Bum-breathing turtles breathe easier as government rules against Santos uncontrolled wastewater release

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ABC Capricornia
By Jasmine Hines
Friday 16 Jul 2021


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The Fitzroy River turtle has been listed as vulnerable since 2000.
(Supplied: Fitzroy Basin Association)


The federal government has ruled an oil and gas company cannot release uncontrolled amounts of coal seam gas (CSG) wastewater into a Queensland river system, home to 'bum-breathing' turtles, because of "unacceptable" risks to the environment.

Santos's Fairview Water Release Scheme planned to release unspecified amounts of untreated CSG wastewater into the Dawson River during flooding events, as well as 18 megalitres of desalinated wastewater into the same river daily.

The federal government ruled last Friday that the scheme must be a controlled action, and will require assessment under national environment law before it can proceed.

Theodore resident and Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland Upper Dawson member Ann Hobson said she hoped the decision would set a precedent, meaning other companies' proposals for similar projects would have to go through the same rigorous approval process.

"We want to see every one of these proposals given proper scrutiny and controlled for the safety of our unique and irreplaceable river and its wildlife," Ms Dobson said.

"There is very little evidence about what the cumulative impact of dumping unlimited amounts of coal seam gas wastewater into the environment may be on the plants and animals that live here."

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Ms Hobson said by making the action "controlled" it should reduce potential impacts on the turtles' habitat.

A spokesperson for Santos said the company respected the government's decision to require further assessment, and it would work through the process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

"The amendment application for event-based releases was approved by the state of Queensland in March 2017," the spokesperson said.

"The release is subject to strict environmental outcomes, and these must be monitored to demonstrate that outcomes are being achieved."
Santos said the proposed release of untreated water would only have happened during significant flow events within the Dawson River, which would cause no harm to turtles or the environment.

Environmental lobby group Lock the Gate said the plan would have damaged the biodiversity of the Upper Dawson River.

"While we remain deeply concerned Santos has put forward this environmentally destructive proposal in the first place, these rare and endangered bum-breathing turtles can breathe a little easier — for now," spokesperson Ellie Smith said.

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What is bum-breathing?​

The white-throated snapping turtle and the Fitzroy River turtle are both known as bum-breathers, because they breathe through gills in their cloaca.

The process allows them to stay underwater for days at a time.

The critically endangered white-throated snapping turtle is subject to 10-year national recovery plan, with declining water quality identified as a major threat to its survival.

It is native to the Burnett, Mary and Fitzroy River catchments along the central and southern Queensland coasts.

The Fitzroy River turtle is only found in the Fitzroy Basin and has been listed as vulnerable since 2000.

Next steps​

The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment said the proposal now required further assessment and approval under national law before it could proceed.

"The controlled action decision was made based on the project's potential significant impacts to matters protected under national environmental law," it said.

"The project has the potential to result in significant impacts … it cannot be approved with unacceptable impacts and options to address these include avoidance, mitigation and offsetting."
The department said it would also be referred to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Mining Development for advice because of the proposal's water trigger.
 

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