NSW Minister for Planning & Infrastructure, Brad Hazzard, met with more than 300 locals at the Casino RSM Club yesterday afternoon to address local concerns over Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining and the omission of the Northern Rivers in the first round of mapping under the government’s Strategic Land Use policy.
Under the new state government policy, each region of the state will be mapped to establish whether it contains ‘prime agricultural land’ that would be excluded from future exploration and mining. So far the areas reviewed have been the Hunter and the Liverpool plains.
Lismore City Councillor Simon Clough told Echonetdaily, ‘[Lismore MP] Thomas George reasoned the exclusion of the Northern Rivers in the mapping under the Strategic Planning Policy and the Aquifer Interference Regulation, as an oversight.’
But Mr Hazzard informed the gallery that it was due to the fact that ‘mapping a whole state would take a long time and needs to be staged, Northern Rivers will not miss out.’
Mr Hazzard said that his roots were in environmental science and that the 12-month-old Liberal-National government had ‘inherited 16 years of planning activities that saw CSG exploration licences (PELs) handed out like confetti’. He assured attendees that no new PELs have been handed out since he has been minister.
He said previous licensing deals had been ‘signed off behind closed doors’, whereas the current state government was attempting to ensure ‘complete transparency and enhanced scrutiny’. He added that aquifer protection is a high priority.
‘Damage to aquifers is one of the biggest risks of any sort of mining. We have developed the Aquifer Interference Regulation as well as an Agricultural Impact Statement. This sets up criteria like the biophysics of soil and water and so on. On top of this we have started the mapping. I assumed that we would already have access to mapping of all our resources by the 21st century… we had poor data on this.’
But Mr Hazzard went on to inform the audience that ‘if there is no damage and there are assets under the ground that taxpayers can use to build the hospitals, roads and schools, all the things that we need, then we will do it.’
The statement caused a predictable outburst in the crowd, which Mr Hazzard responded to with, ‘So you don’t want hospitals, roads and schools? There you go!’
Members of the audience told Mr Hazzard that some local wells have already polluted waterways. One in particular (which has since been covered over) is alarmingly close to a Rous Water pumping area in between Bexhill and Lismore.
Cr Clough said ‘Rous Water, which is responsible for our water, was never notified of this well’s existence.’
Mr Hazzard appeared incredulous that this could occur.
The enthusiasm of the crowd to engage with the minister was overwhelming. Issues raised by the audience included: the need to prioritise biodiversity in addition to identifying prime agricultural land; adolescents feeling disengaged with government allowing industries that don’t create a sustainable future; Metgasco using ‘temporary holding ponds’ that overflow into local creeks as a guise because evaporation ponds are not allowed in NSW; and petroleum exploration legislation riding roughshod over property rights.
The point was also made that if the government wants to use an evidence-based approach in making land-use decisions then the ‘precautionary principle’ needs to be applied. And concerns were raised that sensitive environmental areas will not receive the same level of protection as prime agricultural land.
The common concern amongst many at the meeting was that while government is developing policies for the future, there is inadequate independent water testing and regulation to protect our aquifers from current exploration.
Hazzard ‘awarded’ our region ‘ the prize for being the most animated’ during his consultation. Funnily enough, his two supporting staff members eye-rolled, looked bored and teetered condescendingly at most audience responses. Maybe we could award the minister’s staff with the prize for being the ‘least engaged’.