By Iris Ray Nunn
“We could make some money out of this pipeline Quincy.”
This is what Narrabri grazier David Quince's neighbour said to him back in 2010.
The neighbour had been visited by a consultant for Eastern Star Gas. The company chairman at the time was former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson.
In November 2011, Santos Mining purchased Eastern Star Gas. Santos now owns the right to explore sections of the Pilliga State Forest for coal seam gas. If gas is found in the quantities expected, a vast amount of the largest inland forest in NSW will be turned into a gas field.
The Pilliga Gas Fields.
“Coal seam gas mines – gas fields – are up to 500 times the size of an average mine,” said Queensland government environmental scientist and whistleblower, Simone Marsh.
In purchasing Eastern Star, Santos also bought a clean-up bill and a fine for an accident that killed a huge area of scrub around a burst gas pipe from an undetermined amount of untreated saline water that was supposed to go into a reverse osmosis plant.
According to Santos, in their newsletter to shareholders: ‘Eastern Star had an unacceptable culture of accepting minor spills, failures to report and a possibility of unapproved land clearing on some sites.'
The newsletter goes on to say ‘another significant leak in the Pilliga is likely to have occurred but not recorded or reported by Eastern Star’.
Back in 2010, the Eastern Star Gas salesman wasn’t telling Quincy’s neighbour about the risks to health of living in a gas field for humans, plants and animals, or the possible accidents around wells, pipelines and water treatment plants that do occur. Rather, he was painting a minimal risk, high return picture for Quincy’s mate whilst selling the ‘natural’ quality of the product that was to run through the pipe-line on his property.
Like most of us who work hard for a living, and rarely get an opportunity to make some easy cash, the neighbour, not knowing anything about coal seam gas mining other than what was being told to him by the Eastern Star consultant, was keen.
And although David Quince’s father was to became a major shareholder in Eastern Star, ‘uninformed, idealistic shareholders were sucked into the ‘spin’ too’, said David.
As many of his rural neighbours began to agree to their land being used for the infrastructure needed in a gas field, David decided to make his own enquiries.
“They said it was a few wells, but I wasn’t convinced. The more I looked into it, the more I found out about it, the more I didn’t like it. CSG is the melanoma of the mining industry,” he said.
“These consultants from the Gold Coast barraged people. They were turning up on farmers' verandahs in the district at 7.15am in the morning on a Saturday and Sunday. People were still walking up, or in their jocks. It was rude. Made people feel awkward.
“I could have taken an AVO out on this one guy who was targeting me from Eastern Star. I got to a point where I recognised his number on my phone and stopped answering it. He left a message once saying 'I know you’re there, I’m coming to get you'.”
And it seems that it is not just the private landholders who have been sold the benefits of coal seam gas. Who has the rights to sign off on a state forest? Places like Leard State Forest and the Pilliga State Forest are on Gomilaraay/Gomaroi Country.
In the initial planning stages of Eastern Star’s gas project in the East Pilliga Forest in 2007, there was no Native Title Claim on the area intended to be explored by the company. The company advertised to the local Gomilaraay/Gomaroi people the need for a claim, so their dealings would be following due legal process, but no traditional owners were forthcoming in the period designated for the claim to occur. According to due legal process, if nobody steps forward to make a claim within a set period of time, the company can move on to the next step.
According to Eastern Star records, the Narrabri Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Pilliga Forest Aboriginal Management Forest Committee were then consulted as the aboriginal stakeholders representing the Gomilaraay/Gomaroi people.
These bodies had no authority to oppose the coal seam gas project, but they could advise of the cultural heritage significance of sites.
The only body of people with the legal right to oppose the project under Federal Law would be the Native title Holders. Those who know Native Title Law have stated that there are loop holes in the legislation that allow for mining to occur on aboriginal lands even if the traditional owners oppose it.
This is much like the laws of privately owned land, although no case has come to light yet about mining companies forcing their way into land when a landowner refuses entry.
But those who do oppose entry to their property, as has been the case in the Tara and Kenya Estate gas fields in Queensland, become isolated on their land and ostracised by other members of the community who have wells and pipelines on their property. Their land becomes worthless, as no one wants to buy a block in the middle of a gas field and their health often deteriorates from the stress of the industrialisation of their landscape and the impacts to air and water quality from leaks and spills and fugitive gas emissions occurring through mining activities.
The question remains: how does a community ‘lock the gate’ to coal and coal seam gas mining in a people’s forest, a state forest?
“The locals have no idea how they have the right to mine the forest,” said David Quince..
“The Leard State forest has sacred Gomaroi sites, walking tracks and songlines exploded into to two large open cut coal mines, with approval for a third mine (twice the size of the other two mines) at Maules Creek,” he said.
“Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine was approved by former Labor environment minister Tony Burke who, when asked by a local about the 'final void' that was going to be left, asked ‘what’s a final void?'
“We need these people who are making these decisions about the land that we live on to come down here and meet with us.
“The Narrabri people who are against living in a gas field demand a public meeting with industries minister Ian McFarlane, through agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce.
“The chairman of Eastern Star Gas, former deputy Prime Minister and president of the National Party John Anderson, sold rural Australia out to mining. We live in an agricultural area. People have got to eat. Coal seam gas mining can’t co-exist with food production. Farming has been relegated, degraded and ostracised. People ask, why do you farm sheep? Because I like sheep! We’ve got to take care of the land. Governments have driven a wedge between the greenies, the farmers and the aboriginals.
“The very thing that just might burst their operations is if we famers unite with the greenies and the aboriginals and become a political force about preserving land and industries that are finite, not infinite.”
And it would appear that that is exactly what is happening in the Pilliga.
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