MATTERS OF INTEREST: South-East Wastewater Disposal
March 1st, 2017
The Hon. M.C. PARNELL ( 15:32 :51 ):I rise today to report on some very unhealthy and worrying attitudes within the Department of State Development. From recent communication that I have had with the agency, I believe that the successor to the old mining department continues to hold the community in contempt and that it has learnt nothing from recent developments in public perception of its role.Nowhere have these attitudes been more pronounced than in the South-East of South Australia. The background to this matter is that in 2015 I applied under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of State Development for a copy of Beach Energy's wastewater management irrigation plan for South Australia. In fact, there is not just one plan, there are several plans, and they each show when and how wastewater from gas mining activities is disposed of.
In the South-East groups such as the Limestone Coast Protection Alliance have been passionate supporters of their region and protecting valuable agricultural land from gas mining, particularly unconventional gas. Through research these groups learnt that the main disposal method used by gas companies is to use this wastewater to irrigate pasture. However, the details of where this disposal has taken place have never been published.
The plans that I sought relate to the disposal of wastewater from Beach Energy's Penola operations at Jolly-1 and Katnook. The plans ultimately released were redacted by removing all information that showed where the wastewater was being dumped. The only information provided was that it was being sprayed onto farm land as fertiliser.
It is important for the public to know this information, because there is no other way to assess whether there is potential for contamination of the local environment, neighbouring properties, sensitive ecosystems or even drinking and stock water supplies from local aquifers.
The community has a right to this information so that it can judge for itself whether government and industry assurances are valid. The legal reasons given for not disclosing the location of the wastewater disposal sites were, firstly, unreasonable disclosure of 'personal affairs', and secondly, documents affecting 'business affairs' which would be contrary to the public interest to disclose. Both these arguments are dodgy at best. To justify the decision, the department stated:
Oil and gas exploration is a topic of significant community debate and the association of these landowners with oil and gas exploration may expose them to negative treatment by the community and could reasonably be expected to reduce the willingness of third parties to enter into similar arrangements in the future.
Beach Energy made similar claims. It is a real insult to the people of the South-East to suggest that they are incapable of having a rational and civil debate about the future of their district without reverting to vigilantism.
Are our fellow citizens in the South-East of our state so lawless and disreputable that they are likely to take out their wrath against individuals connected to the gas industry? Is the Wild West really the Wild South-East when it comes to South Australia? I do not think so, but that is the suggestion of the Department of State Development and Beach Energy in their bid to keep their wastewater disposal sites secret.
According to both the department and Beach Energy, if the public were to find out where the wastewater was being disposed of, they would identify the farmers involved and this 'may expose them to negative treatment by the community'. In other words, the people of the South-East cannot be trusted to know where industrial waste is being dumped in case they take it out on the farmers involved.
The department's attitude is a massive insult to the people of the South-East. There is absolutely no evidence that the people who are directly or indirectly involved in the gas industry are being ostracised, discriminated against, harassed or negatively treated by the rest of the community. These are people who live in the community, they shop in the community and their kids go to local schools.
Certainly, the gas industry is controversial, but to use that controversy as an excuse to deny access to environmental information only serves to reinforce negative attitudes to the department. As was put to me by one local, 'The department doesn't trust us, so why should we trust them?' The matter is now under investigation by the Ombudsman, who is undertaking an external review of the department's decision to withhold the property locations. In a preliminary determination released last week, the Ombudsman has said:
The agency [Department of State Development] has not provided my office with any evidence to suggest that those opposed to unconventional gas exploration have harassed or otherwise mistreated persons associated with the industry. The applicant—
has submitted that this has not occurred. Absent such evidence and in all the circumstances, I do not consider there to be a meaningful risk that, in the event of disclosure, landholders identified in the documents would be subject to unlawful behaviour.
As the matter is still before the Ombudsman, I do not propose to say any more about the likely outcome of these proceedings. However, I want to take this opportunity to call on the government to apologise to the people of the South-East for its lack of confidence in their civility and their capacity to engage in rational debate about the future of their community. An apology is the least the government can do to repair the trust in a community which the Natural Resources Committee of parliament recently found had not given a social licence to the gas industry to operate in their region.
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