Coal seam gas company AGL has had its Gloucester CSG licence suspended after revelations on Tuesday that the company had detected elevated levels of toxic chemicals at its Waukivory pilot project.
News of the BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – sometimes used in the process to frack for gas) has proven toxic in more ways than one, with the Environmental Protection Agency, the NSW Greens and the Labor opposition all slamming the company this week.
On Tuesday, New Matilda reported that ‘flowback’ water from the Waukivory pilot well – part of AGL’s CSG rollout near the Hunter Valley town of Gloucester – had been revealed to contain concentrations of BTEX chemicals 10 times normal levels.
While there appears to have been no harm to the environment or human health as a result of the high concentration, AGL’s handling of the situation came under heavy fire today.
The use of highly toxic BTEX chemicals as part of the ‘fracking’ process was banned by the NSW government in 2011.
Long term exposure to BTEX chemicals can result in cancer and other illnesses.
The company says it has complied with government regulations, and that the BTEX detected in water samples is most likely to be a natural feature of the coal seam situated around 600 metres below ground.
A spokesperson for the company said it was probable the chemicals had been brought to the surface as part of the process of hydraulic fracturing, and claimed there had been no threat to human or environmental health.
But the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has slammed AGL over its handling of the situation.
“The EPA has concerns with the environmental practices of the operations at AGL Gloucester,” the authority’s Chief Environmental Regulator Mark Gifford said.
The EPA has begun a full investigation into AGL Gloucester’s operations and served AGL with a notice (yesterday) demanding records prior to any further work commencing at the site, a spokesperson said.
“Officers from the EPA are at AGL’s Gloucester operations undertaking inspections and water sampling, after AGL informed the authority (on Tuesday) that it had detected BTEX chemicals at its Waukivory operations,” Gifford said.
AGL has been served with a legal notice which directs the company to provide sampling results and quality assurance and quality control reports, and all records relating to results of sampling that show a detection of BTEX.
“The EPA has also directed AGL to provide it with a report outlining the results of the analysis undertaken on samples collected on 16 and 29 December 2014, and 12 January 2015, and an analysis of the scientific rigour of the sampling and analysis processes,” Gifford said.
Mr Gifford also reiterated his concern that AGL had known about the elevated BTEX levels but failed to inform the regulator, and the public, for 10 days.
In a statement to New Matilda late yesterday, AGL has claimed that it took steps – before notifying the relevant government agencies – to determine whether the BTEX chemicals posed a threat to human health or the environment.
“After receiving the water monitoring results, AGL assessed whether the BTEX concentrations could harm the environment or affect human health, and concluded that no such harm arose,” a spokesperson said.
AGL then sought “expert advice” which confirmed its internal assessment, the spokesperson said.
“AGL then proceeded to verify the water sampling procedures including any potential contamination of the samples, review historical data, conduct site inspections, check water monitoring points and also ensure the integrity of our flow back water management system,” the spokesperson said.
The company also reiterated earlier statements the suspension of its Waukivory pilot project was “voluntary” – a fact confirmed by the Minister for Energy and Resources late yesterday.
AGL’s Managing Director, Michael Fraser, said the project was suspended "because of the community’s concern about any detection of BTEX and in the interests of acting prudently”.
However the company’s decision to delay notifying government agencies of the BTEX chemicals for 10 full days has also drawn the ire of the EPA.
“The EPA is concerned at AGL’s lack of timeliness and transparency in informing us of these results,” Gifford said.
“The EPA is reviewing AGL’s Environment Protection Licence to include new conditions requiring immediate reporting of these types of results when they are detected.
“All companies are required to immediately report any significant environmental harm or threat of harm to the EPA,” Gifford said.
Gifford’s concern is shared by NSW Labor Leader Luke Foley, who issued his own damning statement yesterday afternoon.
“This woebegone episode is a perfect demonstration why NSW needs an urgent moratorium on coal seam gas activity – including Gloucester,” Foley said.
The freshly installed NSW opposition leader, who been a staunch critic of the contentious industry, took the opportunity to blame “lax Baird Government oversight” for AGL’s “less than forthcoming” disclosures.
Foley also hit out at the EPA, which he said “has gone missing when it should have been nipping at [AGL’s] heels”.
Mr Foley called for a “a full and independent inquiry into AGL’s conduct at Gloucester,” suggesting as well that “given its chequered record, the Baird government must allow its own actions to be scrutinised in that inquiry”.
The NSW Labor party also took the opportunity to spruik its anti-CSG campaign platform, promising an elected Labor government would introduce a full moratorium on coal seam gas.
A Labor government, Foley said, would introduce sweeping ‘no-go zones’, arguing that CSG needed to be “proven to be safe” before it’s allowed to proceed.
The outrage over AGL’s handling of the BTEX chemicals marks the end of a horror month for AGL, which Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham this week accused of having a “battered corporate reputation”.
Just last week it was revealed that AGL had been drilling for coal seam gas under people’s homes in Sydney’s south-west, angering homeowners and anti-CSG activists.
These reports followed earlier revelations that an AGL contractor had transported 600,000 litres of untreated fracking water – the same kind which this week was found to have elevated levels of BTEX – to the wrong treatment facility.
According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, the transportation of the untreated water to that facility had been explicitly rejected by the local water authority.
Despite this, a subsequent EPA investigation the incident and determined that AGL had not breached its licence conditions.
Yet another EPA investigation, though, was launched mid-month into elevated levels of another chemical, monoethanolamine borate, which is used in the fracking process, that has been detected in ground and surface water.
The levels of monoethanolamine borate are “extremely low”, according to the EPA, but “it is important that the matter is investigated” the authority said.
The Office of Energy and Resources and the EPA had investigators on the ground at AGL’s Gloucester site yesterday, and both agencies have said the results of these investigations will be made public once the investigations have run their course.
Until such time, AGL will be prevented from resuming its operations at the Waukivory gas wells.
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