People power win protects water

In a massive win for people power, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) disapproved a project for 16 coal seam gas (CSG) wells in the Illawarra in and around drinking water catchments for greater Sydney.

Stop CSG Illawarra spokesperson Jess Moore said: “This is huge win for the campaign to stop CSG and protect our water.

"It is the result of the extraordinary and tireless efforts of so many in the Illawarra community. It is the result of a powerful community campaign that has brought people together to stand up for what's right.”

Stop CSG Illawarra has been campaigning against the project since 2011. It had vowed to organise a blockade of the site if it was approved. It said: “If the NSW government fails to protect our drinking water and work starts on the local CSG project, this community has vowed to organise a community blockade.

“We will only take this action if the government leaves us with no other option.”

The 16-well project is owned by Apex Energy. It was originally approved in 2009 under the NSW Labor government. The Liberal government approved a further well as part of the project.

The approval carried a three-year time limit. When the approval expired in August last year, Apex requested a three-year extension, allowing it to carry out work.

PAC, an independent body, was asked by NSW Planning to consider the extension. They received 237 submissions and held a public consultation in February through which all but the drill operator spoke against the project.

Communities were concerned that the project was located in drinking water catchment areas between Wollongong and Sydney, and would put the drinking water of 4.5 million people in NSW at risk.

They were also concerned about other environmental and health effects of CSG mining. Concerns included water contamination from heavy metals and toxins used in the mining and “fracking” process, industrial processes that will result in long-term damage to aquifers, health impacts from water contamination and methane emissions, and the effect of released carbon on the climate.

Three thousand people rallied in Wollongong last October to protest against CSG mining in drinking water catchments. This was just one of a series of public events organised by Stop CSG Illawarra that galvanised community opposition to the industry.

Other campaign activities included community forums, street stalls, fundraising events and volunteers going house-to-house conducting surveys asking residents if they wanted CSG in their area.

Despite the high level of community opposition, the Department of Planning recommended that PAC approve Apex’s project in December last year.

PAC released its report on July 12 which said: “The Commission has found it would be inappropriate to approve the proposed coal seam gas activities in Sydney’s drinking water catchment special areas while the NSW chief scientist and engineer’s review (requested by the NSW government) is underway; and before the government resulting policy conclusions are formulated.”

Moore said: "Today is a win. The campaign is celebrating, and breathing a huge sigh of relief.

"But we are celebrating winning a battle, not the war.

"CSG licences still cover the Illawarra and the fact is that the government still supports CSG development and fracking. The legislation still permits CSG exploration and mining in the drinking water catchments.

"In December last year the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure recommended approval of Apex Energy's application, the same one refused by the Planning Assessment Commission.

"The campaign to protect land and water — to put science before development — will continue.

"The campaign to have O’Farrell keep his promise and ban CSG development in drinking water catchments will continue."