Video Sharon Shostak, Story Chris Dobney, Photos Wayne Penn
Yesterday morning, when 2,000 people turned up at dawn at the Bentley site Metgasco plans to frack, Richmond Valley Council’s GM was taken by surprise.
John Walker told ABC radio the protectors had got out of bed early ‘for no good reason’, since the police, Metagasco and council staff had stayed away.
Whether their no-show was because of the protectors’ advance warning of their plans or whether they never really intended to start today hardly matters. The community has let them know just what to expect when the rigs finally do pull out of Metgasco’s Casino compound.
Council are now busy erecting speed signs to slow down traffic in the area and 200 police are known to be in place, twiddling their thumbs in local motels on the people’s payroll. It can’t be long now.
Lismore City councillor Peter Graham has a pretty cattle stud in the valley, with a backdrop of Muckleewee Mountain Nature Reserve.
He has signed his land over to Metgasco for tight sands gas exploration and, perhaps, exploitation. Whether they are ‘successful’ or not, Mr Graham won’t have to deal with the consequences – he doesn’t live on the property.
His neighbours are not so well disposed to the idea of their green valley being turned into an industrialised gasfield: 84.5 per cent have registered their opposition to it.
His nextdoor neighbour has turned over part of his property to the protectors at no charge, so they are able oppose the operations at whatever hour of the day or night they start.
Feeling like someone who arrived late for Woodstock, I turn into Bungabee Road around 8am.
Gasfield Free Northern Rivers’ dawn show of numbers has been an incredible success but by now dozens of vehicles are loaded up and streaming out of the campground.
Clearly many had come for the Gigs Not Rigs benefit on Sunday and stayed the night. After the planned confrontation failed to eventuate, they are returning to their daily lives.
No doubt many have already added their names to the phone-alert list, ready to act when the next call comes.
Once I’ve had a chance to look around I am impressed at the size and scope of the so-called ‘primitive’ campsite. Creative domes, tunnels and tipis alternate with caravans, camping trailers and two-man tents. Clearly people from all walks of life are here and many – 100 or more – are digging in for the long term. ‘As long as it takes,’ one person says to me.
There’s a festival atmosphere, and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s what you’d come to: with homemade music, jovial conversation, bulletin boards, a banner-painting workshop, kids’ play area and more.
Near the entrance, a well-muscled guy, stripped to the waist, is hauling a heavy wheelbarrow loaded with road base, helping the council out by fixing up the muddy road they’d obviously ignored.
On the roadside, people in fluoro vests are pointing out where to park and what to expect.
Nearby, the Knitting Nannas are doing their thing and people are opening up and airing out their tents as the sun emerged after a rainy night.
A fireman from a nearby brigade pulls up beside our car, drawn here by the irate tweets from mates at the Bentley RFS, whose fire station has been taken over as police command centre against their vote.
They were overruled by the organisation’s hierarchy despite the fact that the land on which the station stands was donated by the family of one of the local fireys, Craig Armstrong.
Craig stands to lose a lot if Metgasco poisons his aquifer as Santos did in the Pilliga. He’s a fish farmer, relying on a regular source of clean bore water for his aquaculture ponds.
At the information tent, a woman wearing a badge proclaiming ‘legal support’ tells me that each portaloo costs $60 a time to empty, ‘and they’re filling up very quickly at the moment,’ she says. I decide to double the contribution I was planning to slip into the donations box.
We walk along the side of Bentley Road (you have to) to approach the ‘A’ and ‘B’ gates, the most likely entrance routes for Metgasco’s trucks.
Scott Sledge, from Northern Rivers Guardians, tells me they are in fact the only approved entrances, based on the company’s environmental impact statement. Both already have substantial ‘lock-on’ presences in place, with willing volunteers chained in turns to large concrete blocks in the ground.
According to Sledge there are two more gates the company could use to access the site at a pinch.
One, known as ‘gate C’, is on the other side of a water-filled gully from the planned drill pad, so would require substantial, unapproved road-building works.
The other is the driveway to the homestead, which is on Bungabee Road, beyond the campsite.
So whatever time of day or night Metgasco’s trucks arrive, and whichever entrance they choose to use, they aren’t going to have an easy run of it.
The mood – both at the gates and the campsite – is high. People are keen, though, for us to stay around as long as we can, with one woman telling us that Metgasco will bide its time until numbers start to drop.
But Metgasco can’t wait forever, and neither can the 200-odd police summoned to help shepherd their equipment into its yet-to-be-constructed compound.
Just up Bungabee Road from the camp is Back Creek, shrouded in riparian rainforest. It’s not hard to imagine what could happen to this creek if a holding-pond accident such as happened in the Pilliga were to occur here.
A hundred metres further along, the old Casino to Murwillumbah railway line crosses the road. A future rail trail will need to take a substantial diversion to avoid running right past an ugly, industrialised stretch of wasteland if Metgasco gets its way.
Aerial video footage courtesy Gasfield Free Northern Rivers.