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Hundreds of dead fish and a four day delay: Beetaloo fish kill exposes inability of NT Government to respond to environmental incidents

The Northern Territory Government regulator's ability to respond to environmental disasters is in doubt after it took four days for NT officers to respond to a mass fish kill downstream of numerous fracking sites during recent flooding events.

Northern Territory EPA staff were notified of hundreds of small, dead and dying fish at Newcastle Creek at Marlinja on January 15, however they didn’t attend the site until January 19. Images and videos are available here.

By the time Northern Territory officers arrived on the scene, a significant flood event was underway, and it's understood all dead fish had been washed downstream. 

However it is understood the Federal Government was able to establish a disease investigation, samples were collected, with analysis now underway.

Early results (available here) have indicated the presence of heavy metals in water samples taken within the first 48 hours. These are at levels that may cause fish distress. While there are many possible sources, heavy metals being brought to the surface by fracking operations has always been a concern to people in the region.

Images and videos from the scene show the fish with red lesions on their bodies. The event does not appear typical of a lack of oxygen event that sometimes occurs with first big rains as there were no fish gasping at the surface for air, and small fish species were dying in larger numbers than large fish. 

Mr Dixon, 57, has lived at Marlinja all his life, and said he had never seen anything like the fish kill.

“I’ve never come across that kind of thing happening on Country, in this creek,” he said.

“Other family members found it and when I went down there I was shocked. It’s sad. It’s an emotional thing, a spiritual thing, we live on Country because we want to protect Country. 

“For thousands of years my ancestors lived here. That creek was our main source of water food - we ate kangaroo and turkey too, but that creek is where we got our fish and freshwater mussels from. That’s how my ancestors survived here for thousands of years.

“The first thing it makes you think of is, did fracking cause this? We’re not 100% sure, but seeing it, and knowing fracking is happening upstream, our community members are worried about it.”

Katherine Veterinarian and Protect Big Rivers spokesperson Dr Samantha Phelan said the delay in the NT Government response was unacceptable.

After calling the NT Environment Protection Authority to report the incident, she was transferred to an outsourced hotline in Melbourne rather than being able to contact the Department of Infrastructure, Tourism and Trade directly. 

This process effectively wasted a critical 48 hours of disease investigation. 

“This unacceptable delay shows the NT Government hasn’t got a hope in hell of responding if and when fracking causes an environmental catastrophe in a remote part of the Territory,” she said.

“There’s clearly insufficient monitoring, particularly prior to and during big floods that regularly occur during the wet. This is when the risk of water contamination from fracking is high, and it is also when many government workers are interstate on holidays. 

“The cause of this fish kill is still under investigation. But what we do know is that the NT government is allowing fracking companies to operate through the wet season. This is an area prone to massive flood events. 

“Companies are permitted to store toxic drill waste and waste water through the wet in open ponds in direct contravention with the recommendations in the Pepper scientific fracking inquiry. This risks polluting our much loved rivers and underground aquifers. 

“With the announcement of 15 new exploration and appraisal wells by Tamboran Resources and a similar number from Empire expected in the near future, we are now at a point where the cumulative impacts warned about in the scientific inquiry may start to be seen. 

“It’s clear the NT doesn’t have a regulatory regime that can stand up to this test.”


Spills, leaking wastewater from holding pond liners, flooding and overflow of ponds during heavy rain and other accidents and disposal of inadequately treated wastewater onto the ground or into creeks and other water bodies all threaten surface water and surrounding soil” according to a review of scientific literature published by Haswell, M., Hegedus, J., Shearman, D. (2023). The risks of oil and gas development for human health and wellbeing: A synthesis of evidence and implications for Australia (p. 37). 

Tamboran Resources was fined for using untreated wastewater upstream of this site, to suppress dust at its Maverick 1 site in 2022, ahead of big rains. Whistle-blower contractors later revealed they were told to spray drill rig water despite Tamboran knowing the fluid was contaminated. In the same year a bund wall broke during flooding, spilling sediment and potentially toxic chemicals down towards Newcastle Creek. Investigations were also launched for what appeared to be the pumping of contaminated water into a cattle breeding paddock last year. 

The Northern Territory Government is assessing a 3,600-page Environmental Management Plan from Tamboran Resources, lodged during the Christmas period, to drill and frack 15 new gas wells, clear 145 hectares, and store 34 million litres of wastewater on site. If approved, the wells would be drilled just north of Newcastle Waters.

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