More than 300 people joined a forest camp in the Pilliga State Forest in north-west New South Wales during the weekend of November 11–12 to protest against coal seam gas (CSG) mining.
The protest culminated in a convoy of about 100 cars filled with locals, farmers and environmental activists making their way into the forest to create a human sign on the sand beds of the river spelling out “NO CSG”.
Another action was to deliver 10,000 tons of salt waste to the gates of the Santos mine 20 kilometres away on the other side of the river bed, watched by a security car. There were no police in sight, as violent arrests are bad press for the company.
Organisers from the Wilderness Society and Lock the Gate Alliance told Green Left Weekly there had been more than 23,000 submissions to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Narrabri Gas Project in the Pilliga. This is a record number of submissions commenting on any project and more than 98% of them were opposed to the project.
Mining giant Santos plans to drill 850 CSG wells at 425 sites in and around the Pilliga Forest, covering about 1000 hectares. If Santos goes ahead with its plans, the drilling would cover seven major gas fields, equivalent to the size of Tasmania.
Farmers told Green Left Weekly they had travelled to Tara in Queensland to see the devastation wrought there by CSG mining. They saw shattered lives, children with bleeding noses, headaches and asthma attacks and the land destroyed, ripped up by huge pipelines, with three metres of bush cleared on each side. It was impossible to continue farming.
Santos representatives have put enormous pressure on farmers to allow mining on their properties in Narrabri. They targeted vulnerable people: one young family with five children and another couple with a disabled child.
One elderly couple, who refused Santos permission to survey their land, planned to carry out a citizen’s arrest if Santos came onto their land. Their neighbours asked how they were going to do that. They said they had two cattle prods to use on the trespassers. But Santos came at night and pushed down their fence. The couple complained to the police, who did nothing.
This year, local residents organised a successful street protest against Santos in Narrabri, which surprised many as the town was once known as a “company town”. The politicians only paid lip service to the protests, as both federal and state governments are supporting Santos for the feeble royalties they receive.
Great Artesian Basin
One of the most serious consequences of mining CSG in the Pilliga, is the destruction of the fresh water supply.
The Pilliga Forest lies over the Great Artesian Basin, which extends over 1,711,000 square kilometres from Cape York to Dubbo in the south and from Coober Pedy in South Australia in the west to the south-eastern corner of the Northern Territory, more than a quarter of the Australian continent. It is continually recharged from rainfall on the east coast of Queensland.
The Great Artesian Basin was formed during the Triassic, Jurassic, and early Cretaceous periods, about 250 million years ago, when several sandstone layers were laid down by continental erosion of higher ground. When much of what is now inland Australia was below sea level, the sandstone was covered by a layer of marine sedimentary rock, which trapped water in the sandstone aquifer. Aboriginal people survived in the deserts for 65,000 years using natural springs from this basin.
The Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest in the world, is 3000 metres deep in places and now holds 65,000 million gigalitres of water, enough to cover all the land on the planet in half a meter of water. It is the only source of reliable water for human activity and water-dependent ecosystems in the arid and semi-arid areas of inland Australia.
Aboriginal Gamilaroi leader Aunty Mimi said: “We have been fighting for water for 25 years. There are a lot of things that need looking after in the Pilliga. We are at a tipping point.”
Mal Donaldson, a beef farmer told us: “If the 22,000 litres under the Pilliga is polluted we will not be able to produce meat. On my property, we rely entirely on underground water, from a bore which is 1030 feet [300 metres] down. How can Santos take water from the bottom, without it affecting the top. Their EIS is totally inaccurate. In four years they have already left a huge footprint on this area.
“Besides the problems of water, there is a serious risk of fire. The fire events of last year, which swept through the Pilliga, proved how dangerous it is to be in a fire here. There is no way for the employees of Santos to get out. Last summer, Santos ran the gas flare on the side of a clearing the whole time. If a twig had caught fire from the flare, a hot westerly wind would have caused total havoc.”
An astronomer told Green Left Weekly the continual light at night from the flares of all the gas fields will ruin the observation of the cosmos from the Siding Spring Observatory, just as 650 astronomers around the world lock onto the telescope to observe stars from the Southern Hemisphere.
Santos has subcontracted the removal of some 115 tonnes of salts a day from their mines, which must be disposed of within 150 kilometres. The name of the subcontractor has not been made public.
In June 2011, there was a heavy spill of untreated saline water containing hydrocarbons and heavy metals at Bibblewinde. There have been 16 other spills from 30 test wells, for which the company was fined $52,000. We drove out to see the site of the spill, which is still devoid of plant life. Santos were later fined $1500 for contamination of an aquifer of the Great Artesian Basin, where uranium levels were 20 times higher than safe drinking water.
Kathy McKenzie, in a talk to the camp, made the following demands:
1. Protecting water. There is inadequate baseline data on which to make EIS statements. The information is substandard. The level of the Great Artesian Basin is dropping. The drinking water in Narrabri and Coonabarabran is now equal to that used for feeding stock.
2. The amount of salt to be removed is enormous. There must be enforcement of monitoring and compliance.
3. The possibility of seismic activity due to CSG mining, as has happened in Queensland, must be addressed.
4. The process of the extraction of gas must be thoroughly examined in an EIS.