On Saturday a large group of friends and family gathered to remember ‘eco-warrior’ Deb Whitley at her beautiful property in Glenugie, south of Grafton.
A keen swimmer and lover of nature, Ms Whitley became well-known across the Northern Rivers when she became the first woman to lock on to a Metgasco truck, in an effort to stop the company from establishing an unconventional gas field in the region.
On 4 December 2012, the non-violent blockade of the Avenue, then a sleepy rural lane through a spotted gum forest (now the road to a new prison, bisected by the new freeway), had attracted concerned citizens from across the Northern Rivers, and beyond.
Following Davey Bob Ramsey’s example at the Shannonbrook CSG Ponds, Deb Whitley locked herself under a truck which was attempting to enter the Glenugie site and had been stopped by protesters.
She was accompanied by buddy Philippe Dupuy (later to be arrested for tunnelling under the Metgasco site entrance at Doubtful Creek).
The truck driver refused to turn off his engine, leading to a tense situation, which ended when police arrived to arrest and remove Ms Whitley.
Defying her conditions, she later returned to the blockade site, becoming a key participant in the events of Bloody Monday (7 January 2013), when riot police violently removed peaceful protectors who were blockading the road.
The 2012-13 Glenugie blockade was close to Ms Whitley’s property on Aerodrome Road. She achieved prominence for the fact that she was motivated by a desire to protect her home, the water and her neighbours, as she stated in numerous media interviews, which significantly raised the profile of the gas issue.
Unlike the media stereotype of the typical protester, Deb Whitley worked locally, didn’t have dreadlocks and wasn’t a blow-in. At the time she was described as an ‘ordinary person’, but her courage was far from ordinary.
Her action inspired numerous other people to take a similar stand, initially at Glenugie, then at Doubtful Creek, and finally at Bentley, where Metgasco was ultimately forced to leave the region after all local gas exploration licences were suspended.
Originally from Manly in Sydney, Deb Whitley’s joyful approach to life belied the fact that she experienced great tragedy in her life even before she took her stand at Glenugie, losing her partner, two sons and a sister over a short period.
She overcame cancer once, but after she broke her hip, the cancer returned, and she died late last year.
The Northern Rivers remains in Deb Whitley’s debt.
Audiences will be able to celebrate Ms Whitley’s courage again in the forthcoming film Confusing Them With Our Joy, which tells the epic story of the Northern Rivers’ fight against unconventional gas.