Coal seam gas miner AGL has suspended its Waukivory Pilot Project in the Gloucester Valley after detecting toxic chemicals that were elevated well above their natural levels.
One water sample revealed levels of BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) at 555 parts per billion (ppb), around 10 times the baseline standard for the Gloucester Basin in the NSW Hunter Valley, according to AGL.
The company says the area’s groundwater has naturally occurring levels of BTEX between 30 and 60ppm.
Out of five water samples, only one revealed dramatically elevated BTEX levels (555ppb). The four remaining tests showed levels of BTEX between 12-70ppb.
AGL Managing Director Michael Fraser said the project had been suspended “because of the community’s concern about any detection of BTEX and in the interests of acting prudently”.
The project will remain suspended until “a full review of the sample results” has been completed, Fraser said.
AGL has also stated that BTEX chemicals were not used in the fracking process – a mining practice where water and chemicals are forced into the coal seam under very high pressure, forcing cracks and allowing natural gas to escape.
“The BTEX detected in the samples is most likely to be naturally occurring, from within coal seams located at an average depth of approximately 600 metres and brought to the surface as part of the flowback of water from the hydraulic fracturing process,” an AGL spokesperson said.
BTEX does occur naturally in coal seams, but can be harmful to human health in high concentrations. The chemicals are used in petroleum products, and consumer products such as paints and lacquers, thinners, rubber products and adhesives.
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham says the incident is further proof of the risks of coal seam gas mining, and he has renewed calls for a ban on CSG mining.
“How many more spills, leaks and accidents will it take before the government acts to ban coal seam gas?” Buckingham said.
“AGL should pack up and leave the Gloucester Valley for good following this latest pollution incident before they do any more damage to either their battered corporate reputation or our precious water,” he said.
A spokesperson for AGL said that “the well is lined with layers of cement and steel – so it’s actually physically separated from the external environment – and we don’t use BTEX in our drilling fluids, so it’s come from beneath”.
The matter has been referred to the Environmental Protection Agency, The Office of Coal Seam Gas, and the NSW Office of Water.
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