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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Coal seam gas mining and drinking water

Are you a Sydney Water customer? If so, the water that comes out of your tap comes from land managed by the Sydney Catchment Authority. This land includes five catchments – Warragamba, Woronora, Upper Nepean, Blue Mountains and Shoalhaven – covering less than two percent of the land in NSW. It supplies drinking water for 60 percent of the state’s population.

A CSG well has been drilled in the Warragamba catchment.

This largely unspoilt, native bushland captures and filters our drinking water. It is strictly managed to protect drinking water quality; unauthorised or illegal access attracts fines of up to $44,000. Yet coal seam gas (CSG) licences and wells have been approved in our drinking water catchments, and the current legislation does not stop CSG mining or exploration there.

The simple facts

Our water catchments are protected, by law, by the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) – whose primary mandate is the protection of our drinking water for the purpose of public health.

The public must keep out by law or run the risk of a $44,000 fine – just for setting foot in the “Schedule One Special Areas” within our water catchments, so precious are they to the integrity of our drinking water supply.

In December 2012 the NSW Minister for Primary Industries replaced the entire Board of the SCA. The new chairperson is a former director of two of Australia’s largest mining companies, and for the first time in its history there is no public health expert on the SCA Board.

A CSG well has been drilled in the Warragamba catchment and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure has recommended approval for Apex Energy to proceed with a 16-CSG well project in and around the Woronora and Upper Nepean catchments (though, thankfully, in July 2013 the Planning Assessment Commission rejected a time extension that would have allowed the project to proceed at this time). The production plan is for hundreds of CSG wells there.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell made a clear promise to protect our water catchments from the risks of coal seam gas mining, a promise he has broken.

Contamination

CSG is trapped underground by water pressure. To mine the gas, this water must be drawn out of the coal seam to the surface. It is high in salt and methane, and can contain naturally occurring toxic and radioactive compounds and heavy metals.

Soil testing around CSG wells and wastewater ponds in the Pilliga forest in NSW in 2012 found arsenic, lead, chromium, salts and petrochemicals – only made public after local residents tipped off the EPA.

Desalinated CSG waste water released into the Condamine River contained boron, silver, chlorine, copper, cadmium cyanide, zinc and other toxic chemicals.

The NSW government wants to bring the CSG industry into these protected areas, while keeping the public out with a $44,000 fine for trespassing.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking)

When using fracking – a CSG extraction method that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture coal and increase the flow of gas out of the well – contaminants escape into the surrounding environment. Only 20 percent to 80 percent of fracking fluids are recovered.

In May 2011, a fracking blow out occurred at AGL’s CSG well head at Camden North in NSW during routine maintenance. This incident released plumes of contaminated water and methane into the air in the vicinity of housing and a water catchment feeder stream. AGL failed to report the incident for two days until the leakage was shown on TV. In June 2011, there was a similar blow out at an Arrow Energy CSG well head near Dalby in Queensland. Methane and water spewed up to 90 metres in the air for two days before being capped.

Well failure

CSG wells connect the surface to coal seams, and pass through any aquifers present. About 6-7 percent of unconventional gas wells fail and leak within a year of construction, and about 50 percent fail before being shut down. When a CSG project ends, the wells – built and plugged with concrete and steel that degrade – must last forever.

If CSG mining is allowed in our water catchments it will forever link toxic coal seams with the surface where our drinking water is collected. CSG well integrity relies on concrete and steel lining; materials that degrade over time.

Aquifer depletion

The federal government’s Water Group estimates the industry will draw at least 666 and up to 5,400 gigalitres of water out of the ground each year. For comparison, Australian households use a total 1,872 gigalitres per year.

A 2009 NSW Office of Water report into drinking water catchment health said: “Groundwater is a significant resource in most catchments … As well as being extracted for town supply, stock and domestic use, and irrigation and industrial use, groundwater is a major contributor to base flow in rivers and streams in dry periods, and in maintaining wetlands and other groundwater dependent ecosystems. Excessive extraction for human use can decrease the amount of groundwater available for maintaining surface aquatic ecosystems, and can also lead to salinisation of the resource.”

Leaking methane

CSG mining results in fugitive methane emissions – a highly flammable and potent greenhouse gas. These emissions come from leaking pipelines, wells and processing plants, methane in produced water, and methane escaping through underground systems.

Researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said air sampling of unconventional gas fields in Colorado showed leakage rates of 4 percent on average, and up to 7.7 percent.

This leaking methane can easily be ignited by sparks or cinders, and lead to fires that threaten water quality. The NSW Office of Water report said: “Bushfires can have devastating effects on catchment health, destroying native vegetation, farmland and infrastructure. Areas burnt by bushfires are prone to accelerated soil erosion, resulting in enhanced sediment and nutrient export to the surface water bodies downstream. Removal of vegetation by fire also reduces the ability of catchment areas to retain rainfall.”

Industrial footprint

CSG exploration and mining requires a well every 300 to 900 metres, connected to roads and pipelines, pumps, generators, compressors, ponds or tanks and storage facilities. Contrary to industry advertising that depicts CSG wells as a minor feature on the landscape, CSG fields have a big industrial footprint. This requires clearing and degradation of large areas of land.

But plants along rivers and streams, native vegetation and wetlands are vital to catchment health. Plants stabilise river and stream banks, and reduce erosion and flooding. Native vegetation in catchments retains rainfall and lowers the risk of excess runoff and flash flooding. It reduces soil and groundwater acidity and salinity, and lowers soil and nutrient loss into waterways. Likewise, wetlands store runoff, sediments, nutrients and other pollutants and reduce flooding.

It’s astonishing that this industry is being encouraged to proceed, with no scientific studies conducted into the impact of production CSG mining in our water catchments, or into the combined impacts of CSG and other mining activities (such as long wall mining) – a significant factor considering damage already in evidence.

What you can do

Please don’t underestimate your contribution – make a difference … Get involved!

It’s not too late to stop this.

The campaign for a ban on CSG mining and exploration in NSW catchments has so far stopped approved drilling in the Woronora and Upper Nepean catchments going ahead. It has also forced a change in NSW government rhetoric – though not action. It has not yet won a ban.

The gains so far have been made by community members finding out what’s going on, doing what we can, and standing together to stop it.

Connect, stay informed, get involved!

More people need to get involved for this campaign to protect our water and win a ban. It can’t be up to “someone else.

stopcsg.org/ourwater  

Next article – Great Barrier Reef turtles threatened

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