Santos responsible for contamination of drinking water.
EPA court report
CSG contamination Uranium levels 20 times safety guidelines
A coal seam gas project operated by energy company Santos in northwestern NSW has contaminated a nearby aquifer, with uranium at levels 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines, an official investigation has found.
It is the first confirmation of aquifer contamination associated with coal seam gas activity in Australia – a blow to an industry pushing state and federal governments for permission to expand.
Santos was fined $1500 by the NSW Environment Protection Authority, which posted a media release on its website on February 18, without identifying the nature of the contamination.
Two days later, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner signed a memorandum of understanding with Santos to speed up the project, in the Pilliga forest near Narrabri, guaranteeing a decision on its future by January 23 next year.
The EPA says it launched an investigation after routine testing in March last year by Santos of groundwater around the project – which remains in the test well stage – detected ‘‘ elevated levels of total dissolved solids and slightly elevated levels of other elements’’ .
The investigation concluded there was no evidence contractors engaged by the previous owner of the project, Eastern Star Gas, followed strict rules when building a pond to hold waste water and brine produced when gas is extracted. The investigation concluded the pond liner was of ‘‘ poor quality, which resulted in the integrity of the liner being questionable’’ .
On Friday, EPA chief environmental regulator Mark Gifford confirmed the contamination was caused by water leaking from the pond and that lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron, nickel and uranium had been detected in an aquifer at levels ‘‘ elevated when compared to livestock, irrigation and health guidelines’’ .
Mr Gifford said the metals are ‘‘ not additives’ ’ and occur naturally in the surrounding soil and water.
‘‘ However, the leaking pond has mobilised the elements and moved them into the aquifer, increasing their concentrations,’’ he said. ‘‘ Importantly this water is not used for livestock, irrigation or human consumption.’’
The $1500 fine ‘‘ reflects the level of environmental impact, which was small’’ , he said.
Mr Gifford also confirmed uranium levels were detected in an aquifer at 335 micrograms per litre – about 20 times the safe drinking water guideline of 17 micrograms per litre.
Wilderness Society national director Lyndon Schneiders called on federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt to stop all CSG operations immediately, ‘‘ until there is a full independent and transparent investigation into the industry’’ .
‘‘ We now have proof that coal seam gas mining contaminates groundwater and aquifers, flying in the face of the industry’s claims,’’ Mr Schneiders said.
NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said confirmation of aquifer contamination was ‘‘ game over for coal seam gas’’ . ‘‘ Here is definitive proof that coal seam gas pollutes aquifers,’’ he said. ‘‘ It’s scandalous that the government knew of this serious contamination incident when they announced the MOU to fast-track the Narrabri project and when the Premier downplayed concern about the toxic risk associated with CSG on radio.’’
The EPA has ordered Santos to ensure the contamination does not spread and that the holding ponds ‘‘ are secured and adequately maintained’’ .
The requirement will form part of a legally binding licence and pollution reduction plan. Santos must also prepare a ‘‘ groundwater remediation and monitoring plan’ ’ aimed at remediating the affected aquifers.
A Santos spokesman said the company has ‘‘always committed to the community that we will operate to the highest standards and that requires construction of new water treatment facilities, which we are doing’’ .
We the people do not believe you, while your hands are firmly in the pockets of our politicians !