Dr Wayne Somerville, a local clinical psychologist, is fast becoming a full-time speaker warning of the impacts of coal-seam gas (CSG) mining in the Northern Rivers. From closed meetings with councils to public meetings, he addresses many issues ranging from human and land rights, politics, mental health and the practice of non-violence.
Despite being uncomfortable in the public-speaking domain, the issue of mining the Northern Rivers has compelled him to speak out. He sees CSG mining as ‘the most radical act of vandalism that Australia has ever seen’, and stresses that violence must not be used to abolish mining in the Northern Rivers.
‘It is important that we don’t target employees who have been seduced. I saw this happen with the Vietnam War veterans… the target is those in control.’ It’s a wise judgment to make when the act of fracking is so violent to us and our land.
It is now well documented that some of the toxins used in CSG mining are not detectable so there is not even a reactive opportunity for remedy. Dr Somerville added, ‘As a health professional, the precautionary principle (which our governments have signed to) says, especially when dealing with such basic things as air and water quality, then don’t take the risk’.
We are currently in a tough economy, and the mining boom is seducing even the most ethical of employees. Many people who have chosen to live in this region have almost salary sacrificed to do so. We value the quality of life here and believe in contributing to the welfare of the land, not raping it. The notion of profiting from an industry that could eternally harm our assets such as water and air questions the survival of humans as a species. I asked Dr Somerville how this can be justified.
‘We all lose here; you might get the house paid off quickly, but if you are living in a poisoned environment, where are you going to go? The threat of CSG can go anywhere.’
I asked if, from the perspective of a mental health professional, he could fathom the mentality of these CSG mining company directors investing in unsustainable industries in an era where we are aware of the consequences.
‘I don’t think it can be reduced to simple greed. I think it has to do with a deep and profound alienation from Mother Earth. We are talking about a culture of pin-striped suits who sit in air-conditioned offices in cities. They truly do not understand where food comes from and what agriculture is about. If I say to a country person “lets drill a hole a kilometre down through the earth, down through the aquifers; lets pump a mixture of diesel, water, sand, a host of chemicals under pressure sufficient to cut through concrete,” most would understand that is a crazy idea. In Casino they will have a 30-acre “evaporation pond”, lined with builders plastic, right near the showground. To a country person that is an appalling concept. To them they think it is a pond!’
To further illustrate this is the story of a farmer being offered air-conditioning by a mining company to alleviate the toxic fumes he was inhaling. The farmer responds by saying that he spends most of his life outside!
Dr Somerville continues the analysis. ‘I think the CSG gas companies have taken on a war attitude. They are in war against the Australian people. When you are at war, anything is permissible to get to the resources you need for the war effort. Therefore it is okay for them to do what they are doing. They know they are causing damage. That is why they don’t do the water testing at Kerry (QLD).’
I presented the argument being used by many in the industry, that CSG mining will deliver jobs. Dr Somerville countered, ‘There are very few jobs associated with this. [Those employed in] the infrastructure phase are usually fly-in workers, so the community will get an influx of fly-in workers, mostly young males, and the community has to cater for their recreational, social and sexual needs. This is a major shift in a community. They come in and earn a lot of money, which itself causes a lot of conflict as [most local] people don’t earn anything like that.
‘The power station they want to build will employ three people! How do we offset the impacts on tourism and agriculture with this?’
One of the emerging arguments against CSG mining is the comparison with the levels of accountability and responsibility that individuals and non-mining industries have to show in their day-to-day operations as a business. For example, a farmer must undergo expensive chemical training and scrutiny in order to gain a licence to use ‘safe’ chemicals on his farm, whereas CSG miners are allowed to use chemicals that are known to be toxic – that is if the research has even been done on them – and don’t have to pass any regulations to use them.
On a similar wavelength, many developers in this region have had to make developer contributions and consider the community in their proposals. But as Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell pointed out recently, ‘The CSG industry can come into the Northern Rivers and put huge pressure on existing infrastructure without any contribution or royalties to the region for five years, and then it is only two to three per cent’.
Dr Somerville also questions the political process ‘… the public service was an independent source of advice for government/politicians, it was genuine and objective. That has been eroded, so nowadays our departments have become more like spin departments for the minister, which makes them more vulnerable to pressure groups.’
Up to five years ago, many inland real estate agents were using the ‘natural gas’ spin to lure potential clients to tap into the mining boom. However, they have seen already, and from other CSG mining areas, that not only do prices drop but it can wipe out any long-term future trading. Who wants to live in a gas field? Dr Somerville explained that language such as ‘natural gas’ is used to coerce and seduce. ‘The term “natural coal-seam gas”… what does natural mean? Most of us think of a good feeling… well arsenic, malaria, death, they are all natural… so don’t be swayed by language.’
Many local economies benefit from the branding of our region. As we embrace food with less mileage, any threat to food security should be considered. The issue of disconnection from the land and water that supports us seems to be the resolving argument. How connected are we?
Up until the eve of the CSG community information meeting held last week, there was no gas group based in Lismore. Most people now realise how important Lismore, the heartland, is in connecting all affected shires. The first official meeting will be held at 6.30pm at the Lismore Workers Club, Thursday 8 March. For more info: [email protected]