Gloucester Dreaming

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

As dawn broke and mist lifted off the Avon River, six police vehicles rolled down Fairbairns Lane towards us, eight kilometres from Gloucester. Outside the gate shielding the river paddock where AGL’s gas hub is hidden behind a fifty metre square fortress, around 30 protesters tensed in the chill air.

Farmers, students, retirees and business owners from the surrounding districts, some as far afield as Newcastle, they were being filmed assiduously by AGL’s outsourced security, go-pros strapped to their chests like cyborg-sentinels. Two performance artists from Sydney made theatre of the rather grim proceedings, one cavorting in a rabbit costume and another dressed as Alice in Wonderland, mocking the wooden-faced guards with satirical song.

Some of these mercenaries were recognisable from the CSG (coal seam gas) blockades at the Pilliga Forest – veterans apparently, of the Santos gas wars. At yesterdays action they’d crossed the line and rough-housed protesters, while the police looked on and did nothing. Video footage is being examined for potential assault charges.

The police too were adopting a heavy-handed approach. Nearly outnumbering the protestors, they muscled into the group at the gate, distributing hefty fines in envelopes for obstruction, based on video evidence from yesterdays action, where two people had already been arrested.

Of the protesters, some are members of Groundswell Gloucester, the local peak group opposed to coal seam gas mining in this area. Others are simply stressed local landowners who are visibly agitated at the outrage they see being enabled by the intimidating police presence. One man tells me his property just up the road has been devalued by $200,000 for its proximity to the proposed gasfields.

There’s a skeleton crew of activists from the Pilliga Forest, who’ve been working with the people of Narrabri and Coonamble to stop Santos’ massive gas infrastructure there. One of them was arrested last week. Another, Crystal Hodgson, is handed a fine for standing in front of the gates to the AGL compound.

Lock the Gate, the grassroots organization dedicated to opposing CSG mining across Australia has sent an operative, Georgina Woods of Newcastle.  They’re ramping up their ongoing campaign here, now that Gloucester has become the new frontline in the fight against CSG mining. At the headwaters of the Manning River, whose water catchment contains some 100,000 residents, she points out that CSG mining here is only permissible because the approvals were granted before laws were passed in February 2013 banning wells within two kilometers proximity to residential areas. One woman’s house is less than 200 metres from AGL’s gas fortress.

Gloucester’s plight is therefore unique in the modern mining environment. Apart from CSG, the nearby Stratford and Rocky Hill coal mines have had expansion plans approved recently.

AGL plans to expand its gasfield to within 500 metres of a hospital and schools. Unless Groundswell Gloucester’s blockade is successful – and a new camp with the potential to house hundreds of protesters has been council-approved just down the road – the town will be inundated with 330 wells and become an industrialized zone.

This would effectively destroy its burgeoning tourism status, not to mention a struggling dairy industry – and a refuge for tree-changers that have bought dozens of the blocks surrounding the town. Nor are the prospects of the project highly esteemed by industry pundits.

Last year Credit Suisse devalued the whole project from $375 million to $88 million. Dr Philip Pells, a prominent scientific adviser to the coal industry, has roundly condemned AGL’s Gloucester project.

He says the areas underground aquifers are ”intimately connected” with the surface water, thus posing a serious risk to the local community and waters downstream. He also says AGL do not have a satisfactory plan to dispose of the 2500 tonnes of salty waste water it will produce annually.

NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane 2013 report on CSG activities in NSW stated that Gloucester’s geological areas is heavily faulted and complex and hence inappropriate for CSG mining.

Groundswell Gloucester spokesperson Julie Lyford, a former Mayor of Gloucester, has been a long-time opponent and effective lobbyist against mining here. She says it should be the last place on earth for a mining boom.

“There’s a cumulative impact that is quite profound. It’s the Manning catchment and for nearby Taree it’s also the Port Stephens catchment, which has oyster growing and tourism. There are also the cumulative issues of an expanding open cut mine operating 24 hours a day right next to where people live. “Compound that with 330 gas wells and another mine that’s in the process of approval less than three kilometres from our hospital, nursing home and schools and main population base – to industrialise a valley that’s been on the State Heritage register for nomination since 1975 is disgraceful. All the Aboriginal heritage has been totally dismissed and there are nine Aboriginal sites that will be destroyed with the open cut mine expansion.

“There’s an air quality issue. Fifty homes would be impacted with the 2kilometre zone exclusion.

“So the 2kilometre zone is a bit of a furphy. Just because a home is two kilometres away doesn’t mean when the wind blows it’s not going to blow over your kids jumping on the trampoline. They’ll have toluene residue in their urine like they have in Tara.”

She points out that the report requires CSG operators to collect effective, local baseline information on existing levels of airborne chemicals and local climactic data before any project is considered. Yet she claims that in their fracking application, instead of collecting a local baseline for damaging CSG emissions such as volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides or carbon monoxide, AGL used desktop data from remote locations such as Muswellbrook and Singleton. For climactic data, she says AGL used figures from Windermere, near Bulga.

Groundswell Gloucester are hoping to rally people from all over the state, as happened recently at Bentley, near Lismore, where in May this year some 6,000 protesters defied 1,000 police and the State government, then reeling from ICAC investigations that claimed the scalp of Premier Barry O’Farrell and two successive Energy ministers.

That action foiled the prospective gasfields projected by speculative mining company Metgasco, who are still trying to salvage a legal victory out of their conclusive defeat at the hands of the united community of the Northern Rivers, 87% of whom voted a resounding no to coal seam gas mining.

News broke this morning that the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas had approved CSG exploration at Gloucester two months prior to receiving test results on whether the fracking chemicals they intended to use would come within drinking water guidelines. This followed a hasty change a fortnight ago to the state environment planning policy designed specifically for the Gloucester project to bypass the need for a full EIS (environmental impact statement). Such an unseemly scramble cannot but raise suspicions in a state where three ministers directly involved in pushing the CSG industry have been found to be corrupt.

In fact AGL came under scrutiny recently after local residents discovered that they had not properly declared political donations that they have admitted broke NSW donation disclosure laws.

This bombshell comes hard on the heels of a report from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) that an AGL gasfield near Camden, NSW, that comes within 200 metres of homes has registered two “significant” and four “major” gas leaks over three months.

The report found one in 10 of the wells had leaked methane, two showing emission readings in excess of 50,000 parts per million. Months earlier, AGL’s own audit had, rather predictably, reported no leakages.

“Something dodgy is going on with AGL’s Gloucester gas project, and we need to get to the bottom of it” said Julie Lyford, “How much money has AGL donated to political parties, and what did they receive in return?

“Why did the Baird Government change the law to allow AGL to frack for CSG just a few hundred metres from family homes without even completing a full environmental impact study?” asked Ms Lyford.

“The NSW Government is failing to protect Gloucester from CSG, so we are taking action today to protect ourselves.”

As the sun rose so did the temperature. Police swarmed around the activists, commanding them to move along. “Or else we’ll drag you away”, as Inspector Neil Stephens of Manning River LAC told Kate, a diminutive elderly lady standing tremulously outside the gate. Another local cop, Scotty Chester, told protesters “I’m just here to make sure everyone’s safe.”.

Just before 7am a convoy of eleven vehicles led by a bus came into sight. They were full of Halliburton employees – the same company responsible for arming and ‘rebuilding’ the mess in Iraq.

As they approached the gates police moved in, isolating selected activists, closing off their angles of approach. Protestors stood in front of the bus, immobilising it. Kate, the lady at the gates fainted and fell hard as police began to haul her away. There was a scuffle and a young man dashed for the bus and dove underneath, clutching a steel lock-on box in an attempt to secure himself to the axle. He was intercepted and roughly grappled by a security guard – one of the Pilliga veterans. Police grabbed and wrestled him away. On the other side of the vehicle another young man attempted the same action, but he too was foiled and dragged away by the wall of blue shirts.

Kate’s supine body was hauled aside. An ambulance had been called for her. Barely half a metre from her supine body, surrounded by police, the bus rolled through the gates. As police held back the protesters, many of them over fifty, the rest of the convoy drove through. To calls of “traitors to your country”, they looked down as the vehicles trundled through.

The police remained aloof, unmoved by the air of agitation and despair. An ambulance arrived and Kate was taken away, bedraggled and forlorn.

By 7.15 it was all over. The two arrested men had been hauled off to a paddy van and more on the spot fines had been handed out to those standing outside the gates. The police drove away and the protesters began to leave, unable to prevent the second day of fracking in their pristine country.

Brian Kilby, a local tourist adventure operator who’s been protesting here for two weeks, was outraged by the cavalier attitude of the police, who appeared to be completely in step with the private security guards. “It’s collusion”, he muttered. He says his business, which employs up to thirty people in peak season, will be ruined if the gasfields, a one-off proposition which will hire mostly fly in/fly out workers and leave the area polluted forever, are completed.

“Who goes to a gasfield for a holiday?” he asks. “When I was a kid here Gloucester shut at 12pm on a Saturday morning. Now it’s seven days a week, gift shops, cafes, all supplying the tourism industry. They’re going to go by the wayside. The tourism figures show 44 million visitors a year to Gloucester – that’s a lot of jobs. And all the accommodation, the B&Bs – people are not going to come to this beautiful place and stay in front of a gasfield. It’s definitely going to give the town a dirty name.”

“We run an ecotourism accredited white water kayaking business, so it’s all about the water. We plant every year at least 300 trees to improve the waterways, fix up some of the damage done in the past. We do an educational programs and we have a lot of high end schools come to us and they’re not going to want to take their kids into a gasfield.

“We all know that the jobs AGL talk about  – all their staff are brought in, when they build the project they’re going to put a camp in.

“We don’t want a fluoro main street. Once we have a flouro, FIFO main street tourism is dead – all those boutique shops and B&B’s dead.”

As the protestors gathered at a nearby property to debrief, a car flew past and a young woman shrieked “Gas mining for Gloucester!” out the window.

Brian Kilby shook his head.

“The vocal minority,” he says. “The town’s probably 80-20 against mining but most of them won’t come out of the closet – they’re too scared. There’s been lots of people harassed and intimidated through false information about what this is going to do to our environment and for jobs but y’know what? There’s not a gas well in the world that won’t fail at some stage.”

AGL’s well failure rate doesn’t bode well for the 330 wells planned here, so close to the homes scattered all round this lush valley.

But despite the failure to keep AGL and Halliburton’s drill rig crew out today, the protesters were in good spirits.

“It’s starting to roll. I can feel it. It’s starting to snowball a bit,” one woman said.

“It was peaceful, it was a valiant effort,” said Lock the Gate’s Georgina Woods. “Clearly the only way that AGL can get their fracking convoy in is under police escort. That’s a pretty good indicator that they have no social license.”

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Protesters have since maintained a daily vigil at the gates of  AGL’s gas hub, with over 40 arrests so far at the site. They have adopted a wide variety of tactics to slow or stall work on the drill rig, the latest incident occurring on November 18 as a Nimbin man rode a pushbike in front of a convoy at excruciatingly slow pace, till police pulled him over and booked him.

The protester camp, on the property of Gloucester beef farmer Ed Robinson, has gradually swelled as people from across the state have traveled to contest this latest front in the coal seam gas struggle. While AGL’s staff have refused to comment or answer questions on their operations in Gloucester, their website maintains an impeccable record for their 126 operational wells in NSW.

More contrary news has broken in ensuing weeks. In mid-November a study by researchers at Southern Cross University in Lismore, NSW was published and peer-reviewed proving that ‘fugitive emissions’ ie escaping gases from wells, pipelines and storage facilities, are leaking from existing CSG infrastructures at volumes far exceeding admitted safe levels. It showed significantly elevated methane and carbon dioxide emission levels in the gasfields of the Darling Downs, in Queensland, particularly emanating from its expansive water-holding ponds. The report was rubbished in 2012 by Martin Ferguson, former Labor Minister for Energy and Resources, now a gas industry lobbyist. He famously castigated its authors with slurs on their professionalism when it was first brought to light.

Another new study from Queensland University showed that the Great Artesian Basin, one of the world’s largest underground water reservoirs, is in danger of being de-pressurised by mining, 79 per cent of its critical recharging area being covered by gas, petroleum or CSG leases.  It states that CSG drilling significantly reduces natural hydraulic pumping pressure and that this could cumulatively be enough to stop bores flowing in the basin, which provides water for towns and farms across 22 per cent of Australia.

And the UK’s chief scientist has identified fracking’s potential risks as being as hazardous as thalidomide, tobacco and asbestos, adding; “Yet one of the main obstacles to this lies in high-profile self-fulfilling assertions to the contrary, including by authoritative policy figures.”

Meanwhile in NSW, the State Government showed its apparent sensitivity to public opinion this week by announcing a new assessment framework for gas exploration, allowing operations only “where it is safe and appropriate”. With a state election due in March next year, its projections that this could include Sydney’s drinking water catchments makes it seem an unlikely compromise. As does a plan to refuse landholders a legal right to say no to drilling on their land.

A later proposal to cut the red tape on CSG well approvals, removing requirements for Environmental Impact Statements, reveals a government who perceives no real voter backlash from this issue.

And with yet another former Party bigwig, Richard Shields, about to be called in front of ICAC, it seems that a good chunk of affected voters are less sanguine about its prospects.

The several hundred people who gathered in Gloucester on the last weekend of November would indeed beg to differ. Addressed by ‘The Castle’ star Michael Caton and also by Dayne Pratzky, the Alan Jones-approved self-styled superhero of new anti-CSG doco ‘The Frackman’, they declared to Baird’s proposals, “Tell ‘em they’re dreaming”.

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