A peaceful community blockade set up to stop construction of two coal seam gas (CSG) pilot wells near Newcastle was broken up by riot police August 28.
Dart Energy won approval by the state government to drill the wells in Fullerton Cove in June this year. Locals say a more rigorous environmental assessment of the project needs to be done.
The blockade began on August 20 after Dart refused a request to delay drilling until the outcome of a case in the Land and Environment court that challenged the approval process. The blockade lasted nine days and prevented any drilling taking place. But on the morning of August 28 more than 100 police arrived at the scene.
Carmel Flint, a coordinator of Lock the Gate Alliance, was at the blockade. She told Green Left Weekly that as word spread about police action more people came to join the blockade. By midday, about 75 protesters were there. “The mood was positive,” she said, “and the local community were very calm and dignified in the face of what was happening.”
When protesters refused to leave, police moved in to break up the protest. Fifteen people were fined $200 each and two people were arrested. One of the people fined was 95-year-old grandmother Linda Reynolds.
Fullerton Cove is a rural suburb of 300 people and local residents say they were surprised Dart did not try to engage with them. Flint said: “It was extraordinary. There were no attempts to negotiate. No one from the company ever came down to the blockade to have a discussion even though we made it very clear we were willing to meet with them.”
Dart thanked the police for breaking up the blockade, saying: “Whilst we recognise that local residents might want to express their concerns peacefully, it was clear professional activists, from the Lock the Gate, Rising Tide and Greens groups from outside the area were behind the extended illegal blockading of the site.”
But Lindsay Clout from the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group told GLW that this was untrue. “We had 70 signatories of locals who are opposed to this. Lock the Gate and other groups are here, and have supported us the whole way through it. But it is essentially been driven by the community.”
The Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group has fought many campaigns in its 30 years. Now they are leading the campaign against CSG. Their biggest concern is the effect drilling could have on aquifers.
“There's no town water. Locals use aquifers for all their water needs,” Clout said. “There’s enough evidence out there to show that this is a threat, and if the aquifers get damaged then it's all over.”
The group says the area “is a very sensitive, flood prone environment and it is a completely inappropriate place for dangerous coal seam gas drilling”.
Dart says they are “engaged in regular communication with the community including information sessions and community updates. A Community Reference Group ... has held five sessions and has provided two-way communication about the project. Dart will continue to consult with local residents.”
Clout said she has been part of the “reference group” and described it as a “talkfest”. He told GLW: “They tell us what they’re going to do, we tell them what we’d like them to do. It’s a conduit for information more than anything else.”
NSW premier Barry O’Farrell was in Newcastle on August 30 but refused to meet with residents. He told NBN News that he could not stop the CSG drilling: “I can’t unmake what was lawfully made. To make illegal something that was legal when the decision was made would cost hundreds if not billions of dollars.”
In a statement Clout said: “Barry O’Farrell was faced with a choice. Would he side with the community, who have tried everything in our power to save our community from coal seam gas, and established our blockade as a last resort? Or would he side with Dart Energy — a gas drilling company who have barged into Fullerton Cove against the will of the local community?
“Barry O’Farrell made his allegiance very clear. He sent in the riot police to assert Dart Energy’s agenda over the clear will of the community.”
The residents have applied for an injunction to stop the drilling until the outcome of the Land and Environment Court case. A protest camp has been set up across the road from the site as a visible presence that the community has not given up.