Global concern currently exists over potential risk to public health from large-scale coal seam gas (CSG) developments. Community concern relates to the possible long-term effects of some of the chemicals used in, or generated by, CSG operations. For example, from chemicals or chemical mixtures used in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process to crack the coal seams to extract the natural gas.
One such issue is whether it is possible for potential risk to public health to arise if some chemicals used in, or generated by, CSG operations “escape” to move along environmental pathways that may contaminate air, water or soil? Environmental exposure to hazardous substances may result in potential or actual risk to public health. These include industrial activities that result in the “escape” of hazardous emissions into the atmosphere, water environment and soil.
Acute exposure to high concentrations of hazardous substances can lead to death or serious illness in the short-term. Over the long-term, chronic exposure to low concentrations of hazardous substances can increase the risk of developmental and reproductive disorders, immune-system disruption, endocrine disruption, impaired nervous-system function and the development of certain cancers. The World Health Organisation has focussed particular concern on exposure of children to toxic chemicals as children are at a higher risk of serious illness compared with adults.
However, the scientific methodology for predicting risks to public health from chemical mixtures used in for CSG operations is problematic and so creates scientific uncertainty. Information conflict arises because of scientific uncertainty and divergent scientific opinion over the existence of a possible link between CSG operations and risk to public health.
A second issue is whether environmental management and monitoring programmes – as prescribed by Government as part of the CSG environmental approval process – provide adequate safeguards for the community from the potential risk to public health?
A pathway for achieving this goal which avoids the usual adversarial posturing, is the scientific round-table – a joint fact-finding strategy based on the ADR process of independent expert appraisal. The representatives at the scientific round-table are scientific professionals, having expertise in the subject matter of the conflict. An independent dispute resolver convenes the scientific round-table. The dispute resolver undertaking an independent expert appraisal would require expertise in science and ADR process skills. One objective of the scientific round-table is for the scientific experts to reach consensus on disputed issues.
Another contemporary, controversial public interest environmental issue is the question of human exposure to lead and public health risk at Mount Isa, in north-west Queensland. Evidence from a 2008 survey found 11 per cent of children in Mt Isa had elevated blood lead levels. This survey finding has triggered off concern over possible health issues for Mt Isa’s children. Depending on the level, elevated blood lead levels in children may cause developmental problems; and, in the extreme case, brain damage.
Divergent scientific opinion has led to an information conflict over the source of “lead pollution” in soils, dusts and aerosols found in the urban area of Mt Isa that may lead to human exposure. Managing information conflicts over scientific uncertainty or divergent expert scientific opinion requires conclusions that are both relevant and reliable.
To what extent are emissions from mining operations a source of the lead levels found in the urban area of Mount Isa? Alternatively, whether lead levels in the urban area of Mt Isa arise from nearby natural deposits? But, this issue is only one dimension for safeguarding the Mt Isa community from the potential risks to public health. As is the case for CSG operations and public health risk, the question is whether approved environmental management and monitoring programmes provide effective public health safeguards for the community?
From a conflict management and resolution perspective, common ground can be found on the ADR pathways required to resolve the potential risk to public health for both CSG operations in Australia as well as mining activities at Mt Isa.
The round-table gives effect to one of the key elements of principled negotiation: insisting that agreement on disputed issues is based on the use of a common set of objective criteria to evaluate the scientific database.
Where consensus cannot be reached on any issue, the dispute resolver provides a non-binding opinion based on an objective and impartial analysis of all relevant and reliable scientific data. The purpose of the non-binding opinion is to facilitate the experts to reach consensus on the disputed issue. The dispute resolver is also required to prepare a summary of outcomes from the scientific round-table – which then become the foundation for the next stage: conflict resolution and negotiating agreement using evaluative mediation.
The area of common ground for moving forward with ADR and conflict resolution is the issue of potential risk to public health from CSG operations and mining activities at Mt Isa and the effectiveness of environmental management and monitoring programmes.
For environmental management and monitoring programmes to be effective, there must be public trust and confidence in the Government agencies involved in the control of hazardous substances in the environment and the regulatory control of risk. United States experience indicates that “no other strategy offers a more telling acknowledgement of the legitimacy of local concerns” than those who have to live with an activity that may represent a potential risk to public health know they can trust the environmental management and monitoring programmes approved by government.
In this regard, the starting point for government agencies for building public trust and confidence with the community – and to effectively reflect community concerns – is to characterize and then assess the risk to public health that might arise from CSG operations and mining activities at Mt Isa.
Given that the community has to live with CSG developments in Australia and mining activities at Mt Isa, the responsibility for determining an acceptable level of risk to public health – using risk management – must be shared between government, industry and the community.
ADR and interest-based negotiation – unlike the legal process – provides the dual approach for risk management for determining an acceptable level of risk , as advocated by the International Risk Governance Council: to provide equal room to consider both objective scientific evidence and value-based community perceptions of risk.
The advantage of ADR and interest-based negotiation, where scientific uncertainty exists and where public perceptions of risk need to be understood, is that it involves a process of shared responsibility, joint problem-solving and agreement by consensus — all features that are not part of litigation. Compared with ADR and interest-based negotiation, courts have less flexibility, for balancing the broad public policy considerations that affect competing land use interests when decisions have to be made over the management of risks.
Dr Ted Christie is an environmental lawyer, nationally accredited mediator and an environmental scientist. He specializes in alternative dispute resolution processes for finding sustainable solutions for environmental conflicts where divergent expert scientific opinion prevails. He is based in Brisbane, Queensland.