Freelance photographer Dean Sewell and myself were in Gloucester last week to take aerial shots of AGL’s projected coal seam gas (CSG) wells and the existing coal mines in the valley. Dean’s photos clearly depict the proximity of the current and planned gas fields and coal mines to the township. From the air they are a drab and dramatic contrast to the natural beauty of the valley.
We spoke to a number of people raising concerns about the expansion of mining and the industrialisation of prime agricultural land, loss of property values and tourism, and health issues.
We were interested to see that the only two relevant articles in the Advocate were public relations material from AGL, serendipitously located on the same page as large advertisements for that same company.
As CSG and coal mining have become significant national issues against the backdrop of climate change, Dean and I have flown over contentious areas such as the Pilliga Forest, Hunter Valley and Leard’s Creek in past weeks, to get a bird’s eye view of the impacts of the industries. We’ve documented immense areas of industrialized land – mostly former farming country, that are not as dramatically apparent from the ground. They give an interesting perspective to an issue that is rapidly assuming national significance.
The CSG and coal mining industries have been under the spotlight in past months as governmental corruption and significant industrial accidents have become national news. Two successive NSW Mining Ministers are now under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Health and environmental issues raised by independent scientists such as groundwater consultant Professor Phillip Pell contradict the reassurances by Federal and State politicians that best environmental practises are being followed.
An independent scientific forum at NSW Parliament House last week heard prominent independent professionals state that CSG drilling is contaminating aquifer systems and the companies are unable to deal properly with the large amounts of produced waste water and salts. Hydrogeologist Andrea Broughton from New Zealand told the ABC that there were “serious holes” in the scientific assessment of CSG mining practises.
Former mayor Julie Lyford, a member of Groundswell Gloucester, a movement “to look at positive social change and sustainability for the community”, told us that 83% of the community support their stand against industrialisation of the valley.
“We know that through a survey in the council elections.”
Julie echoed the concerns of Prof Pell that adequate environmental and cumulative impact studies from mining projects have not been done.
“There’s a cumulative impact that is quite profound,” she said. “It’s the Manning catchment which is nearly 100,000 people when you take into account all the people downstream and in Taree. It’s also the Port Stephens catchment, which is oyster growing and tourism. We have the cumulative issues of an open cut mine that’s just been allowed and the process going 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 – you cannot separate them out.”
“The science is not there. They are playing Russian roulette with the aquifers and the catchment. We’ll look at this in five or ten years time and people will be astounded that people played so fast and loose with people’s health, water and land.”
Gloucester dairy farmer Mark Harris disagrees with Julie Lyford’s understanding of the council’s surveys.
“Ninety percent of people in Gloucester don’t care whether it happens or don’t happen,” he said. “We’ve got a very small percentage that are just jumping up and down, very vocal about it and then we’ve got about the same amount of people that are actually for it.”
Mr Harris said that no farmers in the area use groundwater, so gas mining would have a very low impact. He was also of the opinion that modern techniques are safe, citing AGL brochures that state this. When asked about the string of toxic spills by Santos in the Pilliga Forest he observed;
“That’s what’s gotta be policed. The green movement jumping up and down and making them do the right thing, that’s the good part about it.
“As a farmer with three farms I don’t want them to stuff it up. But I don’t want to see the green movement getting that strong that we have no gas. We’ve just got to have a happy balance.”
That elusive balance is being sought all over NSW at the moment, as mining companies come up against community groups like Groundswell. We saw that in the Northern Rivers this week, where 2,000 people gathered to prevent Metgasco from drilling at Bentley. But as we left Gloucester AGL remained determined to proceed with their project, while Julie Lyford maintains that the people of Gloucester will mount a huge blockade to prevent it.
The airfield we left town from would be one of the local landmarks extinguished by an incoming industrial gasfield, the goodbye gift of a local dairy farmer who’s happily sold out for an undisclosed sum. With it would go the access point for Rural Fire Service choppers and a significant grazing area smack bang next to the town. Julie Lyford sees this as the death knell of a happy community.
“Why would you industrialise a valley that’s been on the State heritage register for nomination since 1975? All the Aboriginal heritage has been totally dismissed and they’ve got nine Aboriginal heritage sites that will be destroyed with the open cut mine expansion.
“Gloucester is one of the lowest socio-economic towns in NSW but its quality of life I would say is at the top of the spectrum. People have a really great sense of community, we have 192 voluntary organizations in a population of 5000 people. Our tourism industry is now worth $42 million so the clean green image of Gloucester right next to the Barrington Tops has been our biggest selling point.”
In a curious footnote, the editor of the Gloucester Advocate failed to publish or respond to this completed article, despite earlier emails welcoming commentary – and photos on the issue.
When I contacted AGL’s spokesperson on gas mining matters, former Murdoch journalist Kylie Keogh, she was rather less than pleased with the prospect of anything other than company press releases being printed in the paper. She declined to respond to my questions and this antipathy seemed afterward to have extended to the Advocate, which obligingly prints opinions – insofar as they accord with those of Mr Harris and Ms Keogh’s convictions.