20 July 2021
Setting a precedent for coal seam gas wastewater controls
Aquatic wildlife of the Upper Dawson region can ‘breathe easier’ with news that the Federal Government has ruled Santos cannot release unlimited amounts of coal seam gas wastewater into the Dawson River during flood events.
The Queensland government approved the amendment application for the company’s Fairview Water Release scheme in March 2017, enabling unrestricted release of wastewater during flooding. However, successful lobbying by Lock the Gate and the Wildlife Preservation Society Upper Dawson Branch has ensured that any releases, while still potentially damaging, are at least controlled.
The proposal must now undergo further assessment under national environment law and will be referred to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Mining Development.
“We want to see every one of these proposals carefully scrutinised to preserve our unique and irreplaceable river and its wildlife.”
— Ann Hobson, Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland’s Upper Dawson branch.
“This will hopefully set a precedent for making companies more accountable,” says Ms. Hobson, “because we simply don’t understand the cumulative effects of dumping unlimited amounts of coal seam gas wastewater into the environment.
“There are 7,000 gas wells proposed upstream of this particular discharge,” adds Ms. Hobson. “If every tenement gets the same right to discharge without ‘controls’, the cumulative impact would be anybody’s guess.”
The Mary River turtle, pictured, is one of Queensland’s endangered ‘bum-breathing’ species along with the Fitzroy River turtle and white-throated snapping turtle. Photo: Robert Downer, Getty Images/ Canva NFP.
Endangered ‘bum-breathers’ rely on clean water
These waterways provide habitat for the critically endangered white-throated snapping turtle (Elseya albagula). Described in 2006, this endemic species is found only in the Burnett, Mary and Fitzroy River catchments. Pollution and degradation of waterways is considered a major threat to its survival, and a National Recovery Plan is in place to conserve populations.
The ‘bum-breathing’ Fitzroy turtle (Rheodytes leukops) is also found in the region and has been recorded upstream and downstream of the proposed site.
Bum-breathing turtles, which also include the Mary River Turtle (Elusor macrurus, pictured), are able to breathe through the cloaca, enabling them to stay underwater for up to 3 weeks. Predation of eggs by feral predators also contributes to these reptiles’ decline.
What ‘triggers’ our rivers?
The EPBC Act was amended in 2013 to make water resources affected by coal mining or coal seam gas extraction a matter of national environmental significance, meaning proposals must be assessed federally; this is known as the ‘water trigger’.
While the outcome of this review is a win for turtles and wildlife of the Dawson and Fitzroy Rivers, more needs to be done to prevent major coal seam gas mining operations from being green-lighted in already vulnerable habitats in the first place.