Santos escapes with a slap on the wrist after sending toxic chemicals into water supply


A coal seam gas rig rises over the Pilliga at twilight. Creative Commons: Lock the Gate, 2011

A coal seam gas rig rises over the Pilliga at twilight. Creative Commons: Lock the Gate, 2011

The government of New South Wales has stuck the energy company Santos with a paltry $1,500 (US$ 1,350) fine for contaminating groundwater with a host of toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead, and uranium.

The leak, which sprung from storage ponds connected to a coal seam gas project, leached into an aquifer near Narrabri, in the Pilliga forest nearly a year ago. Groundwater tests found the spill to be serious; according to the Sydney Morning Herald, levels of uranium were 20 times higher than the level specified by safe drinking water guidelines.

Last year, Santos was levied a fine of $52,500 (US$ 47,200) after it failed to report a 2011 leak of 10,000 litres of contaminated water, also in the Pilliga.

As the Pilliga is an important recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, this incident shows that coal seam gas contamination puts Australia’s greatest inland water resource in danger.

Legislation in Australia allows fines of up to $1 million for instances of water contamination. The Australian Environmental Protection Authority, however, decided upon little more than a slap on the wrist for Santos, a company that brought in $3.8 billion (US$ 3.4 billion) in revenue last year.

Now, the O’Farrell ministry has vowed that it will not bow to pressure to halt coal seam gas operations, even despite calls to do so from government leaders, environmentalists, and farmers.

Greens NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham released a statement in which he called the contamination “totally unacceptable” and held up the incident as “definitive proof” of the dangers of coal seam gas.

Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders called upon Environment Minister Greg Hunt to immediately halt all coal seam gas operations “until there is a full independent and transparent investigation into the industry.”

Local residents, who depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods, are likewise riled by the government’s alliance with fossil fuel producers at the expense of public health.

Mark Robinson, a famer and activist from Coonamble, told Guardian Australia that the leak was his “worst nightmare.” He and with his wife Cherie are facing charges for disrupting drilling work by Santos. He continued:

Farmers in our fifties have had to become serious activists to get the state government to help us protect our homes and the nation’s food bowl. It’s crazy, I have to pinch myself that it’s happening.

Santos is pushing to rapidly expand coal seam gas operations in NSW, arguing that there is a looming “gas crisis.”  In reality, though, the company is trying to cash in on a goldrush that will be unlocked when new export facilities in Gladstone are completed.

The manufactured and “artificial” gas crisis, along with ads greenwashing water impacts, and comically large overstatement of job creation, are part of the industry’s campaign to overstate its benefits and hide its impacts.

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