Possible asbestos contamination of the drilling rig set to be used by Metgasco at its coal-gas well site at Bentley near Lismore has been partly blamed for the delay to the start of the controversial mining operation.
The mining company has also been accused of failing to inform its shareholders of the massive scale of local opposition to its drilling plans, claimed to be the real reason behind the delay.
The Bentley blockade is now in its third month, with hundreds of people continuing their vigil at the campsite there and occupying the access to the proposed drill site on an adjoining property, despite threats by Richmond Valley Council to close it down after refusing to extend its two-month approval.
But the owner of the property on which the campsite is located says he has taken legal advice over the council move which he says is unjustified as the camp was being well run and council had no real issue against it, a point which two MPs who visited the site last week agreed with.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers is calling on Metgasco to ‘come clean with the real reasons for the delay’.
Spokesman Aidan Ricketts said ‘it appears Metgasco may still be failing to tell the full story about why its drilling operation is running so far behind schedule.
‘Metgasco had told investors that the drilling would be available by mid-April, but in early April, and following a massive turnout of protesters at Bentley, Metgasco advised the stock exchange that its drilling rig had been delayed by rain in Queensland’, Mr Ricketts said.
‘Documents have now come to light that suggest possible asbestos contamination of the rig that will be used at Bentley is part of the reason for the delay.
‘A letter from the company contracted by Metgasco to provide a rig confirms that the rig in question has been caught up in the recent contamination event in Queensland where coal seam gas drilling products were found to contain asbestos.
‘Is it because of the overwhelming opposition in the Northern Rivers region or because of asbestos contamination of the rig that will be used at Bentley, or do they continue to stand by their claim to the stock exchange that it is rain in Queensland that is causing the delay?
‘The ASX (Australian Stock Exchange) is currently investigating complaints that Metgasco has breached its continuous disclosure obligations by failing to disclose the size of local opposition to its plans in the Northern Rivers and by failing to disclose to investors instances where its program is delayed as a result of the protest activity.
‘It appears that Metgasco may still be failing to tell the full story about why its drilling operation is running so far behind schedule,’ Mr Ricketts said.
He said that under ASX rules, Metgasco ‘has a legal obligation to inform investors of the real reasons for any delays but has so far failed to notify investors of the scale of local opposition to their proposed drilling operations at Bentley.
‘Metgasco faces massive local opposition in the Northern Rivers with 87 per cent voting in a local government poll in Lismore in 2012 against invasive gasfields.
‘More recently over 3,000 people have showed up at the Bentley blockade and protesters have occupied the access to the proposed drill site.’
MPs back campsite
Meanwhile, Greens north coast MLCs Jan Barham and Jeremy Buckingham visited the blockade last week in a further show of support by politicians, hot on the heels of pilgrimages there last week by three local mayors and federal Richmond MP Justine Elliot.
Ms Barham, a former Byron shire mayor, said she was shocked to hear that Richmond Valley Council was not supporting the extension of the approval for the camp site which she said was well organised and ‘impressive’, with safety for campaigners a priority.
‘The approved camping site provides a safe and regulated way for the people who are willing to give up their holidays, to take time off work and spend their precious spare time to do so, safely,’ she said.
‘It would be naïve to think that the refusal to approve an extension of the camping site would deter people from turning up.’
The MLCs met with local farmers to hear their concerns. Ms Barham said the visit ‘gave me a first hand opportunity to see what was going on in my home area.
‘I believe the city-based politicians are receiving poor advice in relation to the broad support for the anti-CSG sentiments of the people of the north coast,’ she told Echonetdaily.
‘I am inspired by the commitment and dedication of the thousands of people who are showing up and standing up for their rights in our democracy.
‘The north coast has a proud history of activism and the well-informed and well-organised non-violent direct action that is taking place currently is a tribute to the people of the area.
‘No longer can a protest and action be dismissed as being from a small group of radicals.
‘The people who are showing up are a very broad cross-section of the community, including long-term National Party supporters who care for our land, water and future’.
Ms Barham said ‘the longer the public interest is ignored by Macquarie Street, the more determined the people of the north coast will be to show their disdain for the poor state of democracy in NSW.
‘It is alarming to think that the police may be used to stop lawful protests and act against the will of the community.
‘I appeal to the new premier, Mike Baird, to check the information he is receiving about the nature of the protest and who is opposing the plans of Metgasco.
‘As a very proud north coast elected representative I am impressed by the commitment of my community and concerned at what the government might do against citizens by bringing in the police to resolve the protest.
‘I’m also concerned with what that would do for people’s trust in our democracy’, Ms Barham said.
‘The right to protest peacefully to protect our future is a commitment to our community and our future.
‘I applaud the brave community members who are showing up and speaking out for the protection of our land, water and future.
‘I hope the government will listen to the people and recognise that coal seam gas (CSG) is an unwanted industry that jeopardises so much of what makes the area significant and prosperous in a clean and healthy way.’
Labor weighs in
NSW Labor has also weighed into the debate on Bentley, saying the NSW government’s policing priorities were all wrong.
Shadow minister for the north coast, Walt Secord, and Labor candidate for Tweed, Ron Goodman said rather than preparing to evict the protesters at Bentley, state National Party MPs should immediately restore ‘the 21 police officers they cut from the Tweed-Byron Local Area Command to counter a spike in crime’.
Mr Secord and Mr Goodman made the comments after police said there had been an increase in assaults at licensed premises in Byron and NSW Recorded Crime Statistics showed a 9.7 per cent increase in violence offences and 18.6 per cent increase in fraud.
Mr Secord said Nationals MPs Geoff Provest (Tweed), Thomas George (Lismore) and Don Page (Ballina) should be singled out over the ‘sheer madness’ in using police on protesters when officer numbers were down.
‘In more than two years, since February 2012, the number of police officers in the Tweed-Byron Local Area Command has dropped from 198 officers to 177 officers, a drop of 21 officers,’ Mr Secord said.
Mr Goodman said ‘the Nationals have abandoned the families of the north coast by cutting police numbers and expanding CSG mining in the region.’
The reverend and the mayor
Kyogle’s Reverend Jim Nightingale and Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell talk about why they support this massive people’s blockade against invasive gasfields in the northern rivers. Music by Luke Vassella and the impromptu Bentley Band.
The Anzac Spirit, 100 years on
This poem was written by Yvonne Harper in 2013. It powerfully compares the heroic battle by World War I soldiers to protect our land for future generations to that of modern warriors who fight to protect our environment from corporate mining companies, so that future generations will have clean water and uncontaminated soils. In 2013 the poem won the Rolf Boldrewood National Prose and Poetry competition and was second placed in the Henry Lawson Society Literary Competition.