Farmers opposed to Santos’s coal seam operations in north-western NSW have begun legal action to force the company to reveal information about alleged contamination of two water bores near exploration wells.
The Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Association applied to the NSW Land and Environment Court on Wednesday to require Santos to release water-monitoring data related to drilling near one farmer’s property south of Narrabri. The NSW Environmental Defenders Office is representing the group.
The grazier, Tony Pickard, had previously made public concerns that two of his bores had begun producing undrinkable water in 2012, forcing him to install rainwater tanks. The bores are located one or two kilometres from seven active CSG wells, known as the Dewhurst 8 pilot site, on the neighbouring property.
"We believe there is a case that CSG activity has caused this groundwater pollution incident, however we are missing a few vital pieces of information,” said David Quince, a farmer on the Liverpool plains and chairman of the association. "We have been driven to this action as a result of the secrecy employed by Santos and the disinterest shown by the NSW government. We are acting now out of our deep concern for the future of groundwater in our region and the major risks posed to it by CSG drilling.”
Opponents to gas drilling in northern NSW secured at least a temporary reprieve last week, with the NSW government suspending the exploration licence of Metgasco. The company had "mischaracterised" the nature of its drilling near Bentley, a spokesman for the energy minister, Anthony Roberts, said.
“Santos has conducted tests of Mr Pickard’s bore. These results have been provided to him,” a spokesman for Santos said.
“Santos is confident that our operations have had no impact on the quality of Mr Pickard’s bore.”
Mr Roberts said Mr Pickard and fellow association members had been told they could lodge formal complaints about mining impacts on water to agencies such as the Office of Coal Seam Gas, and the Environment Protection Authority.
"I am advised that Mr Pickard has previously made complaints and these have been addressed by the relevant regulatory body at the time of the complaint," Mr Roberts said.
A spokesman for Planning Minister Pru Goward said the matter is a civil one and "we'll leave it to the parties".
Santos’ $1 billion plans for the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga Forest include the drilling of 850 CSG wells over 40 years. The work was declared as a “strategic energy project” by the NSW government in February, days after it had been fined $1500 for contaminating an aquifer with uranium levels 20 times safe drinking water levels.
“We’ve received very little information or assistance” from Santos, said Mr Quince, who is also councillor on the Gunnedah Council. Almost 99 per cent of locals “don’t want this to proceed”.
Claims by Santos that Mr Pickard’s bores had become contaminated because of sewage from his home or from his sheep were “just ludicrous”, Mr Quince said.
“If that’s sewage, we’re all in trouble,” he said, noting the second affected bore was more than a kilometre from the septic tank.
And if the sheep are to blame, “every aquifer in Australia would be contaminated”, he said.
Santos last week used its annual general meeting in Adelaide to defend the CSG project, with chairman Ken Borda telling shareholders it “must be progressed as a priority” to help support a competitive manufacturing sector, Fairfax Media reported.
The board won a shareholder vote to reject a resolution brought by The Wilderness Society to drop its CSG plans.
Mr Quince, who attended the AGM, said other miners such as Rio Tinto and Whitehaven had provided funds to conduct research to gain community support but Santos had not.
“The government seems to be colluding with Santos to fast-track this project,” he said. “When you think about the risks it represents both for our underground water and also for agricultural biosecurity, and I’m absolutely stunned.
“Until the science is established and all the questions answered, to fast track this is just not good enough when you look at the long-term ramifications. Once the damage is done, it’s not rectifiable.”
Minister Roberts denied that its agreement with Santos will "fast-track the process" or provide a certain outcome.
"The project will only be approved should it pass the government’s stringent assessment processes including all the necessary internal and external approvals, and is carried out in accordance with the state’s regulations and guidelines," Mr Roberts said.
The Land and Environment Court is likely to hold its first hearing on the action on June 6, days ahead of a public meeting in Narrabri on June 12 by the Planning Assessment Commission to hear submissions about Santos's plans.