The NSW government has sidelined the Environment Protection Authority in pushing ahead with a coal seam gas project despite advice it is high risk, threatening valuable agricultural land.
In a submission that has been confidential until now, the EPA warned the Department of Trade against approving the disposal of waste water at AGL’s Gloucester project as it would lead to dangerously high salt levels and the potential destruction of farmland.
Fairfax Media has learnt the EPA has been excluded from the approvals process for irrigation trials at Gloucester, after effectively being sidelined by the newly created Office of Coal Seam Gas.
The EPA was asked by the Department of Trade to undertake a review of AGL’s Gloucester coal seam gas project in February last year. It made its submission in April but the report has been confidential since then, even though the irrigation trials have begun.
In its report, the EPA says the project is high risk and is likely to produce dangerously high salt levels under the present AGL proposal to ”irrigate”, or spray. the water from its mining onto surrounding farmland.
It also warns of the damaging effects on local wildlife.
The submission says the government needs to ask for more information from AGL and that it is not possible to evaluate the effects on soil and water unless ”adequate” information is provided by AGL.
Should the project continue as planned, 2500 tonnes of salt a year will be sprayed over the surrounding farmland, an outcome that independent geo-technical engineer Professor Philip Pells said could be disastrous for the environment.
Professor Pells is not anti-CSG. He approves of the AGL operations at Camden but said the geology at Gloucester was more sensitive as the basin structure beneath the project means the underground aquifers are ”intimately connected” with the surface water.
Further, he said, AGL had no proper procedures for disposal of the saline waste water.
For its part, AGL has said the disposal of waste water from its CSG mining will have a ”neutral or beneficial effect on water quality”.
It has also disputed the EPA’s findings that the soil was ”strongly sodic”, saying that referred to the natural soil quality at the location, which was no longer relevant as the company had treated the soils.
”AGL has added many hundreds of tonnes of compost, lime (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and zeolite minerals (which enhances the water retention quality of soils) and therefore the soil characteristics of the upper soils are now very different to the natural soil quality. These amended soils are now much more suitable for irrigation activities.”
An EPA spokeswoman said the authority was assessing the application from AGL for an environment protection licence for the total Gloucester coal seam gas project, but not the trial.
”The EPA will take water and soil impacts and other relevant environmental considerations into account as part of its assessment.”
EPA chief environmental regulator Mark Gifford said the irrigation trial was approved and was being overseen by the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas.
”The EPA is being ignored,” Professor Pells said. ”No one appears to be in control.
”The trials were approved by the Department of Mineral Resources but now the process seems to have been taken over by the Office of Coal Seam Gas.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Industry said the water approved for irrigation was ”two to five times less salty than water in the surrounding surface aquifers that also flow into the Avon River”.
”It is the responsibility of AGL to conduct the trial within the approved guidelines,” she said. ”The risks are minimal and the monitoring and reporting is showing that the project is proceeding within the parameters of the approval.”
The EPA report shows the water in the region is inappropriate for irrigation because of the salt an due to bi- carbonate levels that are four to eight times the limit imposed by the Queensland Government for beneficial re-use of coal seam gas waters. Bi carbonates are damaging to aquatic life.
Professor Pells also points out that the water also contains a number of metals and other elements that make it dangerous to agriculture and the local rivers.
For example, the levels of aluminium are 20 times the ANZECC (Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council) guidelines. Aluminium restricts root growth in plants, is toxic to plants and is cumulative, and cannot be ameliorated with any soil conditioners.