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Methane Contaminated Town Water in Wallumbilla

Recent tests have shown elevated levels of methane present in the town water of the Wallumbilla township, located east of Roma, Queensland. The tests were ordered last month when one of the two bores supplying water to Wallumbilla was shut down when its “air relief valve” went off. Currently, Wallumbilla’s drinking water is being supplied by the second bore, while residents await the results of further testing. It is hoped that these further tests will show the extent and cause of the methane contamination. The results of these tests are due to be released by the end of the week.

Although no exact cause has been confirmed, it has been suggested that the gas may have originated from the many old natural gas wells in the area. Alternatively, some have linked the incident to Santos’s recent installation of a 120 kilometre coal seam gas (CSG) pipeline running from north Wallumbilla to nearby Comet Ridge. However, as the pipeline is 3.5 kilometres away from the contaminated bore, the government’s CSG compliance unit has advised that it is unlikely to have caused the contamination. Instead, a spokesperson for the unit has commented that the “increased gas in local water bores is most likely caused by the reduction of static heat pressure over time, releasing increased volumes of gas from the geological formations intercepted by the bores."

While there is no research to suggest that there are health implications associated with methane water contamination, it can still pose a significant risk to communities as well as the environment. Namely, as methane contaminated water rises in temperature, methane contaminants begin to evaporate into a gas, which, once reaching a certain pressure becomes highly flammable. This risk poses a problem particularly in confined and insufficiently ventilated conditions which can result in asphyxiation or explosive activity. This places properties, the environment and community at risk. Such dangers materialised directly for residents in Alberta, Canada in 2008, who were able to set fire to their methane contaminated tap water in their own homes.

As previously mentioned, there is still a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the potential long term health impacts of temporary or prolonged exposure to methane contaminated water. However, this does not relieve the residents of Wallumbilla of long term risk.

While much is remains unclear; what is apparent throughout rural communities is the desire for improved monitoring, supervision and enforcement of the resources sector regulation guidelines. This is a sentiment a sentiment shared by the Queensland Auditory-General in his recent report ‘Environmental regulation of the resources and waste industry’.

Let us know what you think. Should the coal seam gas industry take on a greater level of responsibility for the protection of the environment and the interests of residents in areas with CSG activity?

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Accompanying image by Kate Ausburn, used under the following license. Image modified from its original state.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: May 27, 2014.

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