Author: Michael Slezak
Posted on: The Guardian | March 21st, 2018
Firefighters with decades of experience working around the bushfire-prone Pilliga forest say Santos’s controversial Narrabri gas project will create an unacceptable fire risk to workers at the site, as well as to surrounding properties.
Those firefighters, who have also opposed the project on other environmental grounds, say fires in the area can be so fast and ferocious that in some weather conditions the project site would need to be evacuated, since if a fire did start there would likely not be enough time to evacuate workers.
Santos says the safety of its workers is paramount and it is developing a bushfire management plan. The NSW Rural Fire Service says it has no concerns with the plans being developed.
But the project would have an exemption from complete fire bans, having permission to flare gas at the site, even during catastrophic fire weather. Alistair Donaldson, who lives next to the Pilliga forest and has spent 30 years fighting fires in the area, said this was a serious concern.
“Currently, there is literally not a naked flame allowed anywhere except these three flares in the Pilliga forest, which is notorious as one of the most fire-prone areas,” Donaldson said.
Peter Brookhouse has been a volunteer firefighter in the area for more than 30 years and has also worked for years in bushfire planning and prediction.
“During extreme wind conditions, which you will get in potentially catastrophic fire weather, debris could be blown through, and if it passes through that flare it could ignite,” Brookhouse said.
He said the flares themselves wouldn’t produce soot or embers, but during periods of high wind, debris could be blown through a flare, which could start a fire.
Tony Waldron, another firefighter with decades of experience in the area, said he was concerned about the safety of firefighters in the area. “It isn’t appropriate to have a gasfield in this area. A lot of us have concerns about putting a fire out in a gasfield. Our job is already dangerous enough,” he said.
Donaldson said the increased activity at the site – all the heavy machinery and vehicles – would increase the fire risk too.
Santos itself acknowledged this risk in its environmental impact statement, noting: “Construction and operation of the project would involve activities that are potential sources of ignition including hotworks and operation of machinery.”
However, Santos said the risk from those sources would be reduced by the bushfire management plan.
Both Donaldson and Brookhouse said regardless of increased risk of fire posed by the operations, the extreme nature of bushfires in the area meant that during some weather conditions, it would not be safe to have any workers on the site at all.
“If you had the ignition point in the wrong place, it would be the biggest loss of life imaginable,” Donaldson said. “If the project does go ahead, they need to recognise that there should be times when they just should not be there.”
Brookhouse agreed. “If you have a roadside ignition during extreme conditions … under the worst case scenario, within two hours you’d have fire running through those gasfields.”
Brookhouse pointed to a state government Incident Procedures document for the region, detailing how bad fires have been in the Pilliga scrub. It notes fires there have run more than 40km in a single day, covered as much as 100,000ha, changed direction quickly, and sometimes also run 20km overnight.
The document also notes that fire behaviour could be even more extreme if it occurred during “catastrophic” fire weather. Brookhouse said if a fire like that ignited near the project site, it could be catastrophic for workers there.
In the thousands of pages Santos submitted as part of its environmental impact statement to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, it included an analysis of bushfire risk, which it found was “moderate”.
It found the risk to be moderate despite the chance being “remote”, because the consequences would be so bad. The consequences could include “loss of life or injury, loss of property and community infrastructure, and impacts on commercial livelihoods including agriculture”.
In that document, Santos did not present a detailed bushfire management plan but said it would do so after working with other groups.
A spokeswoman for Santos told the Guardian they have a “comprehensive bushfire management plan in place”.
“Santos works very closely with the NSW Rural Fire Service and the Forestry Corporation of NSW to monitor fire hazards and implement the bushfire management plan as and when required.”
In its submission in April 2017 to NSW government planning process, the NSW Rural Fire Service said Santos’s plans for bushfire management were “short on detail”.
“As such the current document does not provide sufficient detail for a conclusive environmental impact assessment centred around vegetation clearing requirements,” wrote David Boverman from the NSW RFS.
But in comments to the Guardian, a spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service said it has been working with Santos to develop appropriate fire management protocols, and said the RFS currently has no concerns.
Donaldson and Brookhouse have both previously been involved in protests against Santos’s Narrabri gas project, and oppose it on environmental grounds.
Protests against the development are set to continue as Santos prepares to respond to submissions made to its environmental impact statement. Lock the Gate and other environmental groups have organised a protest this Saturday in Sydney, arguing NSW should make tougher regulations protecting land and water from coal and gas mining.
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