Santos accused of covering up killing dolphins in an oil spill

Oil and gas producer Santos has been accused of covering up details of an oil spill off the WA coast where at least three dolphins were found dead, by claiming the spill caused “negligible” environmental impact.

At least three dead dolphins were found near the oil spill.
At least three dead dolphins were found near the oil spill.

In March 2022 about 25,000 litres of oil leaked from a hose Santos used to load a tanker moored off its Varanus Island gas processing facility, 75 kilometres from WA’s Pilbara coast.

The spill was not made public by either Santos or the WA safety regulator and when revealed a month later by this masthead a Santos spokeswoman said it was a “minor spill” with “negligible” environmental impact.

An unnamed whistleblower whose statement and photographs were tabled by Senator David Pocock at a Senate committee hearing on Thursday, said dead dolphins, including a pup, were found floating in the centre of the oil slick.

“Tens of thousands of litres of oil in the ocean, dead dolphins and sea snakes,” they said.

“How was this negligible?”

The oil leaked through a tear in a loading hose connected to the tanker.
The oil leaked through a tear in a loading hose connected to the tanker.

Santos did not fly environment experts to the remote island until a week after the spill, according to the statement, so had no basis to determine what the impact was.

“I felt strongly that Santos’ comment was baseless, designed to mislead and avoid accountability,” they said.


In late 2022 when this masthead confirmed floating dolphin carcasses has been found near the spill Santos said the sightings were a couple of hours after the incident and the dolphins had insufficient time in the spill to be harmed.

The WA wildlife regulator asked Santos to retrieve a carcass for examination, but the company was unable to find them when it searched later in the day.

SA Museum honorary mammal researcher Dr Catherine Kemper, who over 35 years has performed more than 800 post-mortems on whales and dolphins, said such a procedure conducted by experienced scientists was needed to determine the cause of death.

“It would take a brave or foolish person to say how the dolphins seen near the oil spill died without undertaking a post-mortem,” she said.

“The fact that the dolphins were seen dead and floating suggests a sudden death.”

Greenpeace campaigner Richard George said the allegations, if true, revealed a shocking disregard for marine wildlife.

“These allegations suggest that Santos is more concerned with covering its tracks than accepting accountability for a devastating oil spill at Varanus Island,” he said.

The oil occurred while the tanker Catalan Sea was being loaded with oil.
The oil occurred while the tanker Catalan Sea was being loaded with oil.

The oil spill is one of four known serious incidents in Santos’ operations in the waters around Varanus Island in less than two years.

In mid-2021 two workers had to scramble for their lives when a disused platform being lifted by a crane on a ship swung out of control just above their heads.

Federal offshore safety regulator NOPSEMA in November 2022 ordered a rig contracted by Santos to stop drilling as a device called a blowout preventer that stops the uncontrolled release of oil or gas was “unfit for service.” The failure of a blowout preventer contributed to the massive Gulf of Mexico 2010 oil spill that claimed 11 lives of workers in a drilling rig.

In the same month, bubbles of gas escaping from a leaking pipeline were spotted on the ocean surface near an offshore platform that supplies most of the gas processed at Varanus Island. For two months gas supply in WA was restricted causing some industry to curtail production while some power generators switch to more expensive diesel.

Brad Gandy, spokesman for the Offshore Alliance of unions covering WA oil and gas workers, said Santos had slashed the number of maintenance workers and engineers looking after Varanus Island.

“The regulators need to seriously consider revoking Santos’ licence to operate until improvements are made,” he said.

“If they fail to act there’s a very real chance a family will soon lose a breadwinner.”

Santos has been asked for comment.

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