POLITICS

New Brunswick chief health officer warns of 'Boomtown Effect' with shale gas

10/15/2012 10:12 EDT | Updated 12/15/2012 05:12 EST
FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's infrastructure and legislation aren't strong enough to ensure public health is protected should the shale gas industry be expanded, the province's chief medical officer of health warns in a report released Monday.

In her report, Dr. Eilish Cleary makes 30 recommendations that aim to address what she says is a lack of research on the health effects of the shale gas sector.

Cleary's report highlights the possible benefits a thriving shale gas industry could offer the province such as increased employment and tax revenues, but it also flags a gamut of potential health risks that include deteriorating air and water quality, increased truck traffic accidents and a "Boomtown Effect."

"These negative impacts can include increases in crime, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually-transmitted infections and domestic violence," Cleary says in her report.

"Because the Boomtown Effect is thought to be more intense for small communities with a traditional way of life that did not previously involve the industrial sector responsible for the boom, there may be a risk to New Brunswick communities unless this effect is anticipated and mitigated through strategic investments."

As it stands, the province is not ready for shale gas development, she says.

"Proper controls and mechanisms to protect and monitor health must be put in place to reduce the risk of spoiling the potential benefits from economic gains through adverse health outcomes," the report says.

"Action should be taken well in advance of any proposed expansion. Current infrastructure, capacity, processes and legislation are not adequate to meet the needs. The funding of these recommendations will not be insignificant; however there may be opportunity to have much of the costs absorbed by the industry."

Cleary calls for measures that include monitoring the health of people who live or work near a shale gas site, disclosing all chemical compounds used by the shale gas industry, and provisions for the handling and disposal of wastewater.

The province's Health Department said Cleary and Health Minister Hugh Flemming were unavailable to comment Monday. Cleary is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to discuss the report.

The Progressive Conservative government initially said earlier this month that it would not release Cleary's report because it was considered confidential and designated as ministerial advice.

But days later, former health minister Madeleine Dube said parts of the report would be released. Environment Minister Bruce Fitch then promised to release the report in its entirety.

It was one of two reports released Monday as the cash-strapped government weighs the economic benefits of shale gas development and the concerns of some in the public who have voiced their opposition to growing the industry.

In his report released earlier in the day, University of Moncton biologist Louis LaPierre says New Brunswick should proceed with shale gas exploration but with a phased-in approach that would limit it to one to three sites to allow for research and development.

LaPierre, who was hired by the provincial government in May to study the shale gas industry, released his report following public meetings throughout the summer.

LaPierre's report rejects a moratorium on shale gas development as sought by the Opposition Liberals, saying it would halt research on the issue and not be in the province's interests.

"A moratorium on future shale gas exploration activities would not provide the opportunity to address the concerns of the citizens nor would it enable government to define the economic potential of the shale gas industry," he says in the report.

Interim Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau took issue with that.

"This is a commercial exploitation of shale gas that is occurring in the province of New Brunswick," Boudreau said.

"In no way would a moratorium prevent research from happening. It may prevent the commercial exploitation, but it doesn't have to stop the research."

LaPierre began his review following the release earlier this year of a government paper on shale gas containing 116 recommendations that addressed issues such as well designs, royalties and protection of water supplies.

LaPierre told a news conference that he repeatedly heard the public's concerns over water during his consultations.

"Citizens in New Brunswick spoke passionately to me on the need to protect their water," he said.

LaPierre also said he would like to see four universities — Mount Allison University, the University of New Brunswick, St. Thomas University and his own — work together to establish a research institute that would gather data on the shale gas sector.

"We need credible data for New Brunswick, not extrapolated data from away."

Energy Minister Craig Leonard said he needed more time to study LaPierre's report, but added that he was interested with its recommendations.

"The approach that he is suggesting for a way forward is intriguing," Leonard said. "It would certainly reduce the amount of risk that's out there and give a better comfort level to people about moving forward."

Green party Leader David Coon accused LaPierre of not taking environmental concerns seriously.

"We believe you can't make shale gas and fracking safe with regulations," Coon said. "Besides, it's a fossil fuel, and he seems to have forgotten we have a climate crisis."

LaPierre also recommends that a portion of any shale gas developed in New Brunswick should be reserved for use within the province.