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Byron Shire
June 16, 2024

Santos whistleblower exposes cover-up of huge oil spill and dead dolphins

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Dolphin. Photo supplied

Senator David Pocock (Independent, ACT) tabled a statement in Parliament on Thursday, 16 February from a witness to a Santos oil spill, effectively giving protection to the whistleblower for his account of how sea life, including dolphins, were killed in the disaster.

On Twitter, Senator Pocock said, ‘Today I tabled distressing testimony and footage from a courageous whistleblower during Estimates. We need stronger whistleblower laws to protect these brave people. We need better environmental laws to protect our incredible land and waters.’

Focus on Santos has obtained the documents tabled and the full whistleblower’s statement tabled in parliament by Senator Pocock, and some of the pictures, are below:

Broken hose. Photo supplied

The Santos whistleblower’s statement:

‘In March last year, while working for Santos, a large Australian oil and gas company, I witnessed an incident – and subsequent cover-up – which forced me to confront questions about organisational values and my own responsibility as an employee.

‘The incident took place 300 kilometres off the coast of Karratha, Western Australia, in the Lowendal Islands – known for pristine white sand beaches, gorgeous blue turquoise water and abundant marine- and birdlife.

‘Early one morning at Santos’s Varanus Island Gas Plant, a scent of condensate (a light form of oil) filled the island. Over the coming hours we would learn that a subsea hose had been torn as it was loading [onto] an oil tanker parked a kilometre from the beach. The tear had been left unidentified for more than six hours, pouring a reported 25,000 litres of condensate into the ocean.

‘Regardless of efforts to cease the spill, the mood on the island became somber when learning that dead dolphins, including a pup, were found floating in the center of the spill; in other areas, sea snakes writhed in agony.

‘The tragedy of dolphin carcasses amid a kilometre-wide oil slick should be the story. But it’s not. The story is Santos’ subsequent cover-up and total disregard for the values they say they hold dear, values such as accountability and integrity.

Dolphin. Photo supplied

‘Negligible harm’

‘A month after the spill I was intrigued when news of the incident surfaced with no mention of impact on local wildlife. I was then shocked at the public comment from Santos: ‘the event had negligible harm to the environment.

‘Tens of thousands of litres of oil in the ocean, dead dolphins and sea snakes. How was this ‘negligible’? Even worse, as I knew, that in defiance of their obligations, Santos had not mobilised environmental assessors to the island until a week after the incident – they could not have known the real scale of impact, it was never checked.

‘I felt strongly that Santos’ comment was baseless, designed to mislead and avoid accountability. I was faced with this – or believing I worked at an organisation that truly saw the impact of that day as negligible. What company puts thousands of litres of oil in the ocean, kills dolphins and thinks it is no big deal? Were these ‘negligible’ events happening elsewhere? How was the bar set so low?

‘I am aware that employees spoke up about the public comments internally. Senior Santos executives know, or at least should have known, that the company’s deceptive conduct was contrary to its internal code of conduct and values and, possibly, the law.

‘We hoped that, maybe, the situation would be rectified. Instead, the company doubled down. Instead, when news of the dolphin deaths became public late last year, Santos denied any connection. It said: ‘These sightings were a couple of hours after the incident, in which time no harm would have resulted from this incident’.

‘I was shocked, again, to be reading what I can only see as an outright lie. What belief in their ability to deceive the public allows such a transparent lie to be put on record. I was appalled at the culture and management within Santos which demonstrated such wilful refusal to accept responsibility.

Santos ship. Photo supplied

‘These lies spurred me to speak up. This was no longer grey, but a black-and-white lie from Santos – potentially with market, financial and regulatory consequences. Companies should not be able to lie to the public.

‘I am confident that no real, objective assessment could confirm Santos’  assertion that no harm could come to the local sea life as a consequence of the oil spill.

‘The facts are simple: multiple dolphins were found dead, floating in dense sections of the oil spill, where fumes were extremely high. It is a lie to state that the condensate would have evaporated within hours of the spill; it was still very much present when the dolphins were found. Santos insisted that the spill of thousands of litres of toxic liquids and fumes into their habitat could have no impact on the dolphins. These images suggest otherwise

‘Santos – please explain.

Stewardship and a bigger picture

‘I am aware that in the scale of environmental impacts, a few dead dolphins likely sit low on Santos’ scale. However, the lies presented by Santos, so callously to the public, indicate an organisation that is comfortable with a culture of avoiding accountability, and one that does not operate in the interest of the Australian public.

‘It indicates a belief within Santos that they can operate to avoid public interest through misinformation, supported by a cosy relationship with regulators and government. As an employee who saw very little real effort to be accountable or address the scale of emissions, I question now if their comfort to lie and misrepresent is present in their statements around future climate performance and emissions.

‘I hope that employees in the industry can read this and be encouraged to speak up against wrongdoing at all levels. I never expected to be faced with this, but I found myself in a situation that I felt was wrong. I wasn’t accepting of excuses or avoidance. The lack of accountability, and the nature and frequency of incidents occurring at Santos, made me truly believe that it is in the public interest for this information to be released.

‘I hope that, in a small way, the organisations partnered with Santos through sponsorships or as stakeholders can use this information as insight to guide their decisions. Santos in no way demonstrated care for the environment, accountability nor integrity at the highest levels. They treated the public with disdain. To ask the question bluntly; who wants to be sponsored by a company so comfortable with killing dolphins?

‘Santos lied to us all – it is not a coincidence to find dead dolphins in the middle of an oil spill. I call on Santos to show some respect for the public, your employees and the dead bottlenose dolphins that I believe your operation killed.’ [end of statement]

Videos of the incident also tabled in parliament can be seen here

The statement triggered a number of media stories and support from Greenpeace.

‘Greenpeace Australia Pacific welcomes Senator Pocock’s intervention in this matter and role in bringing this important issue to light,’ the organisation said.

Richard George, senior campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said that the allegations, if true, reveal shocking disregard for marine wildlife.

‘These allegations suggest that Santos is more concerned with covering its tracks than accepting accountability for a devastating oil spill at Varanus Island,’ he said.

‘There must be a full investigation into these claims, to determine how tens of thousands of litres of Santos’ oil spilled into the oceans, whether any dolphins died as a result and if Santos tried to cover it up.

‘Gas and oil companies can’t be trusted with our oceans. Just a few weeks ago it was revealed that gas company Woodside is allowing an oil tower full of toxic chemicals to sink near UNESCO-listed Ningaloo Reef. This new claim that Santos has lied about its role in killing dolphins is another damning blow for the gas industry.

Varanus Island. Photo supplied

Lying low in the media

The incident was first exposed by Peter Milne, writing in WA Today in November last year.

At the time, Santos said the environmental impact was ‘negligible’ and failed to respond to questions about whether dead dolphins were seen in the area.

Images later emerged of dead dolphins near the tanker Catalan Sea, which was being loaded with condensate when a damaged hose leaked around 25,000 litres of condensate over several hours.

A Santos spokeswoman said three dead dolphins were seen near the spill and reported to authorities.

‘These sightings were a couple of hours after the incident, in which time no harm would have resulted from this incident,’ she said.

Peter Mine reported that SA Museum honorary mammal researcher, Dr Catherine Kemper, who over 35 years has performed more than 800 post-mortems on whales and dolphins, said such a procedure conducted by experienced scientists was needed to determine the cause of death.

‘It would take a brave or foolish person to say how the dolphins seen near the oil spill died without undertaking a post-mortem,’ she said.

‘The fact that the dolphins were seen dead and floating suggests a sudden death.’

The WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions asked Santos to retrieve a carcass for inspection at 2pm, but none could be found when Santos launched a search later that day, a department spokesman said.

♦ Eve Sinton is a local journalist who publishes Focus on Santos on Substack.

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  1. Total number of dolphins / dead dolphins = negligible effect. More importantly, nobody noticed the pressure drop? No even the monitoring system? No auto shut off? How much sea water just got pumped into the ships tanks?


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