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Letters: Fracking contamination claims contested

Fracking rig

Fracking: Groundwater contamination claims questioned

Having served on the UK and Scottish expert panels that evaluated the risks posed by shale gas developments, I was taken aback by Stephen Penfold’s lurid suggestion (NCE 10 September) that the primary risk they pose is “a water borne sickness or plague caused by either mixing foul and drinking water aquifers or by the dispersion of toxic wastes”.

Evidence we examined from tens of thousands of shale gas operations in the United States revealed not a single instance of the inter-connection of fractured shale zones to overlying aquifers.

This is because such inter-connection would flood the shale gas wells and make them unproductive.

As the prevailing hydraulic gradient would be downwards, pollution would not ensue. As for “toxic waste”, the fluids arising from shale gas operations are essentially sodium chloride brines, in which the principal additive is sand grains.

Given this, does Penfold predict “plagues” around every beach in the UK? In any case, such fluids are subject to double-bunded, enclosed storage and certified disposal, policed by the Environment

Agency, not (as Penfold claims) by local authorities or “water authorities” (which ceased to exist 30 years ago). In reality, shale gas is far less challenging than myriad industrial activities which UK regulatorscope with routinely.

● Professor Paul Younger (F), Rankine Chair of Engineering and professor of energy engineering, School of Engineering, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ

What are we doing to help the refugees?

I read the Letters page of most issues of NCE. In recent weeks, I have read letters about engineers’ status, pay and more recently about homophobia.

However, I have read nothing about the most pressing crisis facing humanity in recent times: the mass migration mainly from Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past two years, in excess of 1M people, like you and me, have faced the prospect of trying to find a better, safer place to live.

We as engineering professionals seem to be so caught up in our myopic navel-gazing that we cannot see what is really important just now, and that is to try to solve this humanitarian problem. I don’t know what the answer is, but I am sure that we collectively have enough brain power to help ease the situation.

This might be, in the shorter term, by providing more, affordable housing across Western Europe; perhaps we should be concentrating on prefabrication as a means of speeding up construction and reducing costs. In the longer term, we need to make the migrants countries of origin a safer and better place to live. This is a more difficult problem, given the unrest created by organisations such as IS.

If we put our heads together we must be able to help. If we do, this might alter the general public’s view of the engineer as the guy with the oily rag.

  • Andy Whatmore andrew.whatmore@btinternet.com

Learning valuable lessons

The description of the challenges met by the consultant and contractor’s team on the Heads of the Valley road between Hirwaun and Abergavenny was of particular interest with reference to the approach taken to deal with the old mining areas over which the route was located (NCE 10 September).

The Carillion project manager stated that the traditional approach would have been to drill down to the old workings and pump grout to fill the located voids, but to avoid the risk of missing voids with ultimate collapse migration decided on a “risk based approach” with the construction procedure used as described.

In 1982, the Fife Region Roads Department (as Agent for the Scottish Roads Department) was faced with the same challenge. To meet it, a computer model was created to establish and support a risk analysis approach. The approach was used primarily as part of the design process for the construction of the 30km East Fife regional road and Thornton bypass phase two.

The procedure and construction details used for the Heads of the Valley Road appear to replicate the same Fife experience and approach. This was fully described in the paper Coping with Fife’s Mining Industrial Heritage (HJ Parry, published IMun E Journal July 1983) presented at the Mine Working Conference, Edinburgh 1984. In the conclusion of the paper it read, “it is hoped that the paper will have been of some interest, particularly to those engineers faced with the same difficulties”.

I hope it was?

  • John Parry (F), 38 Thorncliffe Road, Mapperley Park, Nottingham NG3 5BQ


Engineers should be more enterprising

Can I steal your editorial headline “Plunge into the future” (NCE 10 September)? I would combine it with Amy Wright’s viewpoint headline “Making engineering fun” in the same issue and throw in BBC

Panorama’s view that in order to benefit from the exponential rise of computing power we really need to be educating young people in entrepreneurship.

These make the perfect set of non-negotiables from which to develop STEM engagement activities that will have an impact on opening young minds as to what engineering will achieve in the future. We are training people for a technologically driven future. The good news is that, if you are an engineer, then robots only have 3% chance of taking over your job in the next 20 years. This compares favourably to financial account managers where, according to the BBC, there is a 97% chance a robot will be replacing them before 2035.

There is now an opportunity to move STEM forward. We currently define STEM as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. As science plus maths plus technology equals engineering anyway, I propose relabelling the E as Enterprise. Enterprise is a forward looking activity. If there is one thing we need to nurture it is empowering young minds into the belief that their creative engineering solutions can be turned into profitable reality.

The future is where the opportunities are and as you say - let’s plunge into it!

  • Mike Cargill (M), outgoing chair of the ICE Education & Careers panel (2009 - 2015) mike@ukstem.uk

Not a fuss about nothing

The statements “what a fuss about nothing” and “if gays wish to be treated differently, all they have to do is get on their lives and blow that chip off their shoulder” (Lettters, last week) both highlight the uneducated attitude to equality that many engineers still uphold. There are so many things wrong with both of those statements, but the latter is most disturbing in reinforcing that until we can toughen up and just get on with it, then we deserve to be treated differently. The issue is that gay engineers should never have ever been treated differently in the first place.

The comments are extremely unhelpful. The individual who has made these comments has tried to highlight an important aspect that we as engineers should be judged on our competency not on other things, and I agree to a point. But I disagree with the “don’t ask don’t tell” culture. Maintaining this attitude is extremely destructive and isn’t problem solving but reinforcing divisions. It excludes a group of people from the normal functioning of work life.

The mantra that personal life has no place in a professional setting is rubbish. Of course there is business etiquette, but how many office conversations are about family, children, holidays or the home? We spend eight hours-plus each working day with our fellow engineers - often more time then we spend with our chosen loved ones. So it is vitally important that we come to understand and accept the wide variety of people’s lifestyles, so we can engage everyone and not exclude people because we find it too difficult to comprehend, or have to confront something we are not comfortable with.

Some of the responses have a “see them with fear but hear them with pride” attitude. I, as a new generation engineer, see no division between colleagues. There are no gender, religious, racial, sexual orientation or gender identification divisions in my attitude, approach or mindset. Perhaps wisdom is not just confined to those of advanced years?

  • Name and address withheld

Equality issue will not go away

Reading the comments that supposedly were made by educated engineers in last week’s issue makes me realise how far away we are from meaningfully discussing societal subjects like equality in engineering. It’s just a few, but I am ashamed of their comments.

These pale male stales should begin to comprehend that they are part of the wider society - it’s not just them and neither is it about them - and, more specially, that their comments, notions and attitudes hurt engineering’s image and hold back transformation and reform in our sector.

It’s them who drag engineering back into the dark cave and take the fun and future out of it.

On the other hand, the systemically privileged feeling riled and talking back is usually a telltale sign for society being on the march.

Please keep shining the spotlight on equality to amplify the sensible and fair views and give them a voice.

  • Katja Leyendecker leyendecker.katja@gmail.com
  • Editor’s note: The very fact that the author of some of our letters on the subject of equality have asked to remain anonymous speaks volumes about the issues raised and where our industry is in tackling them. So to the (many) readers who wish that we move on from this topic, I say, sorry, not until we can at least collectively acknowledge we have a problem and intend to do something about it.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Re Fracking - Is it safe
    The thing about fracking is that in the US almost 100% of any proposed court legal proceedings against the companies involved are settled out of court with a non disclosure agreement. So the truth is no one really gets the true picture of all the problems: not unless you did deep. There are several situations in which a complainant will not shut up. Those are the ones you need to listen to. Plus those that cannot bring legal proceedings, but live next to the plants. They have a sad story to tell too.
    The thing about the geology is that it is always more complex than you know. Pathways that appear when you don't expect them and a bunch of earthquakes in the areas associated with fracking..
    The other thing is not knowing the true cocktail of toxic chemicals that get pumped into the holes.
    Given the fact that the planet is getting so warm, is this the right direction to go in? Methane has a 10 x the green house gas effect to CO2. And leaks from the ground are not uncommon. The thing is, from the recent case in California, they are difficult to plug.
    And then we pay for companies to shove CO2 into the ground in the form of Carbon Capture Initiatives.
    All in all my preference would be to leave the gas in the ground. Head for renewables. Its the ultimate end game.

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