Santos have been fined $52,000 by the NSW Land and Environment Court for failing to report the spill of untreated water at its CSG drilling site in Pilliga Forest.
The allegations date back to 2011 when Santos was a shareholder of Eastern Star, a company it took over in November of the same year.
When Santos took over drilling sites in the Pilliga woodland it released a report detailing more than a dozen incidents of pollution which it says occurred under the previous operator.
Many of the breaches had not been previously reported, including a spill at the Bibblewindi Water Treatment Plant which has since been decommissioned and removed.
There were 16 spills or leaks of contaminated water from the series of about 30 "test wells" in the region.
Incidents included serious spills of saline water into woodland and a creek, to kangaroos drowning in a water storage area, both of which were not reported.
Santos plead guilty to the charges in September and says it “recognises the importance of ensuring that industry complies with the high environmental standards expected by the community”.
“Santos has acted transparently throughout the process, releasing a report on the operational issues uncovered in the Pilliga and bringing them to the attention of the regulator,” Santos Energy New South Wales Manager Environment and Water, Alan Feely said.
“We carried out a thorough review of operations and work practices when we acquired ESG. Since then, we have spent around $17 million on rehabilitation in the Pilliga. “
Environmentalists have labelled the fine as “paltry” accusing the court of giving the gas company a “rap on the knuckles”.
“The public can have no faith in the NSW Government’s regulation of the coal seam gas industry when Santos receives such a pathetic penalty when the maximum fine for one offence is $1 million,” said Wilderness Society Newcastle Campaign Manager Naomi Hogan.
“The Pilliga is our last great inland forest, home to many threatened species including the koala and Pilliga mouse. It’s part of the Murray Darling basin, Australia’s largest food bowl, and a major recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin, an essential source of water for Outback Australia.”
As part of its work in NSW, Santos plans to drill 15 exploration wells in the Pilliga State forest and restart existing pilots that have been shut in since Santos took over Narrabri operations in November 2011
Both projects have been at the centre of protests from the local community who claim gas exploration will cause environmental harm.
A NSW Trade & Investment spokesperson said the projects received approval “subject to strict environmental reporting and monitoring conditions”.
“Before Santos can produce water from these wells they are required to lodge and have approved a produced water management plan,” the spokesperson said.
However protests at the site remain commonplace with locals regularly blockading company access roads in an attempt disrupt CSG drilling programs.