AGL Contractors had pumped over 120,000 litres of toxic drilling waste water on their land near Bulga, Hunter Valley.

Hunter Valley Protection Alliance has warned for years that the current "free-for-all" arrangements between NSW Government and coal seam gas (CSG) exploration companies would result in damage to the agricultural land and fresh water in our valley. There are hundreds of reports from Australia and around the world that show the environmental damage that the gas industry can cause. Unfortunately, the current toxic waste dumping incident shows that our concerns have turned out to be true far too soon. The incident was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald article AGL accused of dumping tainted water in Hunter on Thursday 9 September, 2010 by Ben Cubby, SMH Environmental Editor. Hunter Valley Protection Alliance responded by a media release entitled POLLUTION INCIDENT BY AGL ENERGY IN THE HUNTER VALLEY – WHITEWASH BY THE GOVERNMENT – COMMUNITY PROTEST.


Picture 1. Pumping of drilling waste water from a pit into the field at AGL's Windermere property

Both Sydney Gas in the earlier days and AGL today are hell-bent to convert our Wollombi Brook valley into one large gasfield or as we call it these days an industrial GASLAND. They believe, for reasons they never bothered to reveal, that residents of a densely populated rural residential area like ours would welcome such developments. They believed and still believe, that it is perfectly fine to have drilling pads, pipelines and dirt trucks scattered everywhere amongst homes, gardens, fields, pastures, vineyards and right on the river banks. However, local landowners were far less enthusiastic and nobody agreed to lease them their land for exploration. In the end AGL had to purchase four rural properties so that they could continue with their coal seam gas program. This is fine for exploration and perhaps for proving the gas reserves. However, for full scale gas production they would need to have access to most of the land in the valley by leasing. They cannot purchase all the land outright like coal mines do because coal seam gas is a very diluted energy resource. Coal seam gas projects need at least twenty times greater areas than open cut mines and probably much more. If we look at the >>>> satellite images of the Hunter Valley, where huge areas are already occupied by open cut coal mines, this would mean that all the land in the Valley would be affected.

AGL must surely realise how sensitive is the local population to toxic spills on our land and water. One would therefore expect that they would take utmost care in managing waste water and toxic chemicals at their exploration sites even if they own the land. Yet they happily pumped out some 120,000 litres of drilling waste water from a holding pit on the surface of a field gently sloping towards the Wollombi Brook. When we heard about this we were simply appalled. Analysis of the samples of this waste water revealed that its salinity was many times higher than the maximum limit allowed for irrigation of agricultural crops. Beside that, the gas chromatograph footprint has also shown that the samples also contained the usual traces of the drilling mud chemicals. Of course, no information of the chemical composition of the drilling fluid is available to the general public.

Picture 2. Pumping of drilling waste water from a pit into the field at AGL's Windermere property

Note the pump hose from the pit leading into the field where the vegetation is starting to die. The yellow object in the center is a portable generator. The scummy drilling waste storage pit is unlined and all the turf on the banks is dead. The purpose of the flimsy plastic netting fence is not clear. It certainly would not stop wildlife drinking from the pit.

Tree line in the background is the bank of the Wollombi Brook. The mountain range above are the Whybrows over the Bulga village, Hunter Valley, NSW.

This AGL exploration is taking place on alluvial plain which gets periodically flooded.

Picture 3. The whole pumping setup - view from south west.

The waste water pit is behind the yellow portable generator and in front of the small green tank.

Note the size of the disturbed area and this is only the first stage of the exploration for coal seam gas. Now multiply this by something like five hundred of anticipated production gas wells and try to estimate the area of undisturbed land we will be left with to enjoy. Scary!

Picture 4. Another example of the brutal technology we will have to learn to love if AGL has her way with us.

If it doesn't move, and it should, use WD40. If it moves and it shouldn't, use duct tape.  An old American proverb.

Naturally, the same applies if a pipe leaks.

Picture 5. Here is an overall view of the drilling waste pond.

Several features are noticeable. (a) no attempt to line the the pit with heavy plastic foil has been made. Why not? (b) All the vegetation on the banks of the pits is dead. (c) The content of the pits is a dirty sludge of unknown chemical content. It should most certainly not be disposed on agricultural land by irrigation.

This is an alluvial soil formation on a property which was formerly a sand mine (Hexxon Sands). Agricultural dams constructed on sandy soils have a major disadvantage - they leak! Perhaps AGL is so concentrated on their bottom line that she does not see leaky drilling pits as a disadvantage.

Picture 6. Another view of the unlined drilling waste pit.

When Sydney Gas started drilling at Bulga Inlet we were not impressed. However, to be fair to them, at least they took the trouble and lined their drilling_mud_pits properly (see picture).

Picture 7. Here we have the effects of "irrigating" pasture with drilling waste - the grass is dead.

According to a_recent_article in Sydney Morning Herald AGL said the dead vegetation was nothing to do with its drilling. "The disposal did not cause any change to vegetation because the area where the water ponded was a depression with existing poor growth because of waterlogged soils," AGL's general manager for upstream gas, Mike Moraza, said in a statement.

Good try AGL but, unlike other areas, we did not have much flooding this winter in the Hunter! Maximum daily rainfall intensity statistics from the BOM station at Jerrys Plains show only 9.2 mm for June, 28mm for July and 9 mm for August. This sort of daily rainfall would not cause flooding on permeable alluvial soils.

Picture 8. Detailed image of an area showing a total grass dieback.

Note the sharp edges of the damaged part of the pasture. It looks almost like an effect of a strong contact herbicide. This is typical for chemical poisoning. Flood damage is never that clearly outlined.

In fact, independent analysis of the contaminated water revealed to be "Class 6 Extremely High Salinity - not suitable for irrigation".

Picture 9. This image shows that the toxic effluent almost reached the Wollombi Brook.

This confirms that a considerable quantity of contaminated water has been deliberately pumped out on the land. The waste had to travel several hundred meters to reach the river bank. Was anybody from AGL in charge of this operation?


How can we understand this act of unbelievable environmental vandalism? There are two possible explanations and neither shows AGL in a particularly good light:

(a) AGL management knew and approved disposal of toxic drilling waste on agricultural land. They go on and hire expensive consultants to prepare their Review of Environmental Factors (REF), because this is required by the Government. At the same time they know too well that the REF does not need to be taken too seriously because nobody chacks for the compliance.

(b) AGL management did not know and their contractors acted on their own. This means that there was no effective supervision on the drilling site.

Either way this situation is very scary. If AGL allows this situation during exploration what would happen if they are allowed to operate hundreds or thousands of drill sites within the valley in the CSG production stage? To put it simply, AGL cannot be trusted when it comes to caring about the environment.

When the NSW Department of Industry & Investment and the Department of Environment were notified about the toxic spill they took no immediate action. They did not send an inspector to the Windermere farm to collect the evidence and take photographs. They did not come to collect samples of the toxic waste and get them analyzed in a government laboratory. No, the Government watchdog did nothing. They even tried to sweep the whole sorry case, so to say, "under the carpet". In this case they allowed AGL to plough out the contaminated field and sew it with pasture. Do they think that they discovered a new solution to the perennial problem of increased salination of Australian soils?

In the end the story gets even more bizarre. When asked if they will release their findings about the toxic spill to the general public, the Department spokesman answered in the negative. They will give their findings to the land owner (i.e. to AGL) first and if the landowner (i.e. to AGL) agrees they may then release their report to the residents! In other words, this environmental watchdog will bark only if the watched (i.e. to AGL) agrees! Not much chance of that here.

We can make only one conclusion from this case: