State minister hears from the not-so-silent 87 per cent
Story Melissa Hargraves Photos Jimmy Malecki
The anticipated start to yesterday’s public meeting on coal-seam gas mining was held up by chants of ‘NO CSG’, which filled the Lismore City Hall as frustrated citizens released their unheard concerns.
Because of the overwhelming number of people in attendance, safety issues also delayed the start as the crowd were directed away from emergency exists and onto the stage.
Lismore MP Thomas George organised the meeting with NSW planning and infrastructure minister Brad Hazzard MP and various departmental bureaucrats to answer questions from the 800-plus audience to ‘address concerns surrounding coal-seam gas (CSG) mining and the recent release of the NSW government’s Strategic Regional Land Use Policy (SRLUP)’.
The chants continued as Mr Hazzard attempted to introduce his panel of five ‘experts’, who were in fact all members of government departments or government-funded qangos.
The minister told the audience that ‘the disrespect that is currently being shown by not listening is not helping as this panel are here to help you with your concerns,’ and ‘I would have thought that in Australia we would respect each other’s views’.
The audience jeered loudly at the irony of his comments, given the majority of northern rivers residents feel as if it is they who are not being listened to or respected.
Stakeholders, not shareholders
During an attempt by regional planning and infrastructure bureaucrat Greg Yeates to explain his role, Ian Gaillard of Lock the Gate Northern Rivers, with the aid of a chanting audience, secured a microphone to allow local Indigenous man Mr Kevin Boota to confront the panel on their United Nations obligations and the Native Title Act, which ‘allows the government eighty-five percent mandate of all our land, water, minerals and everything in it’.
The meeting then turned into an attempted question-and-answer process.
Ian Gaillard addressed the panel. ‘This is about stakeholders, not shareholders. Mr Hazzard, there will be people walking up to you and giving you (CSG-free) declarations from their roads. I call on you to accept them all and take note because we are not going to allow this to happen in the catchment of our rivers and tributaries. One thing that you blokes don’t seem to get right is that the environment comes before economy.’
While he was receiving the road declarations, a local resident informed those on the stage that ‘we are mothers, grandmothers and workers and we have our backs to the wall and that is why, Mr George, you have never seen anything like this response before’.
Mr Hazzard told the audience that his government took over from a previous government which had ‘no process or policy structure’ surrounding CSG mining and that they have since engaged in ‘lengthy and comprehensive policy development initiatives to bring together all stakeholders and ensure transparency’.
No provision for refusal
Dan Keary, strategic regional policy director for the Department of Planning and Infrastructure, elaborated on the SRLUP and said that if companies want to mine for CSG on strategic agricultural land ‘they will need to go through the gateway process, which is independent and must be addressed through a DA process’.
Deputy mayor of Lismore, Cr Simon Clough, questioned why the gateway process ‘has no provision for refusal’.
Helen Wagener, a farmer who has a gas well being drilled next door (800m from her house) told the panel that it ‘leaked for near on 12 months’. She then went on to ask the panel and police to empathise with the community, as ‘this hasn’t been easy’.
Mrs Wagener also asked Mr Hazzard and the panel if they had read or were aware of the recent Southern Cross University studies, which detected increased levels of methane surrounding gas fields.
‘I hope that you do not ostracise [the scientists] because of their boldness and for telling the truth.’
Mr Hazzard asked Rob O’Neill, water policy and planning director at the Office of Water, if he could ‘identify any risks surrounding water contamination’.
‘We do have extensive monitoring networks and we do try to establish baseline conditions,’ he replied.
Dr Isaac Santos from SCU, who conducted the recent research that has been rejected by Metgasco, asked the panel to tell the audience how many monitoring wells there were.
Minister Hazzard’s response was ‘the short answer is that we don’t know how many.’
Local research scientist Dr Effie Ablett said that it is too late for assessment after the chemicals have been used as they work at undetectable levels.
‘It takes one molecule of these toxic chemicals that can change a pre-cancerous cell to a cancer cell. The leakage from these wells could cause the largest health threat that we have seen in Australia… research has shown that they leak methane; they will be leaking other chemicals as well.’
Members of the audience also questioned why a representative from the health department was not on the panel.
Climate change was mentioned numerous times as many scientists around the world are continuing to make urgent warnings of the need to shift our energy sources from fossil fuels to renewables.
Adam Guise of CSG Free Northern Rivers informed the panel that ‘methane is twenty to a hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. How can your government credibly pretend to be taking action on climate change when you are funding and promoting a toxic, dirty industry, which is fossil fuel. Every dollar that is put into fossil fuels is taken away from renewables.’
Dr Marion Lloyd-Smith, who has made a study of chemical pollutants, questioned the panel over the testing of chemicals used in CSG mining activities. ‘If you are so comfortable with all the chemicals being used, why is one and a half million dollars of public money going to be spent over the next few years to assess these chemicals?’
Brad Mullard, executive director of mineral resources responded, ‘There are literally thousands of chemicals that can be potentially used. The federal government is undertaking a process of assessing; they can only assess about one hundred. But,’ he added, ‘most of the chemicals are in common use.’
Boudicca Cerese of Lock the Gate Northern Rivers asked Mr Hazzard why the NSW government lifted the moratorium on fracking ‘when the chemicals have not been assessed for their use ‘This is not just about disclosing the chemicals; if you use household chemicals you do not pour borax on your children’s cereal?’
Mr Hazzard had to leave at 12 noon to attend further meetings. He was approached just before entering his car about the comment he made recently to Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell regarding the inevitability of CSG mining in the northern rivers, to which he responded he was ‘misinterpreted’.
More alarming to the audience was the comment by Rob O’Neill, the director of water policy and planning at the Office of Water, who told the audience that ‘surface water is not necessarily connected to the deep ground water’.
It appears the 18 months that the NSW government has spent on establishing procedures for CSG mining has not satisfied the well-informed communities of the northern rivers.
Baseline data, compliance, monitoring and CSG mining exemptions from the SRLUP are all areas of concerns that were not allayed in Mr George’s organised public meeting.
Opponents speak out
Prior to the meeting, the crowd was addressed by a number of speakers who oppose CSG mining in the northern rivers.
Dr Wayne Somerville spoke of the psychological impacts of the threat of CSG mining and also stressed that ‘we cannot wait twenty to thirty years to find out the implications of this industry like we have with asbestos and tobacco; we need to know now’.
Dr Somerville continued, ‘the mining industry can always find people who believe this industry is safe; I can also find people who believe that asbestos and tobacco are safe too’.
Dr Marion Lloyd Smith, whom many in attendance have heard talk of the many unassessed chemicals used in the CSG mining industry, also spoke before the forum.
‘Today, you will probably hear the NSW government say that “you don’t need to worry because soon enough there will be an assessment of these chemicals”. The federal government has given one and a half million of public funds to our national regulator to finally assess the chemicals.
‘What I would like to say and what you won’t hear today is that you will not get any information until 2014; meanwhile the industry continues. Additionally, the regulator has been told that they only look at water impacts. They are not allowed to look at impacts on soil or air, or talk to residents like those at Tara who have already suffered so badly.’