By Calliste Weitenberg
A crucial scientific report has not been included in the environmental impact assessment of a new $16 billion gas project in Papua New Guinea, which received the final green-light from co-venturers last week.
The confidential report compiled by a global wetlands organisation for the World Wildlife Fund Australia (WWF) confirms evidence of acute pollution and a dramatic decline in the health of the internationally protected site, Lake Kutubu.
Crossing a section of its northern catchment area, the ‘PNG LNG’ project will run a 284 km gas pipeline near to the lake, already the site of major environmental degradation at the hands of mining development according to local villagers who live there.
Conducted by Wetlands International, the Rapid Ecological Health Assessment of the Lake Kutubu Ramsar Site, obtained by Reportage, confirms toxic levels of barium and lead in fish samples taken from the lake, as well as a dramatic decline in its unique fish stocks and exceptional water clarity.
“The ecological character of Lake Kutubu has changed markedly in the last ten years,” states the report.
“This is most clearly illustrated by an approximate 37% decline in density of fishes at four metres depth during this period, along with a declining size structure.
“There also appears to be a roughly 50% decline in water clarity in the lake over the last 17 years…”
The report raises concerns about the effects of oil mining that began at the lake in 1990. In recent years the oil mining has been conducted by Australian mining company Oil Search Ltd, a partner in the PNG LNG project.
Conducted over four days in October 2007, the Wetlands International report was commissioned following complaints by villagers about an acute pollution incident in June and July of that year which coincided with nearby drilling activities by Oil Search Ltd.
The lake is a designated “Wetland of International Significance” protected under the Ramsar Convention for its unique biodiversity and ecological significance, most notably for its pristine water and high level of rare fish endemic to the site.
This week, the Ramsar Secretariat said they were still investigating the 2007 pollution incident and the new joint Oil Search – Exxon Mobil – Santos PNG LNG project. It was signed off by all parties at a ceremony at the Papua New Guinea National Parliament House last week, but $US43 million in early works construction began in August.According to the Wetlands International report, samples of the lake’s fish showed a mean barium concentration 3.9 times the US standard for safe food and water levels, and lead at 6.8 times the European Union standard.
One shellfish showed barium at 65 times the standard, selenium at 33 times the standard and arsenic at 30 times the standard.
Heavy metals in surface water samples collected in October by the report’s author, Aaron Jenkins, were within the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard for drinking water.
However, samples taken at the time of pollution in 2007 provided by villagers at Gese and Yakerabo – sites closest to an Oil Search well during the contamination event – were found to contain barium in concentrations of 36 mg/L, fifty-one times the WHO safe drinking water standard. Lead was found at 0.13 mg/L, thirteen times the standard.
During this pollution incident, villagers said the lake changed colour. Connected creeks discharged unnaturally yellow-brown coloured water, detergent-like bubbles floated on the surface and fish also died.
In statements recorded at the time of the pollution, villagers told of explosive vomiting and diarrhoea as well as skin and eye irritation after swimming in the water or eating fish and drinking from the lake and connected catchment areas.
One local girl is reported to have experienced extreme vomiting and died two days after eating freshwater perch from a heavily polluted part of the lake.
In the Wetlands International report, author Aaron Jenkins urges further investigations into the deterioration.
“Evidence of acute environmental pollution and associated human health problems at Lake Kutubu give very strong support to recommending further investigations on both the extent of these phenomenon, and to ensuring that actions are taken to fully address these problems,” he concludes.
Finished in December 2007, the Rapid Ecological Health Assessment has not been released by WWF Australia.
Its findings – which are among the most recent for the lake – have not been assessed in the PNG LNG project’s Environmental Impact Assessment, raising new concerns over the extent and accuracy of the project’s future impacts on the lake.
Neither WWF or Oil Search have carried out any further scientific investigations into the pollution of the lake, despite its strong suggestions for follow-up investigations.
In correspondence to Friends of Lake Kutubu, an Australian group representing the local Kutubu villagers, the International Program Development Manager at WWF Australia, Peter Ramshaw, said the report’s recommendations and any further water testing were “not within WWF’s remit”.
“Aaron’s report contains a series of recommendations, these are not within WWF’s remit, it is now up to the appropriate authorities to take up their own responsibilities,” he said.
“Again, [water monitoring] is not part of WWF’s remit and we have not been engaged to carry out any monitoring of the water quality nor do we have the expertise to do so.
“The responsibility for this lies initially with the Government of PNG’s Department of Environment and Conservation and thereafter with [Oil Search Limited] if it is demonstrated that their responsibility was engaged,” he said.
WWF is funded by Oil Search Ltd to conduct conservation projects in the area, called the Kikori Integrated Conservation and Development Project.
First established under Chevron Niugini in 1994 and continued by Oil Search Ltd after its take-over in 2003, this funding arrangement is currently in its fifth phase of the partnership which began in 1993.
WWF Australia, its PNG offices and Oil Search Ltd have not answered questions about how much this arrangement is worth.
No annual reports by Oil Search Ltd or WWF declare the funding amounts, despite listing the project among their environmental initiatives.
WWF Australia has also ignored its own peer review of the report by an external applied ecologist who found the Wetlands International assessment to be “well written and balanced” and its conclusions both “conservative” and “sensible”.
While noting that the samples were small and there was a lack of overall statistical data, this peer review especially supported recommendations for further investigation, also calling for “a sustained and rigorous monitoring program” of the lake.
Wetlands International Oceania – who compiled the report for WWF – says it stands by the report and that it is a valid preliminary assessment of the lake’s health, despite its ‘snapshot’ analysis of data collected across a four-day period.
Doug Watkins, Manager of Wetlands International Oceania, agrees follow up investigations into these findings should have been by conducted by WWF to form comparative, statistically significant data.
“The work that we did was over a short period of time, it was a very preliminary assessment. I would have liked to have seen in the period afterwards a quick follow up into the findings,” he said.
No further studies or investigations have been done by WWF Australia in PNG.
In November, Reportage revealed WWF Australia did not alert the Ramsar Convention to the report or original evidence of pollution, despite it being party to an international wetlands protection agreement.
Wetlands International Oceania, which is also an official partner of the Ramsar Convention, said it was unable to pass on the report to the convention’s international body due to its confidentiality agreement with WWF Australia.
Further concerns are raised by the report over potential links between the mining activities of Oil Search Ltd within the area, the high heavy metal counts in both the lake’s water and fish stocks and the reports of illnesses by local villagers.
None of these have ever been fully investigated.
The Rapid Ecological Health Assessment finds the symptoms suffered by villagers after eating or drinking from the lake are synonymous with the effects of barium poisoning. Barium is a compound used to drill oil and gas wells.
“The symptoms described by villagers, particularly in the vicinity of Gese and Yakerabo and around the time of the alleged event, of explosive vomiting and diarrhoea are consistent with the effects of acute toxicity of barium, a major component of drilling mud,” it says.
Symptoms of major skin and eye irritation and the descriptions of detergent like bubbles on the contaminated water are also found by the report to be consistent with the health and environment effects of drilling foam.
The potential for underground chemical seepage through the easily eroded limestone geology of Lake Kutubu from Oil Search Ltd’s Kutubu 2 drill site and surface mud pits – which store and treat the toxic run off during drilling – has not fully been investigated.
Both the well and its drilling fluid settlement ponds (which store the chemical run-off from the well during drilling) were situated within the lake’s catchment boundaries and also within a major groundwater recharge zone for Lake Kutubu.
No investigations by Oil Search Ltd have been conducted into specific surface and groundwater pathways in this landscape and it maintains it was not the cause of the pollution.
A statement issued to Reportage by Peter Botten, Executive Director of Oil Search Ltd, said two independent reviews – one conducted by the DEC and the other by WWF (the Rapid Ecological Health Assessment) – cleared its operations of any link to the pollution.
“Both found no evidence of a causal link between our drilling operation and the events at the lake,” it states.
“Toxicity tests carried out on mud chemicals used in the drilling process indicated that, even in undiluted form, they had effectively no toxicity.”
“While there was turbidity observed in the tributaries that were sampled, all measurements were well within WHO water quality standards,” it states.
Oil Search Ltd said it responded immediately to villager reports of toxic pollution by shutting down drilling operations to investigate potential linkages to its operations.
“None could be established and at no time was the well considered to be unstable,” it said.
Drilling reports for the Kutubu 2 well obtained by Reportage from the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) and lodged by Oil Search Ltd reveal the well was considered unstable.
Lodged reports from March 15 to June 25 2007 show the well was plagued by “ongoing losses” which slowed weekly drilling progress to a mere three metres by week six and prevented any drilling altogether in weeks nine, twelve and thirteen of the operation.
By week fifteen, a final drilling report issued by Oil Search Ltd to the ASX stated, “due to the instability of the Kutubu 2 hole, it has been decided to plug and abandon the well.”
An earlier story by Reportage stated there were also discrepancies in the dates Oil Search Ltd first reported the incident to the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation.
Oil Search Ltd told Reportage they reported the incident on May 23 and June 21 2007 while a letter by the DEC from July 25 2008, supplied by Oil Search Ltd, said notification was not received until October.
Reportage’s account was consistent with information then supplied by Oil Search Ltd.
Following publication, Oil Search has provided further information in which the DEC seems to retract its complaint that the company had breached its licence by not reporting.
The new information suggests notification of the pollution incident was done more informally than through the DEC Mail Registry.
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