The fight to save the Pilliga

Issue 
Nurses and midwives lead a protest on February 10 outside one of Santos’s work sites in the Pilliga, blocking traffic. Photo:

In the Pilliga Aboriginal land rights, water supply, farming, local economies, world-leading astronomy research, the night sky, biodiversity and endangered species such as koalas are all under threat.

On February 9 to 11, I visited the Pilliga forest near Narrabri in north-west New South Wales and witnessed Santos's project of building 850 coal seam gas (CSG) wells; spoke to local community members, many of whom had never being involved in political activism before; and spent time at the Pilliga Push camp with environmental activists, who say stopping Santos is the most important campaign they have ever been involved in.

Great Artesian Basin

The Great Artesian Basin is the largest of its kind in the world. It extends over three states and a territory and provides water for farms, towns and wildlife. Santos's proposal to drill CSG wells in the Pilliga region has put it in danger.

David Paull is an ecologist who lives in the area. He believes drilling for CSG in the Pilliga “could be a natural disaster in the making for the Great Artesian Basin. This is what I fear most.”

He explained that the Pilliga is the pressure head that forces the flow of water throughout the basin — it is the recharge area for the basin.

“The Pilliga has to remain healthy to serve this function,” he said. “If Santos keeps degrading the Pilliga and drilling holes though the Great Artesian Basin to reach the coal seams in the Pilliga, it will put the entire basin at risk.”

Paull has been involved with the campaign from the very first protest against CSG in the Pilliga in 2001. “The campaign to oppose Santos has being bubbling away for years,” he said.

“It's only now that people are starting to get active in the cities and all over the place. They are starting to recognise that this is the CSG industry's last desperate attempt to get a foothold into NSW.

“We've being getting people from all over the place, a mixture of locals, professionals, farmers, people from interstate, all with one thing in mind — CSG has to be stopped to save our water.”

Biodiversity

The Pilliga supports about 15 species of bats, 25 other species of mammals, about 200 species of birds, 15 species of frogs and more than 40 species of reptiles. It is one of the most biodiverse inland forests in Australia and is home to the unique Pilliga wattle and the Pilliga mouse.

Paull started surveying local animal and plant species in 1993. “The diversity here was incredible,” he said. “You never would have guessed it but at that time it had one of the biggest koala populations in the state.”

Since then koala numbers have plummeted from 10,000 to less than 50.

Santos's operations are already having an impact on the ecosystem, with the dumping of wastewater a growing issue. Santos has been reported to the Environment Protection Authority on five separate occasions for dumping wastewater.

“But,” Paull said, “the water controls they've put in place just lets the water flow into the forest and into the road drains. We know the water hasn't been treated because there's no treatment plant. It's highly toxic water that's going in there.

“They're already damaging [the Pilliga ecosystem]. We've had major spills from some of the work that they have been doing and large areas of forest have died.”

Dark skies

Peter Smalls, one of the convenors of the local action group in Coonabarabran, is concerned about the large-scale effects CSG mining could have on the land. CSG wells have a failure rate of 50% after 30 years. This means depressurisation and the mixing of toxic CSG wastewater with clean water that is used for farming. This risks Australia's farming ability and food sovereignty.

Smalls is also passionate about the night sky. “Until you visit a region like this you never really appreciate how dark and awesome the sky really is,” he said.

Coonabarabran is known for its dark skies. The Australian National University set up the Siding Spring Observatory there 50 years ago and it has since become one of the premier astronomy research institutions in the world. It is also the largest employer in Coonabarabran, a town of 3000 people.

If Santos's 850 CSG wells go ahead, the light pollution caused by the flares would render the observatory useless and be disastrous for the local economy. As well as the loss of a leading scientific institution, CSG mining could also mean the loss of Aboriginal culture that relies on the night sky for dreamtime stories.

Pilliga Push

The community campaign to resist Santos is broad, with its many issues attracting different people.

It began when Smalls, who had never even signed a petition previously, learned that Santos had a mining licence over his property. He helped form the North West Alliance, a group of local communities that are standing up against CSG.

Since then, the Pilliga Push has been founded as the frontline group taking daily actions against Santos. The groups work very closely together, using different strategies to achieve the aim of stopping Santos.

Dozens of people are at the Pilliga Push camp at any one time. They are all involved in continuous protests to slow Santos's work and record the destruction that has already been done in the Pilliga.

While I was at the camp, a group of health professionals, mostly members of the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association (NSWNMA) calling themselves “Scrubs on the Frontline”, arrived to support the camp. They said they felt a responsibility to stand up for the health of the environment as it impacts directly on the health of the people.

They said they are concerned about the damage to the Great Artesian Basin, the release of toxins and known carcinogens into the environment, the harm to communities created by gas companies who cause conflict and division, the health risks to workers and the social impact on their families, the impact on farming and food production and the long-term health risks of future generations.

In 2014, the NSWNMA passed a resolution to support the actions of members protesting against this dangerous industry and called on the NSW government to ban all CSG activity in NSW.

Heather Dunn, a midwife at Lismore Base Hospital and union delegate, told Green Left Weekly: “As a midwife and a mother I am here to stand up to protect today's children and those yet to be born. Studies show that the risks to small and unborn children from CSG are far greater than the risks to adults.

“When I'm at the birth of a baby I want to know that that baby will grow up with clean air and clean water and not have the risks to their health that CSG can cause.”

Angie, an emergency nurse, is also concerned about the health risks to workers. “There are risks from the chemicals that [workers] are asked to use. They are exposed to the chemicals themselves underground and they also risk breathing the toxic gases that come out with the CSG.”

Protests

On February 10, Scrubs on the Frontline blockaded the road to Santos' Leewood wastewater facility for a few hours, holding up signs representing dozens of other health professionals who also wanted to show their solidarity.

There was no police presence at their protest, in stark contrast to the previous day, when five climate guardian angels were arrested by police. The “angels”, all aged over 50, are part of the Climate Guardians, a group of anti-CSG activists who dress as angles to create awareness of the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

One of the arrested women, June Norman, said she was a great-grandmother concerned about the future she was leaving for her grandchildren.

“It is my duty to do whatever I can to protect Australia for future generations. If it takes civil disobedience to protect our natural world, then this is what I am prepared to do,” she said.

Alfie, one of the young activists at the camp, told Green Left Weekly why she was part of the Pilliga Push: “I came because I was so enamoured with the land and the people. This is a really special place — the forest is an amazing place and the spirit of this land is really strong.”

This connection to country motivated her to lock onto an excavator to prevent work at Santos's Leewood wastewater facility. She said: “Lots of people want us to be here and it's important we let Santos know that. We're not going away and we're going to keep causing havoc as long as they're here.”

Last week Santos announced it had written down its Pilliga assets by a further $176 million. Santos has now lost almost $1 billion on a project it bought for $924 million just four years ago. It has also downgraded the area's gas reserves from “proven” to “contingent”.

Santos has faced four to five blockades a week, by hundreds of people, including traditional owners, farmers, unionists and environmentalists, for the past two months.

At least 21 people have been arrested at the site, including federal environment minister Greg Hunt's cousin Jen Hunt and Kerri Tonkin, who was pepper sprayed by police while locked onto machinery.

All the other gas companies have made the decision to stop or phase out CSG operations in NSW. Santos should follow AGL's lead, hand back its exploration licences to the NSW Government and cut its losses before it takes any more financial hits and further inflames the community.

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