HUNTER Water has refused to dispose of waste water from AGL’s Gloucester coal seam gas project because of concerns about chemical contamination.
AGL, which is yet to receive final state-government approval to frack four pilot wells, approached Hunter Water last year about transporting waste water from the site to a treatment plant.
But Hunter Water has told AGL that the waste water produced from hydraulic fracking would not meet its criteria for tankered waste water.
‘‘Hunter Water’s waste water works are designed and licensed for the treatment of human effluent,’’ its letter to AGL states.
‘‘Waste water (flow-back water) from hydraulic fracturing has the potential to adversely impact the waste water treatment process and therefore Hunter Water’s ability to meet its environment protection licence conditions.’’
Hunter Water’s manager of government and media relations Jeremy Bath said the utility was specifically concerned about chemical additives likely to be in the waste water.
Waste water produced from coal seam gas extraction often contains a range of fracking and drilling chemicals and heavy metals including arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium. It is also typically highly saline.
It was revealed on Saturday that energy company Santos was fined $1500 after
contaminated waste water seeped from a holding pond at its Pilliga forest project near Narrabri into an aquifer.
As a result the aquifer had increased concentrations of lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron, nickel and uranium.
An AGL spokeswoman said the company would dispose of waste water from the Gloucester project at an appropriate licensed facility, in accordance with its assessment of environmental impacts.
While Hunter Water would not accept the waste water for disposal, she said AGL had contacted other licensed recycled water and liquid waste water facilities.
Discussions with two of the operators were continuing.
‘‘Flow-back water from AGL’s hydraulic fracturing is a combination of sand, water and diluted additives,’’ the AGL spokeswoman said.
‘‘One of these additives breaks down bacteria. As Hunter Water is a sewage treatment facility where bacteria is used to treat human waste, this is not compatible with their processes.’’
Groundswell Gloucester chairwoman Julie Lyford said contaminated waste water was widely regarded as a dangerous and unacceptable byproduct of the coal seam gas industry.
‘‘Produced water has been used to irrigate crops which have been fed to cattle, raising serious questions about the potential contamination of the human food chain,’’ she said.
‘‘With the grave issues of harmful waste water to human and animal health and the uniquely problematic geology in the Gloucester Basin, it makes coal seam gas industrialisation of this beautiful valley highly risky and unacceptable.’’
- Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is used to improve the flow of gas from formations that are difficult to access due to depth and rock composition.
- Fluid is forced into the well under pressure, causing the rock to fracture, from a few metres to tens of metres.
- The main ingredient of the hydraulic fracturing fluid is water. A material known as a ‘‘proppant’’ – typically sand – is mixed with the water, forcing its way into the cracks and holding them open. Less than 1per cent is made up of chemicals.
- Anti-fouling agents are also added to prevent the build-up of bacteria that could clog the well and hydraulic fracture lines.
By SEAN NICHOLLS
THE Environment Protection Authority took almost a year to issue a $1500 fine to energy company Santos over contamination of an aquifer near a major coal seam gas project, which included uranium at a level 20 times the Australian drinking water guideline for human health.
But the authority has defended the time taken to act and the size of the fine – which could have been as high as $1million – arguing it immediately moved to establish there was no threat to human health or livestock.
Fairfax Media revealed details of the incident on Saturday, the first confirmation of aquifer contamination associated with coal seam gas activity in Australia.
It has prompted a call from the NSW opposition for a memorandum of understanding signed by Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner to fast-track the project, in the Pilliga Forest, near Narrabri, to be torn up.
The Wilderness Society and Greens are demanding a halt to coal seam gas operations in Australia pending a full investigation into the industry.
The investigation was sparked in March last year after Santos informed the EPA that routine testing of groundwater at the project detected ‘‘elevated levels’’ of naturally occurring elements.
It concluded the contamination was caused by water leaking from a pond used to hold waste water when gas was extracted from wells.
The pond was poorly constructed by the project’s previous owner, Eastern Star Gas.
Santos said the pond was decommissioned in December 2011, shortly after it took full ownership of the project.
Test results commissioned by Santos showed lead, aluminium, arsenic, barium, boron, nickel and uranium at levels ‘‘elevated when compared to livestock, irrigation and health guidelines’’.
The uranium level detected was 335micrograms per litre – about 20 times the Australian drinking water guideline for health of 17micrograms per litre.
However, the EPA said the metals were ‘‘not additives’’, and occurred naturally in the surrounding soil and water.
The results were available to the EPA by the end of March 2013.
Yesterday, an EPA spokeswoman said Santos contacted the agency and ‘‘within 24 hours of receiving the results, the EPA had contacted NSW Health and the Office of Water and ascertained that there was no immediate health or environmental risks posed by the readings’’.
Despite legislation allowing for a maximum fine of $1 million for corporations that pollute water if the matter is heard in court, the agency decided a $1500 penalty notice was appropriate.
This was based on ‘‘evidence which showed that environmental impacts were minimal and that Santos had reported and responded to the incident quickly’’.
On Saturday, Santos described the affected aquifer as ‘‘localised groundwater’’ that is ‘‘very limited in area and water volume ... water sampled is not connected with regional aquifers.’’