The coal seam gas industry has justified its stampede across Australia by claiming it is no threat to our water resources, yet this myth was blown out of the groundwater last week with the revelations that an aquifer has been contaminated in the north-west of the state.
The only reason we know about this and other coal seam gas damage is because of the dedicated work of community members, farmers and conservationists.
Santos, the company which operates the mine, was fined a paltry $1500 for poisoning the aquifer in the Pilliga Forest with uranium (detected at 20 times safe levels) and other toxic heavy metals, and spent last week trying to downplay the evidence.
Santos Vice President for Eastern Australia James Baulderstone accused the Sydney Morning Herald, which broke the story, of “misleading” reporting in an Australian Financial Review web article.
That reference was later removed from the AFR website and replaced by Baulderstone accusing the Wilderness Society, which revealed the spill, of “gross exaggeration”.
When Santos shareholders last week called for the company to withdraw from the project, Santos turned on its own investors, saying they were being led by “extremist activist groups”.
After trying to shoot the messengers, Santos took aim at the message.
Santos hydrogeologist Glenn Toogood tried to convince media the aquifer was not an aquifer, preferring to call it a “shallow perch layer”. When it was pointed out that the NSW Environment Protection Authority used the term aquifer, Toogood responded: “We’ve had long consultations with the EPA over this. It's a terminology that the EPA has decided to use.”
He then defined an aquifer as a body of water that “could sustain a domestic or an irrigation use. If you tried to take water out of this shallow perch layer it would dry up very quickly.” That argument fell flat when media revealed the aquifer fed at least one bore used for cattle.
Baulderstone then made a rare and brief media appearance to roll out Santos’ usual defence — blame previous owner Eastern Star Gas. The excuse is starting to wear thin more than two years after Santos took over Eastern Star.
Santos fails to mention it was Eastern Star’s major shareholder before the takeover and owned 35 per cent of the exploration lease over the Pilliga. It also reveals a failure in due diligence when a rudimentary sight inspection at the time would have been hard pressed to miss the hectares of petrol-tainted sludgy pools and dead trees.
Baulderstone tried to paint the company as a good corporate citizen because it alerted authorities of this latest toxic mess, before departing the media conference under a barrage of questions.
But Santos has a legal obligation to report environmental damage. Maybe it would have been better if Santos let the neighbours know about the spill or even the people of NSW, whose land and aquifers it wants to puncture with 850 gas wells.
The company has not exactly been forthcoming about its long, tragic history of environmental damage while exploring for gas in the Pilliga. Santos even had the temerity to issue a statement after this latest contamination event stating: “Santos always acknowledged, including in media releases and community presentations, concerns about the integrity of the Bibblewindi ponds.”
The only problem is that Santos issues its press releases after media have reported the damage. Santos did not report an earlier spill of 10,000 litres of toxic waste water to the EPA until a farmer had alerted local media to the story. In fact Santos denied the spill, laughably blaming eucalyptus for the discoloured water.
This latest uranium contamination only came to light because the Wilderness Society discovered a mention of a “suspected leak” while trawling through the government’s review of an assessment for yet more coal seam gas wells, documents the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas forgot to release to the public for more than two months “due to administrative oversight”.
Otherwise we would have had to rely on the EPA which has been as forthcoming as Santos. The EPA did write a press release about the latest “spill” which included “salts and other elements” but failed to mention that those other elements included such cancer-causing nasties as uranium, arsenic, lead, barium, boron, aluminium and nickel all in unsafe concentrations.
Having written the media release, the EPA seems to have missed the next usual step, to send it to media, as no reporters we have spoken to say they received it. The EPA did, however, post it on its website a week after Santos was fined and two days before Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner signed a memorandum of understanding with Santos to fast-track the production phase of 850 wells.
We only know of the toxic elements of this latest spill because there was a mention of uranium in heavily censored documents that we requested under freedom of information laws.
It was only under questioning from media that the EPA confirmed the concentration of uranium 20 times safe levels, and handed over the measurements of other toxic nasties. It was only under further questioning that the EPA handed over its report on the spill, which makes for disturbing reading.
It is littered with terms such as “inadequate data” and “comprehensive limitations”, and is based on a report commissioned and paid for by Santos, the company being prosecuted.
With such a lack of transparency from Santos and the regulators, the community can have little faith that our environment, our water supplies and our farmland will be safe.
The Pilliga is the state’s last great inland forest, its creeks feed the Murray-Darling river system and it’s a major recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, a critical water source for farmers and inland Australia. It is too precious a place to be a gas field. The coal seam farce must end.
Australian communities deserve better than a gas company spinning the truth and an EPA acting as their apologist.
New Matilda received a reply from Santos, which can be read in the comment thread below.
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