Coal seam gas (CSG) company Santos has admitted to polluting an aquifer in north-western NSW with uranium, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 8.
The incident is the first recorded groundwater contamination in Australia from CSG operations.
The incident happened at the Narrabri gas field in the Pilliga state forest. The forest is an environmentally unique habitat for several endangered species and is the largest dry native forest and woodland left in eastern Australia. Santos is undertaking exploration drills now, and eventually plans to operate 850 production wells in the area.
An investigation found uranium at levels 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines. Other heavy metals found in the water included lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron and nickel. Such a serious breach can be penalised with a maximum fine of $1 million. But incredibly, the company was fined just $1500.
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) said it was told of the breach in March last year. It said the toxins were not introduced, but naturally occurring in the soil, however a pond that was holding wastewater leaked and spread the heavy metals into a nearby aquifer.
EPA chief environmental regulator Mark Gifford said: “Our investigation into the matter revealed the installation of the liner within Pond 3 was of poor quality which resulted in the integrity of the liner being questionable.
“There was no evidence that contractors, engaged by [former operators] Eastern Star Gas, had carried out the necessary field testing, quality control or quality assurance during the installation, as is required by current government standards.”
A second SMH article on March 12 said although the EPA had recommended in March last year that Santos monitor the levels of radioactive elements in its operations, it did not follow up to check the company was following this recommendation or request the data at any time.
A similar incident took place in Queensland on March 13. Energy company Origin Energy was forced to stop work at 12 CSG drilling sites after workers had found asbestos in drilling fluids.
The contamination has proven what anti-CSG campaigners have long claimed, that the industry is an environmental risk to water and the land.
The Lock the Gate Alliance has called for all CSG exploration to be stopped immediately and for the NSW government to conduct an investigation into the issue.
Lock the Gate Alliance president Drew Hutton said: "This proven case of contamination in the Pilliga makes a lie of all the claims Santos have made about their CSG operations being safe.
"The uranium contamination of groundwater confirms that CSG is a dangerous, toxic industry and it needs to be stopped dead in its tracks before more extensive damage is done.
"It's extraordinary that contamination as serious as this has been swept under the carpet by the NSW government and trivialised with a paltry fine."
Stop CSG Illawarra echoed the calls for a ban. Spokesperson Jess Moore said: “Two days after the EPA issued a fine, the NSW government decided to fast-track the Santos CSG development in the Pilliga. Stop CSG Illawarra is calling on the government to tear up the agreement with Santos and vote to ban CSG development in drinking water catchments."
Santos has a history of accidents in the Pilliga forest. There have been 20 toxic CSG wastewater spills and continuing leaks from evaporation ponds, the Wilderness Society said.
In June 2011, Santos spilled 10,000 litres of untreated toxic wastewater onto a large area of ground. The water contained heavy metals including arsenic, lead and chromium, and was reported only when a local farmer noticed trees dying off.
The NSW government will make a decision about approval for Santos to continue its Narrabri gas field in January next year.