A year has passed since Steve Ansford tied banners to the boundary fence of his rural-residential property near Tara, Queensland, where they were sure to be noticed by workers travelling to and from Origin Energy’s “Ironbark” coal seam gas (CSG) project site. As far as Steve and his wife Judy are concerned, the questions painted on those banners remain unanswered. The only thing they see as having changed in the intervening year is their determination to remain in the area they have long called home. Their desire now is to leave — the sooner the better.
“We’ve got no problem with them coming in and doing stuff, but they need to get the kids out. The ones that want to get out,” said Steve in a recent interview with No Fibs.
Treasuring the quiet lifestyle they had known throughout 20 years in the area, Steve and Judy maintained a watchful low profile as from 2008 the gasfields expanded around their home. As fellow locals began to resist the CSG industry’s encroachment with media campaigns and blockades, the Ansfords responded to the construction of gas infrastructure near their property in Tolmah Estate by moving further away. In 2010, they relocated several kilometres east to a new home on Upper Humbug Road.
Though still located between two large CSG tenements – Queensland Gas Company (QGC)’s “Kate” (PL228) and Origin’s “Ironbark” (ATP788) – Steve and Judy imagined that Lot 127 was sufficiently removed from the more intensively-developed gasfields in the area to avoid the immediate impacts of CSG industry expansion, such as dust from construction, 24-hour flood-lighting of work sites, exponential increases in road traffic, and continual noise from compressor stations.
For nearly two years, it seemed that the Ansfords had once more secured an affordable peace in the area they had long called home. In late 2011, however, QGC’s activities nearby ramped up significantly. Around the same time, Origin began work across the road at “Ironbark” – a massive tenement conceived as a future cornerstone of the Australia-Pacific LNG export project. Soon afterwards, all four members of the Ansford family began to experience the health symptoms which would eventually push them into the public arena in an effort to have their concerns addressed.
“In early 2012 the kids began to get nosebleeds out of nowhere… I didn’t seem to be as badly affected as the kids at first, but we all get the nose burning, sore and burning eyes, and the metallic taste in our mouth… there are different impacts at different times,” says Steve, confirming that five other Upper Humbug Road landowners with whom he is in contact have reported the same symptoms.
“We’ve had testing done with doctors… they can’t explain it. Dusty’s been to hospital with a rash on his face after having a shower, Liz has been checked with MRIs, EEGs, she’s had her eyes tested, ears tested… nothing showing up there and yet she still suffers with headaches, burning eyes and all the rest.”
Other symptoms include persistent lethargy, bouts of nausea, and skin rashes “like eczema” which appear after bathing.
Steve also speaks of a noticeable reduction in visits from local wildlife:
“When Ironbark started work the wildlife just disappeared. We used to have snakes, shinglebacks, goannas, roos. Used to see a lot of birds around, king parrots… now you never see or hear them. At certain times you might get a few come back, but then… gone again.”
He also spoke of “whiffs” of a strange odour which he says smells something like phenol (a commonly-used aromatic organic compound also known as carbolic acid), and which bring on nausea and dizziness.
The “black rain” which Steve points out in this YouTube video, posted last year, was only the latest in a range of phenomena for which the Ansfords could find no explanation. The release of the video via social media unsurprisingly drew widespread public attention, and precipitated the launch of a Change.org petition demanding that Origin cease operations at Ironbark until the source of the “oily residue” could be determined. The petition attracted more than 26,000 signatures, and the attention of Sydney-based current affairs program Today Tonight. The Ansfords’ property subsequently became the site of three separate environmental testing initiatives by Origin, Today Tonight, and local collective the Gasfield Community Support Group. To date, none of these testing initiatives has yielded conclusive results.
Research on the Ansfords’ drinking-water supply is ongoing, funded by private donation. As a result of these tests, and of Today Tonight‘s research findings, the family has been advised to discontinue drinking from their rainwater tank due to the high levels found therein of cadmium, lead and arsenic (among other substances). Steve says that the focus of this project has now shifted to screening out other possibilities regarding the source of these contaminants.
“We were drinking the water before, and it was fine, no problems, but then it started to taste a bit funny, so we got it tested, and now there’s all this stuff in it. There’s a lot of other things that can cause this too — we don’t know. But we’re doing our best to show good faith and try to eliminate everything else. They [Origin] are just coming straight out and saying, no no it’s not us.”
A suite of tests commissioned by Origin, including soil and residue sampling, was unable to collect large enough samples to conclusively identify the substance:
“3.2.3 Residue Analysis:
“Swab samples collected from a number of locations including a car roof and previously placed collection surfaces (perspex sheet, tile and mirror) were analysed for sugars, with one sample from a tile also analysed for hydrocarbons along with a blank sample. As there were visually limited amounts of surface residue and poor recovery onto the swabs, selected samples from both sites were composited at the laboratory to provide a representative sample for sugar analysis.
“Composite swab analysis did not identify measurable levels of sugars (LOR at <2 mg/g for glucose, fructose and sucrose respectively) which may have been possibly associated with the small amount of residue present on the surfaces of deposition plates. It should be noted that there has been recent heavy rainfall events.
“One swab sample analysed for hydrocarbons was inconclusive. The sample did not report concentrations above the laboratory limit of reporting (LOR at 0.5 µg/swab) and was considered to be similar to background.”
In a letter to the Ansfords dated November 28, 2013, similar in tone and content to their media release on the topic, Origin asserted that it was “confident that the residues are the result of a natural process, and have nothing to do with our operations.” A close reading of environmental consultancy GHD’s “preliminary site investigation” — the result of one visit to the property — reveals that this statement is based on inference rather than on conclusive data.
The presence of “lerps” — “a structure of crystallised sugars (honeydew) and amino acids that are produced by nymphs of psyllid insects as a protective cover” – on leaves and eucalypt trees at the property formed the basis of GHD’s preliminary conclusions, which appear in their report couched in the cautious terminology of sound scientific practice, and framed with disclaimers:
“It has been recognised by Origin that the short timeframe available for investigation and assessment works under this commission might not permit a full investigation of the whole sites visited, and some limitation to time and effort expended has been acknowledged…
“Where soil sampling and analysis has been conducted, this has been a limited sampling exercise targeted at obtaining specific, issue-related information. The information obtained is not warranted in respect to site conditions that might be encountered across the site other than at the sampling locations.”
None of this suggests that GHD consultants have not done their job properly; they are, after all, constrained to work within the limits of the brief they have been given. Nor is it intended to scorn Origin’s efforts to address the Ansford’s concerns, which do appear to have effectively laid the groundwork for more comprehensive study — although Steve feels that one day of limited sampling, and a six-week program of air-monitoring are “too little, too late” after several complaints went seemingly unheard throughout 2012 and early 2013. He and Judy question whether they would still be waiting for Origin’s response had the company’s hand not been forced by public pressure.
A closer look at this report does, however, reveal the “limitations of reporting” which are standard in the scientific documents upon which proponents of the CSG industry routinely base their reassurances to landholders, their own workers, and a concerned public. While a trained scientist will immediately recognise the difference between conclusive data and assumptions based on circumstantial evidence – however compelling – all too often this distinction is not made in the public sphere. From a scientific point of view, none of the current studies available to the public regarding CSG extraction’s health and environmental impacts can be ethically invoked in substantiation of the media claims which peak industry body the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Assocation (APPEA) and others have made in recent years regarding the extraction of coal seam gas as a “safe”, “clean” process.
To be truly ethical, such claims would need to be based on the results of real-time monitoring over vast areas, using models and systematic approaches which take into account not only the complexity of the human body and the environment of which it forms a part, but the length of time required for adverse changes in these organic systems to fully present themselves. The Adaptive Management Frameworks which proponents are required to address in their Environmental Applications for all major unconventional gas projects in Queensland is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that such studies have not been done; further that such studies are not even possible given the pace and scale of CSG’s rollout. Therefore, the cumulative data which would be required to ensure that the claims of industry – and its opponents – are anything more than “confident” publicity material simply does not exist.
Thus comments such as those made by John Kehoe and Ben Potter in a recent nationally-circulated article achieve the opposite of what they intend in shaping the opinion of any but the most ignorant or ideologically-primed of readers. Setting out to ridicule community opposition to the unconventional gas industry with a “logical” appeal aimed at “busting the CSG myths” on the basis of science and facts, they at once expose themselves as fundamentally ignorant of the nature of scientific inquiry, and harden the opposition they seek to negate by denouncing an ordinary citizen who simply wants to ensure the long-term safety of his family as “nutty”. Clearly relying upon an Origin media release rather than the data itself as their source material, Kehoe and Potter state that “the black rain was naturally occurring waste from jumping plant lice or ‘lerps’… an Origin-funded study found”, as if GHD had declared the case closed – before going on to accuse anti-CSG campaigns of spreading “propaganda”.
Both opponents and supporters of CSG have, at one time or another, been guilty of disseminating the “results” of scientific studies in a manner which, if not actively harmful to people like the Ansfords, certainly does little to further their pursuit of a guarantee that their family’s health and living standards are not being compromised by the industry’s actions. Those who speak from a position of power in media or politics, however, are surely charged with a responsibility – if not a duty of care – to ensure that their statements are based on real science and real facts, particularly if they are speaking in support of profit-making industry.
Steve Ansford has never pretended to be anything more than a father who wants to do the right thing by his children. Like so many who find themselves in the crossfire of the ongoing propaganda-war around coal seam gas, he has little more on his side than common sense and concern for his family.
“I’m not a scientist, but the stuff that’s been found in our water tanks… we worry that it’s going to be like asbestos. It’s going to take till 30 years down the line. We do a scientific test over here for six months, over there for six months, somewhere else for six months… but we don’t get enough data in that six months to substantiate what’s actually happening. By the time they find a link with all the accumulated data, it’s too late – the gas companies will have come and gone.
“There’s a few people that have up and gone – walked. We’re contemplating where we stand – if we don’t get bought out, or have some kind of discussion with them, we might have to walk off too, for the safety of our kids. But I’ve paid heaps of money for it so far, so why should I walk off it?
“A lot of people won’t say nothing about it, because they don’t want to get shunned. But I don’t care – I’m only thinking of my kids – what’s best for them.”
Note: At the time of writing, questions to Origin Energy Community Leadership in the Surat Basin regarding Origin’s follow-up actions were still awaiting a response. No Fibs will publish their reply when it becomes available.