SANTOS has moved to assure residents its $2 billion coal seam gas project in the Pilliga is “99.9 per cent safe”, despite revelations it was fined last month for contaminating an aquifer.
The energy giant was in damage control mode yesterday after it emerged the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) fined the company $1500 for a groundwater “pollution incident” detected in 2013.
The fine was issued just two days before the NSW government signed a memorandum of understanding promising to fast-track its assessment of Santos’ proposal to drill up to 850 wells near Narrabri.
It came after a year-long investigation found a leaking toxic water storage pond had resulted in elevated levels of uranium, lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron and nickel in an aquifer about 11m below the surface.
The incident has been seized upon by opponents of the Narrabri gas project as evidence the extraction of coal seam gas cannot be done without placing the environment at unacceptable risk.
Wee Waa cotton farmer Jeff Carolan said Santos “should immediately cease activities, pack up their equipment and depart” the area.
“I am absolutely appalled to learn that groundwater in the Pilliga has been contaminated by CSG activities. It is basically our worst nightmare come true,” he said.
“We have been told repeatedly by Santos and the NSW government that there was no risk to our water supplies from CSG – and now we know that is absolute rubbish.”
Liverpool Plains farmer and anti-CSG campaigner Phil Herbert said the paltry $1500 fine the EPA imposed on Santos, which last month reported an after-tax profit of more than $500 million, was a disgrace.
He also said the fact it took a freedom of information request from the Wilderness Society for full details of an incident first reported nearly a year earlier to emerge “stinks to high heaven”.
“The fact is that the system is clearly fundamentally flawed when a government can sign a memorandum of understanding in the full knowledge that this has occurred and wasn’t yet made public,” he said.
But Santos maintains that as the leaking pond was installed by Eastern Star Gas in 2007, well before it acquired the company in 2011, the incident should not reflect on Santos’ ability to carry out the project safely.
Santos hydrogeologist Glenn Toogood said the leak was only discovered because the company installed monitoring equipment around the pond following a comprehensive review of the former Eastern Star Gas operation.
He said the company disputed the EPA’s categorisation of the contaminated area as an aquifer, saying it did not meet the accepted definition and was, in fact, a completely contained “shallow perch layer”.
Mr Toogood also said the presence of uranium – found in the groundwater to be 20 times the safe drinking level – was naturally occurring in the surrounding soil and not an additive Santos used.