Story and photos Melissa Hargraves
A world-renowned soil scientist has urged people living on properties near any proposed coal-seam gas (CSG) field on the north coast to immediately take baseline samples of their soil and water.
Rob Banks, a private consultant from Gunnedah, told the annual Lock the Gate (LTG) Alliance conference at Lismore on the weekend that standards of water sampling are critical for legal recognition.
Mr Banks, a former employee of a major CSG mining company, say this is crucial because of the ‘ridiculous argument that comes up in court where the gas companies say the water and soil were already contaminated’.
Mr Banks urged people to only hand over samples to accredited laboratories.
‘If the labs are not known or accredited they will often be thrown out of court,’ he said.
Mr Banks urged anyone living on the edges of expanding gasfields to get baseline data.
‘People have lost their water quality and have no comeback without that baseline data,’ he said.
He said that there is very little soil and water monitoring done in his area at this stage.
‘The reasons are it is really expensive to do good monitoring, at least $500 and up per test, and particularly with water it is hard to do it correctly, and some people don’t know where to take their samples for proper testing,’ he said.
The soil scientist, who works around the Liverpool plains, is a researcher and teaches in Africa and Indonesia, told the conference that without baseline samples, there is no comeback to the gas companies.
The conference drew hundreds of people to Lismore who attended workshops and panel presentations. The annual general meeting (AGM) was also held for election of the new board of directors.
Organisers of the event said there was a lot of community interest along with attendants travelling from Canberra, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and right across NSW.
Skill share workshops included legal skills, media skills, political advocacy, nourishing the spirit, peaceful direct action, basic graphic design, healthy action groups and coal and gas free communities.
The panel’s presentations covered winning campaigns, corporate campaigning, creativity in campaigning, community energy solutions and community monitoring of land, air and water.
Mr Banks worked as a research soil scientist with the government for 14 years which involved understanding soil and groundwater systems.
‘I was placed at that time with some of the very best soil scientists and hydro-geologists in the world, so it was great mentoring,’ he said.
Mr Banks, who started his own business 10 years ago, is an associate research fellow at the University of Queensland.
He said that the majority of his clients over the last five years have been concerned about the impacts from the coal industry.
‘I do have a mining background, that I am unapologetic about.’
Mr Banks said that he would no longer work in the gas industry.
The audience pressed Mr Banks for more information about his rejection of the industry.
‘The water treatment plant was a shipping container with no roof,’ he said.
‘Water goes in one end and floats out a pipe at the other end which then flows down a hill into a river. I thought there must be some really good gizmo in this shipping container, but no, just a shipping container with no roof.
‘They can honestly say that all their water goes through a treatment plant because that is what is written on the side of the shipping container!
‘If logic was to rule and science was the golden blade well a lot of these practices just wouldn’t happen.
‘Science doesn’t matter so it is up to you guys to push,’ Mr Banks said.
Tips for testing
Mr Banks passed on tips for individuals if they want do their own meaningful sampling.
‘Firstly there is a free phone application called Theodolite that gives you the slope of the land, a photo and the location within four metres,’ he said.
‘This information is very useful, you need to record everything to show you have sampled correctly, even filming your sampling is a good idea.
‘This gives you what is called a chain of custody of your sample,’ he said.
‘If you are sampling soil for petrochemicals and heavy metals you need to treat your sample carefully.
‘Calico bags are good for most soil sampling as they let the soil dry out so the pH doesn’t change, but if you are sampling for heavy metals you need a glass jar with a tight lid.’
Mr Banks said that sampling sizes for water should be half a litre for liquids and at least one kilogram for soils, preferably two.
Groundwater sampling is very different to river sampling due to changes in river heights and where water introduces itself to the river.
‘You can begin by simple testing on rivers and if you see spiking then do more complex testing,’ he said.
Mr Banks said that good water samples only last a week and must be refrigerated. Sampling bores also has its challenges, according to Mr Banks, and should be seasonally sampled to get an idea of the range.
‘Water can sit in bores oxidising for a long time and dead things can accumulate in them,’ he said. ‘If you are going to sample a bore you need to pump its volume at least once before you sample.
‘One sample is better than no sample,’ he said, ‘two samples are probably five times better than one sample’.
A soil sampling strategy is important as there are many layers of soil.
‘Scrape the organic matter off the top, get to the mineral soil and take the top ten centimetres and put it in a bag,’ he said.
The depth range needs to be recorded along with changes of soil colour in that range.
Mr Banks suggested that people should consult a certified professional soil scientist particularly when looking for the harder end of contaminants.
Well integrity has been a major concern for the protection of water and soil systems.
He added that there is a lot of sulphur reducing bacteria associated with coal which can leech from well casing when there are stuff ups.
‘The biggest bore casing company in the world will only guarantee their casing for three years,’ he said.
Mr Banks made reference to a gas well ‘success’ in Indonesia.
‘What is now known as the Indonesian mud volcano now covers 1,300 hectares, has wiped out 16 villages and has killed nearly 5,000 people with 45,000 people homeless,’ he said.
‘And the walls that hold up the 20 plus metres of mud are about to fall down where another 100,000 people are about to lose their houses.’
Mr Banks said that Santos owned 18 per cent of that gas well.
‘They bought in for nearly a billion dollars and sold out after this disaster two or three years ago for $18 million and the person who owned the major share (Brantas) sold to a shelf company in Jersey this year for two dollars,’ he said.
The next gas well ‘success’ on Mr Banks’ list is in Siberia.
‘This was in 1956 in a “tectonically stable” area, they went down two kilometres and hit lava,’ Mr Banks said.
‘It has never exploded over the surface but sits ten metres below openly bubbling away.’
The CSG companies are supposed to be self-regulating, he said, but ‘if gas companies are allowed to control the problems that happen onsite, then they will not report them.
‘Unless there are significant impacts offsite and someone notices, they will not be reported to the EPA,’ said Mr Banks.