The Pilliga. Wednesday, 9.20am
I am a patriotic Australian. (Sure, I despise thongs and bongs, but I have skin cancer scars and say ‘mate’ sometimes.) I love this country: her blue mountains, her rolling plains, her babbling rivers.
Consequently, for Australia Day, I wanted to be with real Aussies. True blue. So I went to The Pilliga, the largest bit of semi-arid scrub left in New South Wales.
On the long drive there from my shack under the North Coast cliffs, I realised I do love this country – even though her blue mountains are logged, her plains are sucked dry and her rivers are bubbling with toxic gases.
It makes me sad. It’s like watching a parent die. And it makes me angry. Because it’s deliberate.
I’m not sucked in by the patronising patriotism of politicians; the manufactured fears of international terrorism; the self-serving warmongering; the cowardly asylum-seeker bashing; or the pompous award-giving. I am a patriot, not a patsy.
I know who the enemy is.
I’m at the gate to Santos’ water treatment plant at Leewood in the northern part of The Pilliga. Santos plans to put 850 coal seam gas wells in The Pilliga.
It’s a really stupid idea.
The Pilliga is one of the most important recharge areas for the Great Artesian Basin.
When the Great Dividing Range was formed, it lifted and exposed the ends of the sandstone aquifers of the Basin. The Pilliga is that rare place where elevated exposed aquifers have formed highly efficient water sinks. The water that falls on the Pilliga scrub goes straight into the Great Artesian Basin.
Because of the elevation of The Pilliga, it pressurises the aquifers causing the springs and wells that feed all the rivers that flow westward-ish into Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia: the Murray-Darling system.
Santos needs to depressurise the system to unlock the gas in the coal seam, which lies about a kilometre beneath The Pilliga. Such lowering of the head of pressure will stop rivers flowing and will collapse agricultural wells.
The extreme water pressure at such depth greatly increases the storage capacity of the coal seam. So, by taking out gigalitres of water, Santos will also unlock hundreds of millions of years of accumulated salts and toxins, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and radioactive particles that reside in these coal seam water filters. That produced water will come here to these gates. Then what happens no-one knows…
The disturbed toxins that remain underground will flow through the fractured layers into the Great Artesian Basin.
Yes, it’s a really stupid idea.
I’m standing at the Santos gate with other Australians who care about this country. There are Knitting Nannas, dreadlocked Greenies, Gamilaraay custodians, concerned grandparents, scientists, shopkeepers, kids, and the biggest collection of Akubra-wearers I have seen outside of a Gympie Muster.
One Akubra-wearing bloke is at the gate now. He’s sitting on a camping chair. He’s taken his hat off for the moment so a huge padlock can be placed around his neck, locking him onto the gate.
His name is Don, he’s 64, a third-generation farmer from the western Pillaga, and he’s had enough of being ‘terrorised by the government for allowing Santos to drill through the Great Artesian Basin’.
Today, I give Don my Brave Australian of the Year award.
And I give my Smart Australian of the Year Award to Ian Sutton. Sitting for an hour or two at his tent at the protesters’ camp down the road, he taught me much about Pilliga hydrology. (To read Ian’s report, email him at [email protected])
Hell, I’m giving an award to every person here. I haven’t got trophies, but I give you love and respect.