well, well, well

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 10:19 22/10/2011
tdn well stand
ROBERT CHARLES
Sarah Roberts, right, and her husband David Morrison want water on their Ngaere property checked for pollutants

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Reports are piled up on the table. Sarah Roberts pulls figures from one, quotes from another. She talks fast and switches from hazardous substances to resource consents to contaminated water without pausing for breath.

It's hard to keep up.

Studying scientific reports and resource consents is a far cry from her day job as a high school teacher. And it is not exactly her idea of a good time. But she wants answers to concerns she has around the water quality on land her partner's family owns and her sister lives on.

The family's land borders the Tag Oil's Cheal well sites.

Ms Roberts and her partner David Morrison lived on the Morrison family property at Ngaere near Stratford until last year, when her sister Rachel Roberts and her partner moved in.

Tag Oil is going through the resource-consent process to enable it to drill more wells at the site.

Rachel Roberts became concerned about light, noise, vibration and smell from the site and wasn't keen on signing any new consents.

"She was told flaring was probably a farmer burning off but she said it was in the middle of the night and it was really hot and really noisy," Sarah Roberts says.

So Sarah Roberts decided to go along to the Taranaki Regional Council to get some answers. She says she was told to go home, have a glass of wine and relax.

Unable to get the answers she required, Ms Roberts started investigating. And she discovered drilling chemicals had leaked from the Cheal oil well between two and four years ago.

The regional council says no water sources were contaminated, but the event increased her concerns about water quality. The family's water comes from a stream that flows out from under Cheal B. They have since emptied the water tank, had it cleaned out and brought in water.

"We decided we couldn't afford to drink the water. All our family go out there."

The quantity of water is much different than usual and the family had problems with pipelines getting jammed and the water not drawing properly, she says.

"We're not sleeping well because we are worried."

They're even more worried now, she says.

"Because I thought if I approached the councils, everything would be sorted out. Not any more. I know it sounds geeky but I reminded (the regional council) of their mission statement.

"It has people in it."

She is not a radical or a greenie, she says.

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"I thought other people were looking after this."

Ms Roberts gets emotional as she talks about the stress her investigation has brought and how the family doesn't believe they have been listened to by either the regional or district council. Her worries increased when she realised her emailed inquires to the regional council were being forwarded to Cheal owner Tag Oil.

"I could cry about this. It is really sad. It's so hard."

Ms Roberts' family aren't the only people who are concerned. Other property owners whose land borders the well sites are having problems and are getting their water from other sources. Not willing to be named for various reasons, they say it is hard to prove that their water problems have been caused by the drilling. Nothing has ever been tested.

Farmer David Dent says he feels better after a visit to the drilling site last week.

Tag Oil explained everything very well, he says. "It went a long way to reassure me and I feel more comfortable now."

The problems are the lack of information available - drilling and fracking are complex processes that people don't understand - and the lack of communication from both the Taranaki Regional and the Stratford District Councils.

"The regional council hasn't been giving the information asked for - and that's not flash."

Tag Oil, the regional council and Stratford District Council should have a public meeting and share information, so people can understand what is actually going on, Mr Dent says.

"There's a communication breakdown."

The oil company needs to explain the process, the regional council needs to explain how it is monitored and the district council needs to explain how the consents work, he says.

"It needs to be transparent so people have nothing to be afraid of."

A public meeting was held a week ago, but no representatives from the three bodies attended. The councils say they couldn't discuss the issue because of the ongoing resource-consent process.

"I was disappointed about that," Mr Dent says. "That's why I went."

People have a right to understand the process and feel comfortable that processes are in place to minimise the risk.

"The information isn't forthcoming."

At the site meeting, it came up that Tag Oil was in constant contact with the councils, he says. People thought this shouldn't be happening as the councils should be making the rules.

But what is going on in Taranaki is the cutting edge of oil exploration and the oil companies know a lot more than the councils, he says.

Labour MP Rick Barker says developments within the oil industry have created a huge learning curve for councils. As drilling increases around the country, different councils will have to spend money gaining the expertise needed. At the moment they are getting their information from the oil companies.

He believes an independent body should be set up that has the expertise and can advise people and reassure them everything is OK. He is not saying what the oil companies are saying is wrong but, like all industries, there should be an independent auditing process.

Ms Roberts wants the water on her land to be independently tested for a large number of chemicals she believes are used in the drilling process.

Taranaki Regional Council director resource management Fred McLay says he has offered to have water samples analysed and to have hydrogeological work done, but Ms Roberts has not got back to him.

"I'm quite prepared to investigate her claims. I've made the offer in writing, but she has remained silent. We've tested some of the stormwater sites from some of those Cheal well sites and I have given her some of the data."

The water wasn't checked after drilling chemicals leaked from the Cheal oil well a few years ago, he says. The drilling was 1400 metres below ground.

"There are many geological layers separating the area where they are taking the oil from and fresh water. The top 500 metres contains fresh water. The particular zone where there was the issue with the casing . . . is at about 1400-1500 metres."

There are different geological layers, 1km thick, separating the drilling and the fresh water. "Who would be affected by that?"

But, to allay people's fears, he's undertaken to do some more work and testing, he says. However, Ms Roberts hasn't got back to him.

It is fair to say Ms Roberts doesn't quite see it that way. And she wants an independent test.

Mr McLay says the council is independent.

"I have a consultant working for me who is available to do it. The council's laboratory is fully certified and accredited. We can do it."

Tag Oil have offered to pay for it, he says.

The problem is aligning the questions people have with the research.

"It is important that the people making the accusations are involved in designing the programme, otherwise the council could spend time and money only to be met with criticism," Mr McLay says.

It is important to have Ms Roberts' questions incorporated into any scientific investigation. He will work out what the issues are and employ the appropriate expertise to do assessments and take samples, Mr McLay says.

The council deals with groundwater and understands flows of water beneath the surface and deep water injection of waste.

Similar principles apply in this situation.

"We are comfortable in dealing with this."

The regional council is in the midst of the resource- consent process that will allow Tag Oil to increase the number of wells on the site. It looks into effects on air quality, water quality and soil.

The district council is looking into the effects of noise, vibration and light from the site. The resource consents are non-notifiable under the Resource Management Act, which means the councils don't have to consult with the public.

However, being 1000m from a site, Ms Roberts' family is classed as an interested party by the district council, so they can have a say on the effects of light, noise and vibration. The family is holding up the process because they have refused to sign.

"My worries now are around the councils and the way they work. They are the ones we go to and we want to be assured they are on top of it.

"I'm not assured this is happening," Ms Roberts says.

She and Mr Dent will meet Mr McLay next week to discuss getting the water tested.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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