Evasions rub salt in the wound

When it comes to coal seam gas, proper process and accountability are elusive at best.
By · 30 Nov 2013
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By ·
30 Nov 2013
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It might be an idea to rename the EPA the BPA. This minor change, from the Environment Protection Authority to the Backside Protection Authority, would enshrine more precisely the agency's central priorities.

The Backside Protection Authority sallied forth this week in strident denial of a story we had penned about coal seam gas. "EPA refutes claims that it has been 'sidelined' or 'ignored'," the press release said.

Today, we will not only refute this refuting by the Backside Protection Authority, but we will also say the Office of Water has been sidelined too. The Office of Water ought to be renamed the Office of Water Sometimes. Or perhaps, for ease of branding, we could just drop the last two letters and make it the Office of Wat.

Both the Office of Wat and the Backside Protection Agency are being steamrolled by the Office of Coal Seam Gas (yes, its real name; despite a leaked memo that revealed the government's plans to banish the words "coal seam gas" in favour of, ahem, "natural gas from coal seams"). Anyway, the Office of Coal Seam Gas reports to the Department of Trade, which should be renamed the department for Stuff You're Not Meant to Know About (So Rack Off).

When it comes to coal seam gas, proper process and accountability are elusive at best. If you ask questions there is only one sure outcome, you will be given the run-around.

It took us a week just to get fobbed off by the Office of Wat (no, you can't see our advice, talk to the Office of Coal Seam Gas). As for the Backside Protection Authority, first it ensures a secret report with its real view on Gloucester finally sees the light of day - just in case it needs to show it opposed it when it wrecks the farmland, then it dodges questions about it and accuses your humble scribe of being grouchy on the phone ... and hangs up.

To the heart of the matter then: AGL, which has been a fair corporate citizen over the years, has had a brain explosion. It plans to dump 37,500 tonnes of salt and a suite of other toxins onto the Avon River floodplain as its plan for disposal of produced water at the Gloucester coal seam gas project.

AGL denies, rather implausibly, that 37,500 tonnes of salt will kill the river and the farmland.

Trials are now afoot and the brine is already being sprayed - they call it "irrigated" - over the floodplain. AGL says its trials prove there is no environmental damage. Memo to AGL's board: there is a difference between going out for a few drinks and quaffing a bottle of scotch every day for 15 years. The cumulative effects of spraying 2500 tonnes of salt a year on pristine farmland can hardly be justified by a few trials.

In Queensland, they dispose of the wastewater from coal seam gas mining by reverse osmosis. In Victoria, the government has just extended its moratorium on fracking until June 2015.

In NSW though, where the geology is more sensitive to fracking than Victoria, it is open slather. And though supposedly still in the exploration phase, AGL's Gloucester project has all the hallmarks of a fait accompli.

The local community is up in arms. The local water authority doesn't like it. Behind closed doors, the Backside Protection Authority doesn't fancy it either - as evinced by a hitherto secret report that slams the project as "high risk". In spite of all this, and the fact that a full mining licence is yet to be approved, AGL is building its pipeline. It is clearly getting a nod and a wink from somewhere.

Upping the ante in the lobbying stakes, Shaughn Morgan, AGL's manager of government relations, shot off a memo to state MPs this week singing the praises of the Gloucester venture.

"Please find a link to the views of third-generation Gloucester dairy farmer Mark Harris. In the clip, Mark talks about his first-hand experience in having an AGL gas well on his property for the past three years."

Harris, like other landowners who have done a deal with the miners, not only enjoys a financial benefit but is also bound by confidentiality arrangements. His is hardly an independent voice.

There is a credible voice in all this though, and that is the voice of groundwater expert professor Philip Pells who has examined the project in depth and at his own expense.

Pells is a withering critic of both the project (on environmental grounds) and the state's process ("bizarre" and lacking in accountability).

Whereas AGL cited the Bureau of Meteorology rainfall salinity data to support claims its wastewater is no more salty than rainwater, Pells pointed out the weather bureau did not actually measure salinity in rainfall.

In any case, AGL's salinity data incorporates the dilution effect from mixing the produced water with fresh water from the Avon River. But as Pells points out, in bewilderment, diluting the salty water does not reduce the amount of salt. "And given that dilution does not reduce the amount of salt, what happens to the salt?"

Can't get an answer from the Office of Wat, can't get an answer from the Backside Protection Authority. Naturally, the Office of Coal Seam Gas and AGL reckon everything is hunky dory.

And who is doing the monitoring on soil and salinity effects in the Gloucester trials? Why, according to an obscure letter (which, unlike the BPA report, has been in the public domain), it is none other than "the titleholder" AGL.
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