Earlier this month AGL announced that it was pulling out of the beautiful Gloucester valley in NSW and ceasing its controversial CSG (coal seam gas) operations. Although AGL maintained that it had made the decision on purely economic grounds, local environmentalists claim otherwise. The community involved in the anti-CSG campaign gathered recently in Gloucester to celebrate a momentous victory, and to reflect on their success. Many people said they had mixed emotions, as they recalled a long and bitter struggle, from the early days of the campaign when things looked desperately bleak, through disappointments, set-backs, and periods of despair when their carefully documented concerns were simply ignored by the official corporate and political channels. Now the fight was over and the ‘Gloucester Protectors’ as they had called themselves, had won.
“For me and for many people – we’ve had a sigh of relief,” admitted Gary Lyford, a local G.P. “It’s such a wonderful thing, like a Wizard of Oz scenario. The witch is dead.”
“It’s like a dark cloud has been lifted,” commented Roger, a retired schoolteacher, who had helped organize a protest camp close to the CSG well sites. He attributed the success of the campaign down to Groundswell Gloucester, a well-organized community group, who had worked on many fronts to oppose AGL’s plans.
Ed, a local farmer, whose land was close to some of the proposed gasfields, had helped to provide facilities for the protest camp. Ed was sure that people-power and persistence had turned the tide. “One person couldn’t have done this on their own, that’s for sure.”
For Rod , another stalwart supporter of the protest, the solidarity of the community was the most important factor. “We had a wide range of people with so many skills. Awesome. The good the bad and the ugly. All of us. A true community. And what a story – somebody should write a book.”
These were folks that would be hard to pigeon-hole as “extreme greenies”, a rainbow coalition of grandmothers, farmers, health professionals, pensioners, and concerned local citizens. There were also people from downstream of the Gloucester area, who worried that their precious water supplies were in danger from the toxic chemicals used in CSG operations. All expressed relief that AGL was finally giving up and moving out, and all were in agreement that it was because of community opposition and a collective effort.
Holly Creenaune, from the Land Water Future movement, was full of admiration for the way that local activists had organized to successfully challenge such a huge corporation. She described how they had fought with a wide range of tools, from direct action, to amateur detective work, to detailed business analysis.
“The campaign had so many elements, kept piling on points of pressure. Absolutely key was pain-staking research, looking through every financial document, every planning document and every government document and finding discrepancies – finding where AGL had done wrong. The political donations are a perfect example. They looked through the register of political donations, the parties’ register and they cross-checked that against AGL’s financial reports and they found that AGL had made hundreds of thousands of dollars of political donations while they were asking for their Gloucester gas plant to be approved. It was approved. Tens of thousands of dollars were not declared. So, they were in breach of the political donations laws. It was really hard to find, hard to prove and it was a local mum -Jenny O’Neill – who just sat with those documents for months and months and months and finally then found it and managed to prove it. They were just so persistent.
The community here was really fueled by how unfair and unjustly they’d been treated. So with that issue (donations) they complained to AGL about it, and to the government. And when they refused to act, they complained to the ombudsman. They just kept pushing, on that element and so many others. Now, the NSW government is finally prosecuting AGL, who pleaded guilty to 11 counts of illegal political donations.
This community forced AGL, a $15 BILLION energy company to change their policies. So, now they’re (AGL) never going to make a political donation again. And that’s just one element of a much bigger fight. I think that research was really critical… And then just growing support in the community as well. I remember the first march in September 2014 – there were about twenty people on the march and it felt small and it felt as if this community didn’t have what it takes to push back against a company that big. Every week, people grew those marches – so that by November, there were 350 people at the march and that level of mobilization kept building and was sustained. This worked to mobilize people downstream, whose drinking water was going to be affected, in Wingham, in Taree, in Foster and Tuncurry – that was essential to building community opposition.
The final decision to proceed with the AGL gas project sat with the AGL board and the AGL CEO. We finally managed to get a meeting with some of them… We didn’t know how much they would know about the Gloucester gas project. These are the people who sit on the boards of Quantas and Fairfax and dozens of major corporations– so we didn’t know how much attention they’d be paying to our element of AGL’s really huge portfolio … but these AGL board members let slip that every time the community exposed a leak, every time the community forced the government or EPA to investigate a breech on site, the board discussed it. So, yes, having a front page news story gets the word out, but it also brought these issues and problems at the Gloucester gas project to the fore – and it was actually discussed by the AGL board. That was really critical to forcing them away from the project.”
Despite their victory, the mood among the Gloucester activists was quite restrained. There was no triumphalism. Instead, there was a feeling that a period of healing could now begin. AGL’s plan had brought acrimony and division to what had been a quiet little town. Some residents had been told that CSG would bring jobs and economic prosperity. So, the activists also had to battle misinformation and indifference.
Julie, a local grandmother, now looked forward to a future where this stunningly beautiful area, close to Barrington Tops National Park, could prosper, with the threat to a growing tourism and hospitality industry removed.
“We hope that even the people who were for it… will come round. In the end, even they realized there were no jobs in CSG – and that a lot more jobs in tourism would be lost.”
Gary Lyford, the local G.P., was concerned about the effects on people’s health. He had witnessed how the threat hanging over the town had led to stress and depression. However, the anger which he felt about what had happened to his area, the indifference of a large corporation and of politicians, now inspired him to go and take the fight elsewhere.
“We have been so angered by what a big company and what government have done that we’re activated to go to other areas, to go to the Pillaga and try and stop this thing (CSG) in its tracks.”
And Gary had a message for other groups fighting against invasive mining operations and corruption.
“Take help from everywhere. The success in Gloucester has come with help from major environmental groups, from other groups such as the Knitting Nannas. Help from health experts, from geologists, from hydrologists… It’s a fabric that has to be built up in so many layers – to make a successful project. It’s a thing that rolls on. One person inspires another person.”