Activists demand tough action on Santos for environmental damage

Environmentalists in New South Wales (NSW) want tough penal action against oil and gas giant Santos for contaminating water near its Coal Seam Gas (CSG) project area in Pilliga forest in northwest NSW.

Santos NSW has pleaded guilty to four charges for a spill of large quantities of contaminated water, operating a faulty water treatment plant and failing to report the leaks and excessive salt levels in the area, in one of the first major prosecutions involving the industry.

The NSW Land and Environment Court heard today the case brought by the NSW government related to the leakage of 10,000 litres of contaminated water from a treatment plant after an electronic switch connected to the pipeline failed.

According to the prosecutor Stephen Rushton, the water was about half as salty as sea water and killed more than 70 per cent of the trees in the affected zone.

The company also failed to detail times when its salt concentrations exceeded the threshold in water management reports, even though at one point it measured more than 20 times the accepted limit, he pointed out.

The court has yet to decide what penalty should be imposed on the country's largest gas supplier.

Each of the four offences carries a maximum fine of $110,000 although the amount could be reduced as the company entered an early guilty plea.

Santos' defence lawyer Dean Jordan said the company had made concerted effort to improve upon ''inherited legacy issues' of its earlier operations.

The incidents occurred in 2011 when the Pilliga operations were under Eastern Star Gas. Santos took over the company in late 2011.

Acknowledging the seriousness of the offences, the lawyer said Santos wanted to make a full public apology.

He further added that since Santos took over, Eastern Star Gas had undergone a "change of corporate mind", and pleaded that a sentence discount should apply for assisting authorities.

Justice Preston is expected to deliver his verdict at a later date.

Environmental group Wilderness Society demanded stern action on Santos for the offence, saying that the company did not report the spills until it was brought out by the media.

"Santos should be held to the maximum fine of one million dollars for a corporation because of the lengthy time, the multiple spills we are seeing out there, and the fact that they did not report them when they knew they were going on."

According to the group's spokeswoman Naomi Hogan the spill contained high salt levels and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, chromium and boron which have had a huge impact on the biodiversity of that very fragile area causing huge damage to trees and soil.