Fracking and water don’t mix

Sydney Morning Herald
27th September, 2010

The catchment for Warragamba Dam is a vast area: a 9000-square-kilometre swathe of land stretching from north of Lithgow almost to Canberra, in which farming and other land uses are subject to varying levels of control. The need is obvious: drinking water for Sydney should be collected in a region as free as possible from artificial sources of contamination. Large parts of the catchment are national parks or state conservation areas, making management simpler because it is under government administration. Close to the dam itself and Lake Burragorang the land is classified as a special area – a legal classification which allows the Sydney Catchment Authority to limit access. Schedule 1 special area land is closest to the water that will eventually flow through Sydney’s taps and the most strictly controlled. No access is allowed. Unless, of course, you are a mining company.

In that case, as the Herald revealed last week, you can confidently expect to be allowed to pump water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to obtain coal seam gas.

The company involved, Apex Energy NL, has not yet formally applied for permission to extract coal seam gas from sites near Lake Burragorang, but it has applied to exploit other sites, and is confidently expecting success with this, the next phase of its plan. No doubt Apex keeps to the highest standards of modern mining practice. Nonetheless, in the United States fracking operations (unconnected with Apex) have contaminated groundwater.

The case has parallels with the plan by Gujarat NRE Minerals to expand longwall coalmining close to the Cataract Dam, south of Sydney, which is also part of this city’s water supply. The company has been limited to areas further away from the dam.

In both cases the public’s response will be obvious. Even the best laid plans can go wrong. And if these do, where does Sydney get its drinking water then? As we have said before, Sydney needs water more than it needs coal. Or coal seam gas.

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