By Naomi Hogan @NaomiTWS

19th March 2014 

Introduction, by Margo Kingston: The NSW Government and Santos did not want the people to know that Coal Seam Gas (#CSG) exploration in the Pilliga State Forest had polluted an aquifer, because that would blow their cover that fracking could not harm the Great Artesian Basin. We know this terrible truth because Naomi Hogan, the Wilderness Society’s full time #Pilliga campaigner, worked long and hard to uncover the truth, and because Australia still has some mainstream media which wants to report the truth in the public interest, in this case the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC. Naomi tells a fascinating journalistic detective story I reckon you’ll learn a lot from. Thank goodness so many Australians, including my mother Jann Alcorn, fund the Wilderness Society and other great environmental protectors. We can’t trust the Government to act in the public interest when big miners are at the table, and compromised governments are busily defunding Environmental Defenders Offices which could assist citizens to ensure environmental laws are not breached (more on that in a post to come). The Wilderness Society brief on the issue is here.

This month, the Australian public came to know about uranium and heavy metal contamination of a groundwater aquifer by coal seam gas company Santos in the Pilliga Forest of North West NSW. This is the back story to the revelation, and my insights into attempts by Santos and the NSW Government to hide the facts.

The incentive to carry out the information request that brought the uranium contamination issue to light stems from a cover-up that started long before it was on the public’s radar.

In May, 2013, there was word from landholders in the Pilliga that Santos was surveying new coal seam gas drill sites and pipelines. How could that be? There had been no review documents posted online in the usual fashion. I’d been watching the Mineral Resources site every day. Where were the documents that showed Santos’ plans for new work?

The Wilderness Society, Newcastle, put in phone calls to the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas and the Department of Trade and Investment. We sent emails, but got no replies. We were being fobbed off.

Finally, after ongoing questioning, new documents were posted online. On June 4, 2013, I put out a press release titled: “Revealed: CSG cover-up lasted over 10 weeks”.

It turned out that it had taken almost three months for new coal seam gas drilling plans to be made publicly available, failing Government procedure for that information to be posted within 10 days.

The hidden documents outlined the biggest new plan for coal seam gas exploration drilling in NSW. Why the ten-week delay? The Department of Energy and Resources cited an “administrative error”.

Now that dozens of documents were online, our work became about finding time to read through them all. Part of me felt it was a pointless exercise, as the documents were just for our information, because coal seam gas ‘exploration’ drilling does not provide the opportunity for public comment.

Then I spotted it, and I read the line twice: “Suspected leak at the main holding pond at Bibblewindi”.

This was news to me.

It turned out that these documents revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised concerns on May 2013 with the Office of Coal Seam Gas about future coal seam gas waste water handling at the Bibblewindi pond in the Pilliga.

ABC News Tamworth covered this story on the June 6, 2013: Government tells Santos rehabilitation plans not good enough.

The next day I got notice that environmental breaches in the Pilliga had recently been discussed in NSW Parliament, and that the Environment Minister had given a statement. I read the Parliamentary reference. What I saw was, again, news to me. The statement read: “At this point, the EPA has no evidence of any current environmental breaches but is investigating elevated results from routine ground water monitoring in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility. This investigation commenced in March 2013. The EPA cannot determine when the investigation will be completed”.

The EPA was running an investigation into ground water at Bibblewindi. Interesting.

Now that I knew there was a suspected leak, elevated results in groundwater and an EPA investigation going on, I felt that surely this was enough for a story. I called Ben Cubby at The Sydney Morning Herald and he pulled something together, making it to some back-page corner of that Saturday’s SMH. The heading read, Santos pollution alert as it pushes for more gas sites. No one seemed to care too much. Fair enough.

Time passed, the eight new coal seam gas drilling sites in question were approved, despite the ongoing investigation which I still knew very little about. My focus shifted to numerous other more urgent issues at hand regarding the community concerns about coal seam gas drilling in the Pilliga.

In early September 2013, after hearing nothing for months, I put in a call to the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas, asking where the groundwater investigation at Bibblewindi was up to. They called me back on Monday, September 16. The phone call is on the record via an internal email, I spotted it last week after trawling through the hundreds of heavily-censored documents that bought the uranium contamination to light.

It reads:

I contacted Naomi. She was inquiring about the Bibblewindi water investigation and wanted to know what we were looking at. I explained we were investigating a matter at Bibblewindi but as it was an investigation I could not discuss the matter further… I told her that I would contact her when the matters were finalised (I’ve made a note in my Tasks to do this). They are now down as high priority for me.

I would like to make the point here that there was no contact when the investigation was complete and matters were finalised.

After talking with the EPA, I could see that this whole investigation was just another barrier to finding out what was really going on. So, I decided to put in a request for papers under the NSW Freedom of Information laws. I carefully put together three questions and asked for:

All correspondence, reports and incidence reports that refer to groundwater monitoring at the Bibblewindi water treatment facility in the Pilliga forest of NSW, during the period of November 2012 to the present day.

All water and soil test results and analysis of any elevated levels contained in the results in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility in the Pilliga forest of NSW since November 2012.

The contents of the EPA investigation report that commenced in March 2013 regarding groundwater in the vicinity of the Bibblewindi water treatment facility.

I emailed the EPA with the request on September 23, 2013. After the first $30 cheque was accepted, they classed the request valid on October  1, 2013.

The EPA warned me that most of the documents would be withheld due to the ongoing investigation that I couldn’t be privy to. They told me it wouldn’t be worth my while due to the investigation and necessary censorship.  I understood, but was undeterred and pushed ahead with the request anyway, coughing up the additional $180 they wanted.

By mid-December they wanted more time to make the final decision. I didn’t feel like I really had a say in the matter. I let them have the time they requested.

Finally, in early February, 2014, a disk with almost 300 documents arrived in response to my request. The cover letter informed me that almost 100 full documents would not be released, and 5 others would be partially released. The hundreds I received also had information censored.

The phone had been ringing hot, and I headed off to the North West. It was all happening. Farmers were blocking Santos drill rigs; community meetings were being organised; and Gomeroi traditional owners requested me for briefings about coal seam gas in the Pilliga. Deputy NSW Premier and head of the state National Party, Andrew Stoner, had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to fast-track  the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga. I just had to run. The CD sat there, unopened.

I eventually got back to the office, totally inspired by the conviction and actions of farmers and community members in the North West, fighting to protect land and water from coal seam gas.

In response to the community opposition, Santos began a new ad campaign, claiming it is no threat to our groundwater resources. Buddies of the coal seam gas industry also started throwing claims around, and Peter Reith got a cosy column in The Sydney Morning Herald on February 25 stating: “I believe you would be hard pressed to find any independently confirmed cases of water contamination as a result of drilling by the gas industry after more than 2 million fracking operations in the US”.

I looked down from Reith’s confident words and noticed the CD of documents still sitting there. “I’ve got a million other things to do,” I thought to myself, so I put out a call for help, and a farmer from the North West committed to going through them all. “What a Saint!” I thought, as I posted off a copy of the CD.

On Thursday, March 7, 2014, the phone rang. The farmer found within the hundreds of documents a reference to uranium being in the groundwater at Bibblewindi. A check on the EPA website confirmed a media release stating Santos had been fined two weeks earlier. The release just said there were “elevated levels” and a “pollution incident”. It didn’t say anything about uranium.

The Sydney Morning Herald was alerted to the EPA media release. I told them about the uranium. They called the EPA, and the story unravelled on Saturday morning, March 9, 2014.  It was finally publicly reported that Santos had been very quietly fined a paltry $1500 for poisoning the aquifer in the Pilliga forest with uranium 20 times safe levels and other toxic heavy metals.

It was reported by some as the first proven case of aquifer contamination from CSG in Australia.

Now, I’ve been privy to numerous stories from across the globe regarding groundwater pollution incidences caused by unconventional gas mining. But the company’s lawyers outstrip the farmers and you can guess who ends up being silenced without ‘proof’.

The notable fact in this Pilliga case is that it provides government-endorsed proof that the aquifer was contaminated by coal seam gas activities, solidified by the fact the EPA handed out a fine for it.

But without ongoing pressure and independent investigation over months, this proof would have been conveniently swept under the carpet by government and industry. Like all the work to protect the North West from coal seam gas field industrialisation, it was a team effort that resulted in the information finally seeing the light of day.

Mark and Cherie Robinson at NSW Parliament.

Mark and Cherie Robinson at NSW Parliament.

The Monday following the weekend story, we held a press conference out the back of NSW Parliament with farmers who travelled down from the NSW North West to address their concerns with the groundwater contamination. Dry land farmer Mark Robinson was particularly compelling – he was just so angry that groundwater was contaminated and farmers were not told, and that the National Party had abandoned the bush for Santos.

Santos held a counter press conference hours later in the same place. Vice President of Eastern Australia, Santos’ James Baulderstone, stated twice that: “We are the good guys here”. Under a barrage of press questioning, Baulderstone and his Santos colleague eventually stormed off. I looked him up later. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Baulderstone’s salary and bonus equals $950,000 per year. This guy seems to be making a small fortune out of pushing a risky business that has both Santos shareholders and farmers on edge. “Good guys”, eh?

That same afternoon, North West farmers, a Lock the Gate representative and I headed to the EPA for a meeting with Mark Gifford, the Chief Environmental Regulator. Alongside confirming that yes, it was an aquifer that had been contaminated (Santos had their hydrogeologist come out that morning claiming it was a “perched layer”, as if that somehow made uranium contamination okay), Mark Gifford confirmed he would get back to me with the list of all media outlets that EPA media release was sent to.

I also asked for the list of government departments and Ministers that were privy to the release. Did Andrew Stoner have any idea about the groundwater contamination when he signed that MOU with Santos, just two days after the release went up?

I’m still waiting on Mark’s response. In the mean time I’m determined to gain access to the hundred documents I missed in the first request, so the saga continues. I put yet another cheque in the mail with an updated request last week to try and get the documents that they withheld while the investigation was being carried out. I want the full story.

This week I expect to hear back that my request for the documents previously withheld is valid. And then we wait. I wonder if I’ll ever get that phone call about Bibblewindi they committed to last September? I guess they know I’ve figured it out despite them.