Santos abandons chemical waste on public road

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Santos security leave the methanol drum of 'Orphan Waste' unattended on a public road (image by Andrew Stevenson).

Santos has questions to answer over a 2016 incident, writes Johanna Evans.

FIRE & RESCUE NSW incident reports have been procured through the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA) process that reveals a disturbing cover-up of a serious hazardous chemical event that occurred on a public road.

The chemical drum containing methanol was reported opposite the Santos facility, Leewood, on the corner of Old Mill Rd and the Newell Highway. Leewood is a coal seam gas facility. It’s located on a Major Highway, an extremely busy and dangerous road. This location had been the scene in recent weeks of sustained and widespread protest as Santos constructed their reverse osmosis CSG waste facility.

On a hot Autumn day on 14th April 2016, a quiet rest day had been planned by the Pilliga Push Protest Camp. For visiting photographer Andrew Stevenson, that meant trying to find the equipment he had lost in the Pilliga State Forest at a recent protest. He left the camp early and parked his car on Bohena Creek Road, across the road from Leewood, and went searching on foot for his lost equipment.

When he returned it was to find his car had danger tape draped over it, a chemical drum was overturned in the turnaround near the communications tower on the left-hand side of the road and a full-scale Hazchem decontamination incident was underway. As a photographer, he took out his camera to document the scene.

The first image Stevenson took captured his vehicle, two Santos vehicles, a Police vehicle and a fire truck.

Stevenson says:

“Santos security were in attendance, they had two vehicles, as well as Ambos, Police, Fire & Rescue and a Hazmat van. Security denied they had anything to do with the incident. No other vehicle was evident and my car was trapped in the hot zone. Did the drum fall off the back of a ute doing a quick u-turn, that’s what I reckon happened.”

The presence of Stevenson’s lonely unattended vehicle had apparently put Santos in a spin. Did security tell the delivery driver of the chemical drum to wait in the turnaround off Bohena Creek Rd until the entry to Leewood was secured?

The orange hazardous waste bin pictured above contains a 44-gallon drum of Methanol, although this wasn’t what Santos and the Police thought it was originally. Methanol is used by gas companies for various reasons including as a biocide, disinfectant and it’s also associated with corrosion. It is a hazardous class three flammable liquid, a class six poison and an explosives risk.

Did the driver of the delivery vehicle (the chemical was likely going into the Santos Leewood facility) take direction from security to wait on Bohena Creek Rd until Old Mill Rd was secured and did he turn around too fast and lose the drum off the back of his ute? What actually happened and why was this incident not investigated and reported on by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), who is the lead regulator of coal seam gas activities in NSW.

Stevenson laughed when we told him he’d been reported by the informant to be 'driving around at high speeds and in a dangerous manner'. The incident report reveals that the informant was Santos. It appears that Santos “played up” the presence of protestors to the Emergency Services.

Stevenson says:

“I was the only one there and I’d been in the bush looking for my lost footplate from a few days ago. I didn’t see anyone on Bohena Creek Rd when I parked, I was gone for about an hour, I didn’t find my footplate.”

Santos made the call to Emergency Services at 8.22 am. Within the hour Fire & Rescue NSW were on site. Police arrived an hour later at 9.19 am.

At 10.07 am a Santos Employee self-presented to the Emergency Services with contaminated hands and arms. Did he try to move the drum after it fell off his ute? Another question for the EPA.




At 10.26 am, an ambulance arrived. At 11.30 am, the area was rendered safe and the ambulance released. Specialist resources were used to make sure this area was made safe. Multiple agencies were involved including the Narrabri Council. How much did this cost the taxpayer?

Multiple agencies knew about this incident and there was no public investigation. Did the NSW Police question the Santos employee as to what had occurred, seeing as though he presented to the Ambulance with contamination this seems a logical avenue to follow? The incident report contains repeated references to protestors but there is no proof that there was anyone at the scene other than photographer Andrew Stevenson.

Stevenson says the Police took his details and questioned him, they asked him to remain nearby, he complied, they wouldn’t let him retrieve his vehicle.

The EPA did not attend the incident. They flagged the incident in their May 2016 update. They did no further public investigation into the incident. No questions appear to have been directed at Santos asking them how a leaking drum of Methanol ended up on a public road. The wording they used was 'methanol drum found on road'. These things don’t just fall off the back of a truck, or do they?

In June 2016, the EPA published their monthly update. Santos told them they had nothing to do with the Methanol. Santos just “located” it.

The update said:

“Santos staff located a 44-gallon drum labelled “Methanol” dumped on Bohena Creek Road near the Leewood Water Treatment Facility. Police and HAZMAT attended and secured the item. The drum was not on the Santos site, nor related to their activities as per media Tweet by the EPA.”

The tweet though did not say that the drum was not related to Santos activities it said: 'The drum is not on the @SantosNSW Leewood site.'

Andrew Stevenson was the last person to leave the site that day, he said:

“At the end of the event they all departed the scene, leaving the taped up drum sitting there ... I hung around for another 30 minutes and there was no sign of anyone coming to claim the drum.”

Did Santos come back for it or was it collected by the Council and taken to the landfill as per discussion with the EPA? The eAIRS report remarks 'Santos would not accept to product secure'.

Orphan Waste is defined as materials that have been disposed of illegally, including materials that have been dumped accidentally or intentionally on private or public lands, including roads and waterways. Financial responsibility for orphan waste includes clean up, transport and disposal, it can be a costly exercise, particularly for wastes that need specialist treatment and disposal methods.

Can Santos be trusted with chemical handling and transportation? If negligence occurred here, why wasn’t it investigated? The Narrabri gas project is in the final stage of assessment by the Independent Planning Commission with the date for the meeting or hearing to be announced in the near future.

Johanna Evans is a graphic designer and member of North West Protection Advocacy, which campaigns for a CSG free NSW. You can follow Johanna on Twitter @jo_noCSG.

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