Aaron Bunch Journalist with Australian Associated Press | Collection of published work | + 61 484 008 119 | abunch@aap.com.au

Aaron Bunch
Fracking ‘risks NT groundwater ecology’

A study in the Northern Territory has found more work is needed to ensure gas fracking doesn’t endanger tiny subterranean shrimp critical to groundwater health.

February 16, 2021

More research is needed to ensure proposed gas fracking in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin doesn’t endanger tiny subterranean shrimp critical to groundwater health, a study has found.

The basin is one of five gas fields the Commonwealth plans to open up to support exports and manufacturing, under its “gas-led recovery” from the coronavirus crisis.

It sits over the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer which has some of the best fresh water in a region that is dependent on groundwater, like much of the NT.

The joint CSIRO and Charles Darwin University study found 11 new stygofaunal species – including shrimps, amphipods, ostracods, copepods and syncarids – about 0.3 to 10 millimetres in length.

They help purify groundwater, making it safe for humans, animals and other organisms to use.

Microbiologist Gavin Rees said their presence across the region could also show the aquifer – about 650 kilometres south of Darwin – is one large and interconnected subterranean waterway.

“Proposed shale gas developments in the basin need to consider the discovery of the stygofauna,” he told AAP.

“Further work is also needed to understand the potential risks of gas extraction activity on groundwater organisms.”

Freshwater ecologist Jenny Davis said the gas reserves were more than a kilometre deeper than the aquifer.

“(The miners) go through the groundwater to the much deeper gas supply … so the concern is if a well cracked and there was contamination, it could spread through the aquifer,” she said.

Prof Davis said the gas wasn’t the danger to the stygofauna, but rather the chemicals used in the industrial process to extract it.

“It could kill these animals and they’re the sign of a healthy functioning system.”

“It’s like an oil spill in the ocean, you’ve only got to make one mistake, then you’re in trouble.”

Plans to frack in the Beetaloo Basin have caused concern among many Territorians, with fears it could jeopardise groundwater and Australia’s efforts to meet the Paris emissions reduction target.

But an independent inquiry found that even small-scale developments in the basin could create more than 6500 full-time jobs and generate $2.8 billion for the cash-strapped NT economy over 25 years.

“We are going to make sure the Northern Territory is a gas manufacturing hub,” Mining Minister Nicole Manison told parliament on Tuesday.

About 90 per cent of the Territory’s supply comes from groundwater sources, according to the NT government.

The study findings were published on Tuesday.

It was funded by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance, which is a collaboration between the CSIRO, Commonwealth, state governments and industry.

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