Coal seam gas (CSG) company Santos has until October 31, 2014, to disclose water and soil test results after legal action by farmers seeking information relating to the contamination of water bores on a property in the Pilliga Forest, near Narrabri, resulted in a NSW Land and Environment Court order.
The court order is a win for the Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord (MGPA), comprising local farmers concerned about whether CSG activity led to the contamination of the water bores.
In 2012, Pilliga farmer Tony Pickard was alerted by Santos that his bore, located around 1.5 kilometres from exploratory CSG wells, was unfit for drinking or domestic use. The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), who represents the MGPA, said a second bore has since shown possible effects of contamination.
The Pilliga Forest is at the centre of the CSG industry’s plans for growth into NSW, with an 850-well gas field being considered by the state government for the forest and surrounds. Santos’ Narrabri Gas Project would be the largest gas field in the state, and Santos says it could provide up to half of the state’s gas demand.
“Santos remains confident that there is no connection between our operations and the bacteria identified in Mr Pickard’s bore,” a spokesperson for the company said.
“Santos notes that Mr Pickard has grazing animals, a disused collapsed bore and a septic tank system all in close proximity to his bore, which may be the source of the bacteria,” the spokesperson said.
However, EDO NSW principal solicitor Sue Higginson said water testing and expert scientific advice indicate CSG activities may have caused the contamination.
The case comes after “numerous requests from the farmer, whose bore was contaminated, over the past two years and a request from EDO NSW for this information,” a spokesperson for the EDO said, “but Santos declined to provide all the requested documents”.
Chairperson of the MGPA David Quince questioned why Santos was reluctant to provide the information.
Mr Pickard has “impeccable [groundwater] records that go back years, all tested by the very best of authorities,” Mr Quince said. “When he found out his bore had been contaminated and went to the CSG industry that’s cropped up next to him for certain information, he had to go to the courts to find out basic stuff,” he said.
“You’d have thought being such an open and transparent industry, as they say they are, they would readily give that information out,” Mr Quince said.
However, Santos claimed that many of the documents requested by the EDO were not relevant to the case regarding Mr Pickard’s bore, and that the court confirmed that: “At all times Santos has acted transparently and in good faith to provide Mr Pickard with the information he has requested. This includes test results and samples,” the Santos spokesperson said.
The preliminary discovery case is the first brought against a CSG company which compels production of water quality testing and groundwater monitoring results.
“This case highlights the problems of a largely self-regulatory system, which relies on CSG companies doing their own water monitoring and reporting, and does not require this information to be made public,” Ms Higginson said.
The MGPA and EDO said they may use the data to launch civil enforcement proceedings against Santos over water pollution which, if successful, would vindicate anti-CSG activists’ claims that the industry contaminates aquifers.