Rachel Fitzhardinge
State Councillor, National Parks Association of NSW

Pat Schultz has been very active in the campaign against Coal Seam Gas (CSG) exploration in the Pilliga. She has written a book titled “The Plundering of Pilliga and Leard Forests and the Surrounding Farmlands”. She has also led many tours like this one to show people what is happening in the Pilliga as a result of CSG exploration. In 2014, Pat “locked-on” to a truck carrying a drill rig in Pilliga Forest for a number of hours. She was arrested and fined $1,800.

The fine was quashed on appeal. Pat’s fine seems ludicrous when Santos was only fined $1,500 for contaminating an aquifer.

The Pilliga is the largest inland forest in Australia. At the time of our visit, parts of the Pilliga had not had rain for three years and there were extensive fires three years ago which burnt much of the Pilliga as well as a more recent fire. The drought had led to poor regeneration in some areas after the fires.

Our first stop was the Sandstone Caves. Some of the caves have Aboriginal art, grinding grooves and other indications of Aboriginal habitation. Unfortunately, some of these features have been vandalised so areas of some caves have been fenced off.

We then proceeded to Pilliga Pottery, our accommodation while we were in the Pilliga. The grounds of Pilliga Pottery are filled with pottery and sculptures produced on site. Food is served at the Blue Wren café that has a resident group of very tame blue wrens.

In the evening, Jane Judd gave a presentation to the group highlighting fragmentation threats to the Pilliga. One threat that was stopped in the early 2000s was extraction of silicon using charcoal made from timber from the Pilliga and Goonoo forests. Current fragmentation threats include Santos’ CSG project, which is currently at the exploration stage, and the construction of a pipeline by APA which would carry the CSG if Santos’ project is approved. There is also a proposal for the construction of a high speed rail link between Brisbane and Melbourne, through the Pilliga.

Arguably, another fragmentation of the Pilliga is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s project re-introducing certain endangered species into an area fenced to exclude foxes and cats, in the Pilliga National Park. The black striped wallaby, an endangered species, occurs in Pilliga National Park. The fencing off of the feral free area will impact this wallaby as well as other plants and animals currently within the national park.

We first stopped at two landmarks on the land owned by Pilliga Pottery. The first was a sandstone cave, the Lip Cave. It is easy to see how it got its name. The second stop was at Maria’s Lookout that has wide view over the area. The domes of the observatory at Sidings Springs near Coonabarabran could be seen in the distance.

We then went to see the impacts of Santos’ exploratory works, led by Peter and Brad, two local resident activists, who together with Pat Schultz have vigorously campaigned against Santos’s current and proposed activities. We visited coal seam gas wells; Bibblewindi plant; a rehabilitated evaporation pond and well sites; and Leewood plant from the gate. It was very evident that pipelines and roads are also fragmenting the forest.

Santos is currently operating on an exploration licence with 53 exploratory coal seam gas wells, mostly on public land in Pilliga East State Forest. If they obtain approval for the production phase, 850 wells are planned in stage one. More CSG wells are likely in prime agricultural land, but initially they are proposed in State Forests renowned for their biodiversity values.
Within the Pilliga there are several tenures including state forest, private land such as Pilliga Pottery, national park, Aboriginal areas, community conservation areas and nature reserves. Extraction of and exploration for CSG cannot occur in the national parks, nature reserves or Aboriginal areas but can occur elsewhere.

Peter and Brad opened our eyes to the potential impacts of Santos’ extraction on the Great Artesian Basin (GAB) as well as other more localised aquifers. The GAB underlies 22% of Australia. The Pilliga is a recharge area for the GAB that overlays the CSG deposits, which Santos seeks to exploit. As well as the CSG, those deposits contain large quantities of water, salts, various organic chemical compounds, and heavy metals and radionuclides. This mixture known as the “produced water” is extracted with the CSG.

When Santos drills down to the CSG deposits it lines the metal casings of the drill well with concrete. The casings rust and there is evidence that concrete at the surface exposed to produced water has become flaky and potentially porous. This means that it is probable that aquifers including the GAB, which overly the CSG deposits, will be contaminated by produced water. Additionally, large quantities of drilling fluids are introduced into each well and only partially recovered so this can also lead to contamination of aquifers. Other ways that contamination of aquifers can occur are through hydraulic fracturing of wells below ground and contamination from spills of produced water.

Safely dealing with the vast quantities of produced water is almost impossible. Santos is holding some of the produced water in evaporation treatment ponds. There have been at least twenty spills of produced water and drilling fluids since the 1990s. Santos adds gypsum to leach the salt out of areas where spills have occurred. This brings the salts to the surface and can lead to contamination of waterways. It also breaks up the clay dome, which overlies the aquifers beneath the Pilliga, making it easier for spills of produced water to leach into the GAB and other aquifers. It also increases the pH of the soils.

Santos has also built a reverse osmosis plant to treat produced water. It was intended that the water be provided as irrigation waters to farmers but a crop of lucerne, irrigated with water from the reverse osmosis plant, died. It is unlikely that reverse osmosis will remove all the heavy metals so the water may not be suitable for irrigating crops.

We visited a regeneration site where an evaporation pond for produced water gave way, thereby, killing the forest. There has been very poor regeneration.

When we returned to Pilliga Pottery, Dr Dave Paull, an ecologist, gave us a talk on the ecology of the Pilliga and the impacts that Santos’ explanatory works are having. During the day, the absence of Cypress pines (Callitiris sp.) from regeneration sites had been pointed out to us. Dave Paull has found unnaturally high pH in areas where spills of produced water or drilling fluids have occurred, in some cases over pH 8. Cypress pines will not grow properly at pH above approximately 6.5 and the soils they naturally grow in are slightly acidic. Dave Paull has found high pH even where no spills have been documented. The cause of these high pH soils may be from fugitive emissions or from the spread of the gypsum, which Santos has used to leach out salts at regeneration sites. Dave Paull also briefly discussed problems with offsetting under the Biodiversity Conservation Act that lead to poor conservation outcomes.

Later that evening we saw a preview screening of the film “Pilliga Rising” which was shown in Sydney during March. It shows how the activities of Santos have and will impact Pilliga residents from a variety of backgrounds. Well worth seeing.

Our next destination was Dandry Gorge Aboriginal Area where Sculptures in the Scrub are located. There are five Sculptures, which are inspired by Aboriginal themes. A circular track goes past the sculptures and leads down into the gorge.

Our last stop on Tuesday was the Forest Discovery Centre in Baradine, run jointly by NPWS and State Forests, which provides insights into the history and ecology of the Pilliga.

Many thanks to Pat Schultz for organising a very informative tour that highlighted both the beauty of the Pilliga and the very serious threats that exist to its ecological integrity.

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