Defending the Pilliga in Court

By EDO NSW CEO/Principal Solicitor Sue Higginson

21 January 2016

You may have heard that our client People for the Plains, a community group from the Pilliga, is taking CSG company Santos to court over its Leewood CSG waste water development near the iconic Pilliga woodlands. The group argues that without a proper environmental assessment and public consultation, the development is illegal.

The Pilliga – a biodiversity hotspot
The Pilliga is the largest remaining unfragmented block of temperate dry forest and woodland in eastern Australia. It functions as a key refuge for native plants and animals in a landscape largely cleared for agriculture. It is part of a National Biodiversity Hotspot, home to rare species such as the Pilliga Mouse, and is recognised as a globally significant Important Bird Area.[1]

The Pilliga is an important, biodiverse ecosystem. It is also a significant recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the world and the most important ground water resource in arid and semi-arid eastern Australia.

Within this stunning environment, the Leewood Water Treatment Plant will process over 1 million litres of coal seam gas (CSG) waste water every day. Santos then plans to use the water to irrigate crops on farmland next to the Pilliga forest.

CSG in the Pilliga – spills, leaks and breaches
People for the Plains, along with many in the community are frustrated and concerned. They have witnessed repeated environmental harm from CSG operations that have damaged the Pilliga for many years.

Santos’ predecessor in the Pilliga, Eastern Star Gas, was fined by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) for two separate water pollution incidents occurring in 2010.

Machinery at the Leewood site. Image: Tony Pickard

Then, despite being formally warned by the EPA for a water discharge incident in 2011, in 2013 Santos itself was fined for a pollution incident which involved a leak from a CSG waste water storage pond.

In 2014, another leak from a different storage pond resulted in the EPA issuing a clean-up notice and Santos was fined more than $50,000 by the NSW Land and Environment Court for four separate breaches of the conditions of its petroleum title, including the failure to report a leak of CSG water.

Already this year, a run-off incident at Leewood has prompted the EPA to investigate the adequacy of Santos’ erosion controls on site.

People for the Plains are worried that industrialised CSG operations are being allowed to incrementally roll out across the Pilliga region without locals having a say, and without adequate environmental assessment or safeguards. Each incremental CSG project represents not just a growing presence of industry in this biodiverse region, but also a new threat to one of Australia’s most important natural environments.

The case
This incremental expansion of CSG exploration and extraction in the Pilliga is at the heart of the current Court action.

Santos and the NSW Government say that the Leewood water treatment plant does not need development consent. They argue that the Leewood development is considered to be CSG exploration and pilot production along with the CSG activities already under way in the Pilliga.

People for the Plains say that Santos and the Government have got it wrong. They argue that under NSW planning law, Santos must obtain development consent because Leewood is a substantial and new industrial water treatment plant, not something that can simply be classified as CSG exploration.

If People for the Plains are right, Santos would be required by law to prepare a full environmental impact statement that would be placed on public exhibition so that the community can have a say about the development.

Public exhibition of major developments is one of the key foundations of a functional planning system. It’s a right that has been imbedded in Australia’s environmental law since the 1970s. Public participation results in better decision making, and is often the only effective way to capture local knowledge about the environment and obtain critical understanding of impacts that may otherwise go unconsidered. It also provides the sorts of checks and balances that are critical to securing ecologically sustainable development. Without public participation, so many of our natural resources would be vulnerable to overdevelopment.

Where to now?
Ultimately, it will be up to the Court to determine whether Santos’ construction of the Leewood industrial water plant near the Pilliga is legal or not. Understandably, the Court process takes time, so an outcome will not be known until sometime later this year.

In the meantime, Santos is continuing its activities in the Pilliga and members of the community are on the front line, seeking environmental justice for the animals, plants and ecological communities that depend on this beautiful part of the world.

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[1] See David Milledge, Landmark Ecological Services Pty Ltd, The ecological values of Pilliga East Forest and the threats posed by coal seam gas mining 2011-2012