top is around 1m2. So now we need to look at how many are open.
    5. Looking at the picture, I can see 4 bags partially open, where you can see the contents (by copying the picture from the initial DOD report and enlarging it). Lets assume a few more have opened since – 12 say, and they are fully open.
    6. All bags look in good condition, but if residents have been on site and have seen bags which are deteriorating, that information would be good to share.

    Hence, the issue is, what is the risk to the residents some 300M away, of contracting silicosis or any other issue from exposure to respirable dust from a surface area of 12sQ M, a surface area bounded by a bag (ie not fully open to the wind) and within an enclosure (in note that the bags are in a walled area). In addition that the sand (if in an open bag) will be wet for a % of the year and therefore lot likely to be disperse?

    I suspect, as compared to the quarry study (many hundreds of M2 of exposed surface, stirred up by machinery and including dust from other operations) that the risk of the residents being affected by such storage is very low, if at all.

    But its an interesting subject and the link below gives some insight into the risk of silicosis from natural events. There will be more information somewhere, but nothing relating to the risk from enclosed and undisturbed sand storage sites I suspect (which is the case at present)

  7. Thanks Hewes62
    Questionable monitoring and control of RCS, induced earthquakes, VOCs, diesel fumes, fugitive emissions, traffic and noise.
    Local residents simply want this interminable mess to end and the PNR site to be cleared and returned to agricultural land.

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