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West Newton A – a dangerous microcosm of UK fracking?

9 Nov , 2015  

By  -  
Steve Topple is an independent journalist and commentator on domestic and global politics and social issues. He has written for The Independent, Morning Star, The CommonSpace, openDemocracy, Middle East Monitor and is resident at Consented.

If you’ve never been to the area of Holderness in the East Riding of Yorkshire, it is a glorious part of the country – rich in agricultural and farming traditions with history dating back to Edward the Confessor. The small hamlet of Marton is mentioned in the Doomsday Book and its Grade II listed Church of the Holy Sacrament dates from the 18th century, and nearby are the Lambwath Meadows, designated a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” owing to their agriculturally unimproved grasslands.

Also in the locality is the site known as “West Newton A”, on the Fosham Road in Marton. Bounded by a small tributary which flows into the Lambwath Stream leading to the Meadows, and 600m from the hamlet, it’s the location of a Rathlin Energy exploratory site for (officially) the extraction of conventional oil and gas.

In 2013, Rathlin opened a 230 ft-deep borehole to explore the possibility of extracting “natural” gas from the site. From the outset, the company were adamant that this was not with a view to fracturing for shale gas (even though the site sits on the Bowland shale formation which is estimated by the British Geological Survey to hold phenomenal volumes of the resource); the evidence, however, appears to the contrary.

As a new report commissioned and complied by the community of Holderness which was released on Friday shows, Rathlin appeared to undertake what is known as a “mini fall-off” test (a small fracturing operation), to confirm the permeability of the rock. To avoid being bogged down in technicality (the detail can be found in the report) all the signs pointed to this having occurred, even though they repeatedly denied such a test had taken place – and video evidence cites the Field Manager of the site admitting to this.

Aside from the fact an admission that their interests lied in fracking would prove even more controversial with the local community than their current operations already are, it would also mean they would be forced to pay out an £100,000 remuneration to the community, under the UK Oil and Gas Authorities regulations. Make what you will of this.

So if Rathlin are exploring West Newton with a view to undertaking fracking, how robust have their operations been to date?

If you put aside the numerous breaches (19 at the last count) of Environment Agency permits, contraventions of their planning application and COSHH regulations, an ongoing investigation by the HSE, ignoring their own traffic management plan and no routine testing for contamination of the Chalk aquifer of East Yorkshire (which supplies the majority of drinking water to Hull and the surrounding area), then to say Rathlin’s attitude to their operation was lackadaisical would be an understatement.

Interestingly, as the Government did a second U-turn this week and decided to block fracking from going ahead at “Sites of Special Scientific Interest” (SSSI’s), West Newton shines as a pertinent example of why this legislation doesn’t go far enough. Evidence cited in the report shows that in May 2014 the perimeter drainage ditch surrounding the site overflowed directly into a tributary of the Lambwath Stream – that flows into the nearby SSSI, the Lambwath Meadows. An EA compliance report also found “Some emulsified oil… on the water surface at the South end of the open section of ditch”, and described the effectiveness of the systems in place to deal with this as “debatable”.

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Moreover, both Rathlin and sadly East Riding of Yorkshire council have demonstrated flagrant disregard for the ecological impact of the operations at West Newton. From destroying over three times the length of hedgerow they had been permitted to, to inaccurate reports stating there were no Barn Owls within in 1km of the site (when the Barn Owl Trust have records of 6 pairs), Rathlin’s internal “Habitat Survey” only provided a snapshot of presence, absence, abundance and spatial distribution of the local ecology.

Habitats are never static therefore in many situations cannot be objectively or precisely defined and it is more appropriate to frequently monitor indicator species. The Council fundamentally failed in their duty by only asking for risk assessments to be carried out (prior to work commencing), when in fact they should have demanded a full “Environmental Impact Assessment” – something which is now in the process of being ratified – three years too late.

The crux of the matter is that possible water contamination of a SSSI, disregard for the local ecology, investigations by the HSE, breaches of planning applications and 19 EA permits and the deceptive nature of the whole operation need to be viewed in context; that context being this is merely the first test site – if a licence is granted for the full extraction of shale, it may have the potential to be disastrous.

The report (which was released to coincide with a 10-day ecological event near the West Newton site in objection to a proposed second well) shines a glaring light onto the precarious nature of the potential UK fracking industry.

At best, it demonstrates that robust safeguards need to be established to ensure protection from everything that could go wrong – and current legislation doesn’t go far enough.

At worst, it highlights the nefarious approach of the multinationals, the contempt they hold government agencies, councils, communities and the environment in and their desire to steamroll ahead with fracking – whatever the cost.

But it also displays the commitment, ingenuity and resilience of the local communities and campaigners involved in the fight against fracking – a fight that does not appear to be going away, but will continue in earnest regardless.

The Communities of Holderness have released this investigative report into what went wrong at West Newton A.


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