On August 2, 2013 Western Downs resident Steve Ansford made a complaint to Origin Energy’s local office at Chinchilla regarding mysterious environmental and health impacts occurring on his property at Upper Humbug Road, near Tara in Queensland.
For the second day running, southerly winds appeared to have brought an overnight shower: drops of a sticky black substance ‘with a chemical-type odour’ lay across the Ansfords’ land, house and roof — the harvesting-point for the family of four’s domestic water supply.
Meanwhile, blobs deposited on the first day had begun bleaching the duco of his car.
In addition to the mysterious ‘black rain’ and strange, offensive odours, the southerlies brought persistent health problems for Steve’s family, including nausea, headaches, skin and eye irritation, and lethargy.
August 2, 2013 was the second time in two years that the Ansfords had contacted Origin (or any of the coal seam gas companies active in their local area) regarding health and environmental impacts they believed were related to coal seam gas operations.
In early 2012, Steve had reported to Origin that he and his family were experiencing health problems similar to those they now suffered – although on this occasion the symptoms were not accompanied by the ‘black rain’.
He was told that air samples were to be taken on a nearby property.
Steve and Judy have heard nothing since, regarding either their complaints or the test results of the air samples.
The Ansfords are well aware of the scale of the behemoth now rolling out across the road from their property.
Origin’s $1.5 billion Ironbark Project is in the process of developing a voluntary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in its bid for final state government approval of a 72,300 hectare (72.3 square kilometre) development, comprising:
- up to 600 gas wells
- underground gas and water gathering networks
- up to two gas plants with field compression
- a sales gas pipeline with an easement of up to 30 m width
- warehouses and administration buildings
- CSG water management infrastructure
- temporary and permanent accommodation facilities
- related infrastructure including access roads, telecommunications and sewerage infrastructure.
Steve and his wife Judy make clear they have nothing against Origin in principle, or against either of their other major gas-extracting neighbours, QGC and Arrow Energy.
However, as another week of ‘black rain’ and worsening health symptoms passed without further contact from Origin, the Ansfords were approaching desperation.
On August 9 they took their concerns public – by zip-tying five large white banners to the boundary fence of their property in full view of passing traffic along the road between their front gate and the Ironbark Project site.
The Ansfords’ public questions gained a swift official response, albeit from what Steve and Judy considered to be the wrong government agency.
Within 24 hours, local police were at the property making enquiries as to whether the Ansfords intended to stage a protest action and what form that protest might take. It was another month before Origin representatives visited the Ansfords.
Going public had other, unexpected results for the Steve and Judy, as the banners drew the attention of the Tara-based Gasfield Community Support Group (GCSG), which was preparing to initiate contact with Origin through spokesperson Debbi Orr.
The story was picked up by social media networks and on-line and real-time supporters in urban and other regional areas circulated two online petitions via Avaaz.org and Change.org, in a bid to stop the ‘black rain’.
Coal Seam Gas Compliance Unit staff responded to Debbi Orr’s enquiries with this brief reply:
A quick update. The results of the samples taken in mid August are still being reviewed. Requests have been made from Origin about their activities in the area however this has not been received to date. All of this information will inform the next steps in investigating the complaints.
If landholders are concerned about health matters they should contact their local health professional.
By the time Origin representatives met personally with Steve and Judy at their home on September 5, the Change.org petition – which was addressed to Origin’s CEO Upstream Paul Zealand – had been circulating for several days.
According to Steve, Origin representatives made reference to further tests to be carried out by the CSG Compliance Unit in response to his case, the results of which have yet to be released.
During the weeks that followed, the Ansfords took steps towards independently testing their domestic water supply, as their symptoms had intensified and they were becoming increasingly concerned about their family’s health.
As members and supporters of the GCSG gathered evidence about their interactions with company and government representatives via phone, email and Facebook, Change.org communications director Tony Robertson obtained permission from the Ansfords to pitch the story to representatives of some of Sydney’s largest media outlets.
Within a fortnight, not only the Ansfords but several of their neighbours and friends from Upper Humbug Road were speaking to reporters, who also took their own independent water samples for analysis.
Steve and Judy now return to waiting: for the initial results of three separate testing programs, for their story to air and, once again, for Origin to contact them with a response to their demands either for the impacts to cease or for their family to be re-located out of the reach of potential harm.
Meanwhile, as of 8pm on October 24, the heavy vehicle movements along Upper Humbug Road have become more numerous, the southerlies continue to bring strange ‘whiffs’ and the Ansfords are still sick.
ORIGIN ISSUED A STATEMENT IN RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS FROM NO FIBS:
“Origin staff met with the Steve and Judy Ansford on October 1. During this visit Origin offered to engage an independent third party to sample and test the residue on their motor vehicles to help both the company and the Ansford’s understand what it is from. We followed this offer up in writing on October 11.
Origin staff visited the Ansford’s again yesterday (October 29) to follow through on this commitment to sample and test the residue. The Ansford’s have kindly provided their consent and samples have been taken and monitoring equipment put in place to see if it is possible to detect the presence of any airborne residue.
We will continue to work with the Ansford’s about their concerns and will share the results of this testing with them directly in the first instance.”