'Questionable safety' leads to coal seam gas leakage

Locals protest against Santos' CSG mines in the Pilliga Forest.

A report conducted by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has shown environmental concerns and technical lapses in coal seam gas (CSG) mining by Santos at their sites in Gunnedah and the Pilliga Forest, NSW.

The report, published in Fairfax Media, is an audit from May last year.

The EPA drew up a plan to release the report, which it originally wanted to use to build its profile as “the new lead regulator for the industry ... and to increase community confidence" according to internal documents.

Instead, the EPA decided not to release it and it was only after a series of freedom of information requests by the Greens and the Sun-Herald that it was released.

The report shows several problems, including “questionable safety procedures, leaking ponds, inadequate monitoring and unreliable analytical methods”, Fairfax reported.

One issue was that no groundwater monitoring was taking place at the Wilga power station. This was a concern for the local community as the groundwater could be contaminated, affecting nearby plant and farm life.

Santos told Green Left Weekly in a statement that it is “committed to the highest industry standards to ensure natural gas is produced safely and ground water is protected”.

Santos said it worked closely with NSW regulators “to identify and correct previous practices and reporting processes” since acquiring existing infrastructure in the Pilliga.

Santos cited the $17 million it spent to upgrade and rehabilitate the land, including the impacted land at Bibblewindi.

But campaigner for The Wilderness Society Naomi Hogan told Green Left Weekly that nothing has changed. “Santos knew about the leaking ponds years before there was any action to remediate them. And despite remediation, the area is still damaged. Trees are not growing and the soil is irreparably barren. It’s still a dead zone and $17 million won’t fix the problem.

“Santos claims it follows world’s best practice but since taking over [the Pilliga project] there has been spills of drilling fluid at its new ‘world-class’ well sites.

“As the NSW Chief Scientist has said, it is an industry that comes with risks.”

Another issue raised in the report was that unused gas wells were not locked and their handles were still in place. A spokesperson for the EPA said "locking and removing the handles from unused gas wells is done for safety reasons, because it ensures the wells will not be tampered with or accessed by unauthorised personnel".

Santos said “the wells in question were shut in and not operational at the time.

“It is not usual industry practice to lock a well that has been shut in. At the request of the Office of Coal Seam Gas these valves have now been locked.”

Speaking to Green Left Weekly, Greens spokesperson for mining Jeremy Buckingham said the details in this report show that “the EPA is too close to industry and its default position is to allow or ignore pollution and activities that are inappropriate and pollute their environment.

“How can the community have any confidence in the EPA to regulate the industry — an industry that the vast majority of people in NSW do not want — when they are operating in a secretive and totally non-transparent manner.

“What concerned me most about the report was that the EPA has given CSG companies up to two weeks prior warning when they are going to do an audit.”

The EPA said the audits were intended for internal purposes and they provided notice to Santos of an upcoming audit because between May and September last year, when it carried out the reviews, it was not the “primary regulator” for CSG activities.

“The CSG operators did not hold an environment protection licence against which compliance could be assessed so this review was carried out for the purpose of gathering information,” the EPA said.

Protests against CSG are happening across Australia, including in Gloucester valley, NSW, where concerned citizens have set up a permanent camp against the proposed drilling of 110 wells by AGL.

In May there was high profile success for the anti-fracking campaign, Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, in Bentley, near Lismore NSW. For four months, demonstrators had camped next to the proposed drilling site of the oil company Metgasco, before the NSW government suspended its licence to drill.

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