Fears that drinking-water supplies on the northern rivers could be contaminated by toxic chemicals if coal-seam gas (CSG) production was allowed to go ahead have been heightened by the contamination of an acquifer near a CSG project in the Pilliga Forest.
The first confirmation of aquifer contamination associated with CSG activity in Australia has sparked a flood of calls by environmentalists, farmers, doctors and MPs for a halt to operations in Australia pending a full investigation into the industry.
And it’s been revealed that the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) took almost a year to issue a $1,500 fine to energy company Santos over contamination which included uranium at a level 20 times the Australian drinking water guideline for human health.
Fairfax Media at the weekend reported on the fine, which could have been as high as $1 million, prompting the widespread response, including a call from the NSW opposition to tear up a recent deal signed by deputy premier Andrew Stoner to fast-track the Pilliga project.
North coast anti-CSG groups say one of the major fears now is that Rous Water expects to be relying on groundwater in a future strategy for urban drinking-water supply on the northern rivers.
They say gas miner Metgasco does not have a good record on waste-water disposal and if allowed to develop a gasfield near Bentley or anywhere else on the northern rivers, local ground water supplies could be threatened.
Environmental activist and educator Aidan Ricketts told Echonetdaily the Pilliga incident left no doubt there were big risks associated with CSG and its controversial fracking technique, and opponents to the industry getting a foothold on the north coast were justified in their concerns.
Lock The Tweed’s Michael McNamara said the contamination in the Pilliga ‘sounds a loud warning bell’ for communities in the Tweed Valley.
‘Dart Energy has an exploration licence covering much of the Tweed Valley and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council has an application for a prospecting authority in much of the remaining area of the valley,’ Mr McNamara said.
‘These groups are watching very closely what happens in relation to Metgasco’s planned activities in the northern rivers.
‘Metgasco is planning to drill for gas at Bentley in the next few months, and their record of dealing with contaminated waste water is less than perfect.
‘Bentley is only one hour away from the Tweed Valley.
‘While Metgasco claim that they are drilling for conventional gas, the reality is that 22 million of the 24 million petajoules of gas that they want to exploit is tight sands gas rather than conventional gas, and they will need to use fracking.
‘It was the disposal of contaminated waste water that caused the problem in the Pilliga, one of the big concerns is the levels of uranium found in the contaminated aquifer.
‘Metgasco do not have a good record in relation to disposal of contaminated waste water from their drilling efforts in the northern rivers.
‘They have previously been fined for breaches of conditions relating to the disposal of waste water.
‘The failure of a Metgasco holding/evaporation pond at Casino in February 2011 and the conviction of their water carriers for inappropriate disposal of waste water from the Metgasco drilling at Glenugie in early 2013 gives residents good reasons to be concerned about the impact of Metgasco’s latest plans to drill at Bentley, near Lismore.
‘Previous media and public statements from Metgasco have been so dizzying because of the amount of spin that residents do not believe anything they say.
‘Their documented inability, or unwillingness, to adequately protect local water resources causes great concern.
‘The support for the industry from state and federal governments means that it is only action by local communities that will stop this invasive industry that wants to turn the northern rivers into industrialised gasfields,’ Mr McNamara said.
The NSW EPA investigation found that storage facilities for contaminated water produced by the Pilliga project were inadequate and there was no evidence the necessary testing and quality controls occurred.
Northern Rivers Lock the Gate spokesperson Ian Gaillard said ‘the contempt that the NSW government has shown for ground water by fining a billion-dollar company like Santos less than some speeding fines would be laughable if it were not so deadly serious.
‘Our local Rous Water supply is proposing in its Draft Future Water Strategy that the region will in future be almost totally dependent on groundwater, yet unconventional gas drilling has been happening and is still scheduled in our Water Recharge Catchment Valleys, the next one due in April at Bentley,’ Mr Gaillard said.
‘What has happened in the Pilliga has likely occurred in other locations, where leaking well pipes draw up deadly elements like this uranium, and poison aquifers,’ he said.
Drew Hutton, president of Lock the Gate Alliance, called for all CSG exploration in NSW to stop immediately.
Mr Hutton said ‘This proven case of contamination in the Pilliga makes a lie of all the claims Santos have made about their CSG operations being safe.
‘The uranium contamination of groundwater confirms that CSG is a dangerous, toxic industry and it needs to be stopped dead in its tracks before more extensive damage is done.
Swept under carpet
‘It’s extraordinary that contamination as serious as this has been swept under the carpet by the NSW government and trivialised with a paltry fine.
‘We are demanding that the NSW government now stops all CSG exploration immediately, and conducts a far reaching investigation into how things have gone so horribly wrong,’ Mr Hutton said.
Greens NSW mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham said ‘This is game over for coal seam gas’.
‘Here is definitive proof that unconventional gas, such as coal seam gas pollutes aquifers with extremely toxic elements,’ Mr Buckingham said.
‘It is totally unacceptable for ground water to be contaminated with radioactive uranium 20 times the safe drinking water limit. Poisonous elements such as arsenic, lead and boron have also been mobilised and concentrated by coal seam gas extraction and then leaked into the aquifers.
‘The gas industry often states there are no “proven” cases of gas extraction leading to aquifer contamination. Well here is the proof.
‘The Greens call for the Santos Narrabri project and other coal seam gas projects in NSW to be halted immediately. Other aquifers cannot be put at risk of serious pollution. This type of contamination represents a serious health risk to humans and animals.
‘It is scandalous that the government knew of this serious contamination incident when they announced the MOU (memorandum of understanding) to fast-track Santos’ Narrabri project, and when the premier downplayed concern about the chemical risk associated with CSG on radio by likening it to chewing gum,’ Mr Buckingham said.
Health advocacy organisation, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), says the incident ‘demonstrates that aquifer contamination does occur, despite the assurances we so often receive to the contrary’.
DEA spokesperson, associate professor Melissa Haswell-Elkins, said the incident ‘highlights the environmental and potential health risks of unconventional gas mining, and the underestimation of these risks’.
‘While we have some comfort that this particular aquifer is not a source of water for humans, livestock or crops, we remain concerned about potential problems where mining is close to water sources that do have these uses, and the health implications that flow from this and many other aspects of the industry,’ Professor Haswell-Elkins said.
‘Doctors have been warning the government and community about the health risks of unconventional gas for some time.
‘For example, DEA warned the NSW government during its 2011 CSG inquiry that, “waste water with additives returned to the surface pose problems with treatment, disposal and storage. This water can contain harmful volatile organic compounds, high concentrations of ions and radioactive substances”.
‘A fine of $1,500 for this pollution seems like a feather duster tap on the knuckles for the company,’ she said.
‘We understand that the company, Santos, is planning to drill hundreds more wells in the area.
‘Rather than suspending this contaminating project, the NSW government is fast-tracking it!
‘It is clear that assessment, monitoring and regulation of unconventional gas activities is still not adequate to protect our precious water sources and the health of current and future generations of Australians.
‘DEA and the Australian Medical Association have both called on Australian governments to ensure that unconventional gas projects are subject to rigorous and independent health risk assessments before they are allowed to proceed.
‘We are seeing governments ignore advice from health organisations about the risks posed by unconventional gas projects,’ Professor Haswell-Elkins said.
Meanwhile, farmers across north-west NSW have today told Santos to leave the region immediately and called for strong action by the NSW government over the incident.
Two farmers from the north-west, Mark and Cherie Robinson, have travelled to Sydney to the NSW Parliament this morning to call for a halt to CSG drilling after hearing the news.
‘Groundwater contamination with high levels of uranium from CSG activities is our worst nightmare,’ said the Robinsons, dryland farmers from west of the Pilliga, who were recently arrested protesting Santos CSG drilling activities in the Pilliga forest.
‘We are completely reliant on groundwater on our farm and cannot survive without it. Our water is our lifeblood. Now we know for sure that CSG puts all that at risk,’ they said.
Jeff Carolan, a cotton farmer from Wee Waa said the contamination was ‘basically our worst nightmare come true’.
‘We have been told repeatedly by Santos and the NSW government that there was no risk to our water supplies from CSG, and now we know that is absolute rubbish,’ Mr Carolan said.
‘We’re all dependent on groundwater in this valley to keep our businesses viable, and our very livelihoods rely on uncontaminated water and soils.
‘We are not going to stand by while Santos invade our best farmland and pollute our precious water resources and productive soils. They should immediately cease activities, pack up their equipment and depart – and never come back,’ he said.
Narrabri resident Rohan Boehm said ‘It’s disgraceful that Santos have kept this contamination hidden and misled the local community for close to a year’.
‘Santos have taken out ads in the local paper, telling people they pose no threat to water resources, whilst knowing full well that they have already polluted an aquifer in the Pilliga,’ Mr Boehm said.
‘Any small shred of trust that the local community might have had in Santos has been totally annihilated by this news. No one will ever believe a word they say again,’ he said.
Santos, according to Fairfax Media, says the pond was decommissioned in December 2011, shortly after it took full ownership of the project from Eastern Star Gas.
EPA defends fine
Test results commissioned by Santos showed lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron, nickel and uranium at levels ‘elevated when compared to livestock, irrigation and health guidelines’.
The results were available to the EPA by the end of March 2013.
Fairfax Media reported that an EPA spokeswoman on Sunday said Santos had initially contacted the agency over the incident and ‘within 24 hours of receiving the results the EPA had contacted NSW Health and the Office of Water and ascertained that there was no immediate health or environmental risks posed by the readings’.
The EPA spokeswoman told the media group that the agency decided a $1,500 penalty notice was appropriate, despite legislation allowing for a maximum fine of $1 million for corporations that pollute water if the matter is heard in court,
This, according to the spokeswoman, was based on ‘evidence which showed that environmental impacts were minimal and that Santos had reported and responded to the incident quickly’.
The report said that Santos on Saturday described the affected aquifer as ‘localised groundwater’ that is ‘very limited in area and water volume… water sampled is not connected with regional aquifers’.