Story & photo Melissa Hargraves
A group of about 30 concerned citizens armed with spades shovelled dirt back into the hole that is slated to become a five-year ‘temporary’ holding pond for coal-seam gas (CSG) toxic wastewater yesterday morning.
It was the second day of action in a row at Metgasco’s Shannon Brook site, on zoned prime agricultural land near Casino, and organisers have announced an ongoing blockade of the site effective immediately.
Richmond Valley Council (RVC)’s director of environmental development services, Kenneth Exley, also paid a visit to the site to ‘ensure public safety measures were being met’.
No arrests were made and there was no Metgasco presence at the site except for a security camera hanging off a tree overlooking the pond.
The action attracted participants from across the border. Tracey Larkin and Allison Hoskin are concerned about the impacts of CSG mining so travelled interstate from Mount Barney on the Scenic Rim after hearing of the action through a mutual contact.
Tracey told Echonetdaily, ‘I was inspired by the shovel angle of the direct action and I wanted to see what that is all about’.
‘We were briefed just before the action took place to inform us of our legal obligations and what to expect.
‘We were impressed by the democracy of the action as input was welcomed from the floor. We all want to get involved at different levels, some more directly than others, so this format enabled that.’
The presence of Ken Exley gave CSG activists the opportunity to question him on the council’s role in the building of the dams and the recent controversial use of RVC’s sewage-treatment plant to dispose of excess wastewater following recent heavy rains on the north coast.
Mr Exley is responsible for all development approval processes, public health issues and waste management, so was well placed to comment.
He advised the gathering that ‘all holding ponds go through individual development application (DA) processes… Metgasco dispose of their treated wastewater as per their licence, which is not issued by council [but] by a government agency.’
The government agency that was consulted for this process was the Office of Environment and Heritage. They were provided with the full DA and made a series of comments in relation to stormwater management, holding ‘dam’ and a list of other concerns.
Mr Exley explained, ‘these concerns were reflected in the conditions of consent’.
Evaporation from holding ponds
Boudicca Cerese, of Lock the Gate – Northern Rivers, referred Mr Exley to resources and energy minister Chris Hartcher’s recent press release in which he indicated, ‘temporary storage dams in contrast (to evaporation ponds) need to be part of a water-management system, which includes options for the disposal of water without the use of evaporation ponds’.
Mr Hartcher added that ‘authority has been given to RVC to approve the building of dams’.
Ms Cerese said, ‘Metgasco’s overall water-management plan is to store this toxic water all around the region in these ponds with no other plan approved and available on the public record!’
Ms Cerese queried Mr Exley over council’s failing to see that Metgasco’s ponds do not meet the capacity for their operations.
‘[If] Metgasco have maintained in all their DAs that their ponds have sufficient capacity to contain all the water that is produced during exploration,’ she asked, ‘why do they have to cart water away to treatment plants?’
Mr Exley referred the question to Metgasco and added, ‘the onus is on Metgasco to be responsible for overflows that may occur from heavy rainfall. Disposing of additional wastewater is Metgasco’s challenge. You need to ask them.’
Ms Cerese responded, ‘It is not my role to ask Metgasco, I’m asking council why they didn’t ask Metgasco’.
Ian Gaillard, also of Lock the Gate Alliance – Northern Rivers, asked Mr Exley if he could explain ‘at what point does an evaporation pond turn into a holding pond?’
‘They differ in design. If you look at the plans of a holding pond, this is a substantial structure and it is totally different from an evaporation pond,’ Mr Exley responded.
Mr Gaillard did not look satisfied with the answer.
When Echonetdaily pressed Mr Exley for further clarification on the issue of evaporation he conceded, ‘evaporation will occur on any waterway; these holding ponds are designed to reduce the rate of evaporation because of their design’.
Mr Exley showed Echonetdaily the comprehensive plans and there is nothing shown in the designs on the surface of this holding pond to inhibit evaporation.
One of the frustrations of CSG campaigners is determining which level of government is accountable, particularly for waste management. Mr Exley shares the same concerns.
‘We rely heavily on government agencies, who are the experts. They have been dealing with mining industries for many years. If they are satisfied with operations, then it is not up to council to challenge that.’
GIPA access denied
Ms Cerese raised with Mr Exley the fact that despite being approved access to the Shannon Brook DA under an informal GIPA (Government Information Public Access) an RVC staff member had refused to let her copy the document, which she was entitled to. Mr Exley said the staff member who managed the GIPA process had since resigned, and ensured that Ms Cerese will get access to this important information.