With new tests revealing high levels of toxic chemicals present in soil and water at a Santos coal seam gas (CSG) site near Narrabri in the north of NSW, environment groups say it's time to shut down the operation.
Heavy metals up to 37 times higher than average levels and five times drinking water standards are present in water samples from the site, according to test results.
The Wilderness Society and The Northern Inland Council for the Environment collected water and soil samples for testing from the area adjacent to the Bibblewindi CSG water treatment plant in the Pilliga Forest on 6 January, seven months after a spill of 10,000 litres of untreated saline CSG water. The tests were undertaken by an accredited environmental laboratory, ALS, and cross-checked at the University of Newcastle.
The results indicate that high levels of chemicals remain present at the CSG site. The environment groups who commissioned the testing say they are now questioning whether it was an isolated incident given that there have been seven months of high rainfall in the area following the spill.
Naomi Hogan, spokesperson for the Wilderness Society said in a statement: "The test results ... raise concerns that it is not a one-off spill and that the coal seam gas water may still be leaking into the environment, given the high concentrations of semi-volatile petrochemicals recorded."
The groups say they decided to run tests after local community noticed "tree kill" in the Pilliga near the location of the spill that occurred in June last year.
"The NSW Government should have acted immediately after we reported the tree deaths in October and collected samples. They could have had them analysed and the results back within 10 days," said Carmel Flint for the Northern Inland Council for the Environment.
"Now, three months later, we still have no information from the government about what the spill entailed, and had to do our own testing to find out.
"It should not be left to the community to police and monitor coal seam gas operations, and it should not be left to environment groups to fund basic water testing from donations," said Flint.
At the time of the June spill the CSG project in the Pilliga existed as a joint venture between Santos and Eastern Star Gas (ESG). ESG held a 65 per cent interest in the project and Santos a 35 per cent interest. At the time, Santos also held a 20.9 per cent interest in ESG. The joint venture arrangements changed, however, in November, when Santos wholly acquired ESG. Post-transaction, Santos was left with an 80 per cent stake in the project. The remaining 20 per cent is owned by TRUenergy however this stake is financial only. Santos now operates all of ESG's drillling licences, including the Narrabri Gas Project.
Since the takeover Santos has said they are reviewing all of ESG's operations, including the project in the Pilliga.
It was Santos that reported the 10,000 litre spill to the NSW government in January this year, and the company is distancing itself from involvement in the incident saying in a brief statement issued to media outlets: "The leak occurred well before Santos acquired Eastern Star Gas and was reported by Santos as soon as the company became aware of it.
"The leak should not have occurred and was preventable."
In fact, a report in the Sydney Morning Herald today indicated that the June spill was not an isolated incident. A Santos company spokesperson was quoted as saying, "There have been three subsequent, smaller leaks of water from coal seams within Eastern Star's Pilliga operations in the weeks immediately following Santos' acquisition of the company,'' a spokesman said.
NSW Greens mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham told New Matilda that Santos is trying to "pass the buck".
"The truth is they have always had a share in Eastern Star Gas and also a share in the Pilliga as a joint venture project. So for them to say that this didn't happen on their watch is untrue," he said.
Buckingham said that Santos' experience with the CSG industry in Queensland should have made them aware of the need to monitor Eastern Star Gas' management of what was their joint venture project in the Pilliga forest.
Santos say they intend to work with the state government to rehabilitate the site under a plan to be agreed with Forests NSW, but environment groups say this isn't good enough.
"The NSW Government should shut down the Santos operation in the Pilliga, the last great temperate woodland left in NSW, and implement an immediate moratorium on coal seam gas mining," said Hogan from the Wilderness Society.
This latest news comes after Santos' admission last month that it had spilled about 250 litres of algaecide in December.
The gas project in the Pilliga is set to become the biggest CSG field in NSW but Santos representative James Baulderstone told a November hearing of the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the industry that it would be conducting at least three years more research before any significant development commenced.
Baulderstone outlined the profile of Santos' CSG business in the state saying that the acquisition of ESG "will make Santos the principal coal seam gas exploration and ultimately production business in New South Wales. We clearly have a big stake in the success of a new natural gas industry in this State".
Santos was approached for further comment on the water and soil contamination in the Pilliga for this story but had not responded at publication.
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