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Water contamination from coalbed methane project is ‘unlikely’

World Coal,

The New South Wales (NSW) Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is investigating the detection of a chemical used in fracking in water samples near AGL Energy’s pilot project at the coalbed methane (CBM) field near Gloucester. However, both the EPA and AGL have said the matter is unlikely to be caused by CBM activities, while the chemical is also highly “unlikely” to pose a risk to human health.

Indeed, it is likely the chemical in the groundwater was caused by mammal urine.

AGL said it detected traces of the chemical monoethanolamine borate in September and October 2014 in sampling of groundwater and surface water near its Waukivory CBM site. The detection was made before the start of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – of the wells on 27 October, an AGL spokesman said.

A reading on 20 November found a count of 60 ppb of the compound but then it dropped to zero six days later while fracking was still under way, the spokesman said.

"We can't draw a conclusion because there is not a data set going back far enough to show that 60 hadn't been a level at any stage in the past," he said. 

The EPA said its probe will examine the changing levels of the chemical.

"While the levels of this compound were extremely low and are highly unlikely to pose any risk to human health or the environment, it is important that the matter is investigated," Mark Gifford, EPA's chief environmental regulator, said.

Gifford said the chemical's detection was made kilometres away from the site, and "doesn't appear to be [the result of] a well failure," he said.

"We want to understand what's going on here," Gifford said. "It's not expected there'd be any levels of change and where there are levels of change that's why the monitoring is in place."

"Monoethanolamine also is known [as a] constituent of mammal urine and associated with agricultural land and bush areas," the AGL spokesman said.

Monoethanolamine borate is an EPA-approved chemical used in fracking and helps fluids carry sand into the fracture openings and release CBM. It is not a BTEX-group chemical, which have been banned for use in fracking in NSW.

The EPA said the detection processes and subsequent publication of findings underscored the agency's efforts to promote transparency in the controversial industry.

Many media outlets and anti-CBM protestors have seized on stories of chemical contamination when in fact there seems no reason to point to CBM activity as the source. Headlines, such as ‘EPA probes CSG fracking chemical found near AGL’s Gloucester wells’ – as seen in the Brisbane Times – directly infer to readers that the chemicals in this instant are caused by CBM activity. They are indicative of a deep-rooted problem in journalism and reportage that works on the rule of inference, rather than reference. It is therefore a hard graft to decipher the information from misinformation, which is hurled around at alarming speed in the polarised media representation of CBM. Efforts by the EPA and AGL to keep CBM activity transparent may prove a laborious but ultimately necessary means of grounding the debate in science and reality, rather than the fanciful whims of activists. 

Edited from various sources by Sam Dodson

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