CSG company slapped on the wrist for pollution

The YouTube video showing methane gas bubbles in the Condamine river, shot by Dayne Pratzky.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in NSW has fined a coal seam gas (CSG) company $3000 after it twice polluted a creek in the Pilliga forest near Narrabri in NSW by discharging contaminated water.

Explaining the fines, the EPA said it “issued two penalty notices with fines of $1500 each to Eastern Star Gas for discharging polluted water containing high levels of salt into Bohena Creek in March and November 2010”.

The alarm was raised in October last year by campaigners who noticed dead frogs and a significant amount of dead trees adjacent to the creek. They commissioned independent tests on the water from the creek. The tests cost more than the resulting fine. Eastern Star Gas was bought out by Santos last year. Santos denied that any leak took place.

The EPA started an investigation in December. A month later Santos admitted that 10,000 litres of untreated CSG wastewater was illegally discharged. As well as being fined, Santos was issued a formal warning for a discharge in December that contained high levels of ammonia.

Lock the Gate Alliance responded to the outcome with dismay. It said on July 6: “Three thousand dollars is chicken feed to a coal seam gas company … this is a nod and a wink to coal seam gas companies that no matter how bad their practices, they will never be held to account in any serious way. It puts coal seam gas companies above the environment, above communities and above the law.”

Two other incidents in Queensland highlight the safety risks that the CSG industry poses to people living nearby. Landholders near Chinchilla noticed in February this year that a five-kilometre stretch of the Condamine River was bubbling with gas. Dayne Pratzky recorded a graphic video of this in May. The film shows a gas detector recording high levels of methane bubbling up from the river (see below).

Origin Energy, which operates four pilot CSG wells a kilometre from the river, said on May 30: “We are confident that the seepage apparent in the Condamine River does not result from our activities.”

However Gavin Mudd, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering at Monash University, said in an article on The Conversation: “There is clearly a technically plausible process for CSG activities to be a factor in the methane gas now bubbling to the surface — either wholly or in part ... Personally, I would find it hard to be convinced that CSG has nothing whatsoever to do with the gas bubbling away in the Condamine.”

Queensland Health is monitoring the health of several families living near gas wells in Tara. AAP said on July 12 that families living within an estate that also houses five CSG wells have complained that the wells are making them sick.

AAP reported: “Debbie Orr, a pregnant mother of five, says at least 19 families living in an estate near Tara, west of Brisbane, are suffering nose bleeds, sore eyes, nausea, vomiting, rashes and diarrhoea.” Orr called for an independent study into the health impacts of CSG mining.

A spokesperson for the Australian Medical Association Queensland said on July 5 the symptoms are consistent with gas exposure.

Lock the Gate Alliance President Drew Hutton called on Queensland health minister Lawrence Springborg to “immediately initiate a community health study, in consultation with the Gasfield Community Support Group, to establish the dimensions of the health problem and develop a program of action for addressing it”.

But Springborg has dismissed the health concerns, telling Macquarie Radio on July 11 that just two people have presented to local doctors with the claim they are being affected by CSG.

Orr told AAP that Springborg’s response was not acceptable: “People don't go to their GPs saying they're sick because of CSG. They go in complaining of headaches, nose bleeds and rashes.”

She asked Springborg to stay in Tara and “experience the headaches, smell the gas and see what my children go through”. A spokesperson for Springborg declined the offer.