The West

WA's Department of Health has outlined its concerns about the emerging unconventional gas industry, saying it could be a risk to water supplies and the atmosphere if handled poorly.

Giving evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry today, two of the department's senior officials said hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", potentially posed several dangers to public health.

However, the agency said it was "happy" with how the Department of Mines and Petroleum was managing the development of new regulations that would govern fracking in WA.

Fracking, which has been linked to groundwater contamination overseas, involves water, chemicals and sand being pumped underground at high pressure to release so-called onshore gas resources.

The Health Department said it was most worried about the risk of contamination to groundwater or surface water supplies in the event the chemicals used in the fracking process escaped into the environment.

Tarun Weeramanthri, the department's executive director of public health, said methane and other hazardous compounds could also be released into the air if a fracking well failed.

As such, Dr Weeramanthri said, it was crucial that the wells used by fracking companies be subject to the highest possible standards.

"Generally speaking the risks to public health… we have focused on are risks to water supplies," Dr Weeramanthri said.

"That can either be groundwater or surface water and it can actually occur at various stages in the (fracking) process.

"It may occur in the drilling phase even before fracking is undertaken; it can occur during the fracking process and it can occur after.

"Obviously the fracking process involves mostly water under high pressure plus… chemicals and the chemicals are a particular concern.

"(There are) potential issues around whether there could be any connections between the fracking wells and groundwater supplies and/or whether there could be any seepage from the well as it goes through aquifers.

"That is why questions around well integrity are critical."

Richard Sellers, the director general of the DMP, said draft regulations were being drawn up to tighten the State Government's oversight of the emerging fracking industry.

Mr Sellers told the environment and public affairs committee that part of the new regulations would involve increasing the penalties for fracking companies that did not comply with the rules.

The DMP's executive director of petroleum, Jeff Haworth, said a key aim was to ensure there was appropriate baseline and ongoing monitoring of fracking operations.

Mr Haworth said he knew of two cases involving well "integrity" failure in WA, but both were minor, relating to equipment at the top of the well rather than the well and its barrier.

The comment came in response to a question from committee chairman Simon O'Brien, who asked the department to respond to claims that up to 7 per cent of wells in the US failed.

Public consultation on the proposed fracking regulations closes on May 30.

The West Australian

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