A brief lifting of the political iron curtain has revealed what NSW deputy premier Andrew Stoner (Nationals) really thinks of those who oppose gas drilling at Bentley.
‘Mark my word we were prepared to go head to head with that protester group,’ was just one of a few comments made to Jenna Cairney, deputy editor of The Land (Fairfax) newspaper, at a recent Nationals convention.
She shared the comments on social media site Twitter, with other comments reading, ‘It broke my heart that some of those professional bludgers thought they had a win.’
The belligerent and pro-gas mining stance comes despite Mr Stoner having not travelled to meet with the farmers who may still be affected by Metgasco’s drilling attempts just outside Lismore. The Echo previously reported some of those farmers were prepared to be arrested and had ‘locked on’ to concrete devices.
And while the comments were condemned by Lock The Gate’s Michael McNamara, Mr Stoner’s office confirmed with The Echo he was quoted correctly. ‘I said words to the effect that it was a large protest which included a core of hardline protesters who had travelled to the area but also some good local people.
‘At no stage did I suggest that all the protesters were professional bludgers.’
The ‘head to head with that protester group’ comment remains without elaboration. Mr Stoner is also on record as saying he would not want a gas operation near his property.
With the Bentley outcome a fresh momentary victory, the great big Green event, held at St John’s Hall in Mullumbimby last Saturday night, was a celebration of grass-roots activism.
The Echo asked questions of three Green MPs before their appearance, and the night’s bill included federal senator Scott Ludlam (WA), senator Larissa Waters (Qld), and NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham.
What’s your bet on a double dissolution if the budget is blocked?
MP Ludlam: There will most likely be a series of blocked bills that will just pile up month after month until these lunatics produce others. As long as Labor hold, we’ll be sending them back.
At some point they have to decide whether to abandon this disastrous budget or come and talk to us.
What’s your take on Clive Palmer and his ideas on taxation – do you agree that abolishing expected corporate tax earnings would inject billions into the economy?
MP Ludlam: Palmer’s whole policy platform is tax evasion for his mining companies. He ran on that platform, and his cleverness is being able to disguise that while saying he is standing up for mums and dads. That’s real political artistry. But you don’t know what’s policy and what’s been made up on the spot. There’s still an element of genuineness in there that is obviously resonating with people and we shouldn’t ignore that. My prediction is that they won’t last a year once Abbott tries to buy his senators from him with various bribes and break the parliamentary block.
Palmer’s policies have an interesting element of social justice – if he calls a press conference on the treatment of children on Manus Island, we’ll go and stand by him be cause he’s absolutely right. And he’s already proposing to block things in the budget.
Do you know why we don’t have domestic protection for oil and gas reserves like they have in America and WA?
MP Buckingham: What we don’t have in Australia is a national interest test. There’s no question asked by the government and the exporters about the triple bottom line: economic, social and ecological interests. [Mining company] Santos was recently exposed in one of their strategy documents when they were considering exporting. One of the things they recognised early on was that when they went to export they had parity to international prices. They could leverage their conventional gas off that export and get higher prices domestically. So what’s underpinned their business model from day one was higher domestic prices. They say more gas will put downward pressure on prices – well you can do that but it won’t make it cheaper.
Are you all fans of rare- earth mining, which produces solar panels, magnets and computer chipboards as well as considerable toxic waste? Australian rare-earths mining company Lynas moved their processing plant to Malaysia after all political parties rejected their application to operate here.
MP Ludlam: We met a number of times with Lynas, but they’re just going for the dollar. What Lynas tried to do was to export the high value jobs from their processing plants. They do the bulk mining in WA, then ship this radioactive sludge from Fremantle, which is very heavily populated, in plastic bags and it contains a lot of thorium.
So the rare-earth minerals themselves aren’t radioactive, but they tend to co-exist with toxic ones. When it arrives in Malaysia they immediately throw all the thorium and radioactive sludge away into these tailings dams next to the refinery.
And in Malaysia, they have had a real horror show with the rare-earth minerals.
They have basically been tipping the radioactive sludges into the fields. So that sparked a very substantial counter-movement in Malaysia and we’ve been doing everything we can to support them.
I’m not opposed to rare- earth mining, but that doesn’t mean your company should get a free pass on your social and environmental obligations.
MP Buckingham: Our view is that we need them, and we introduced a bill into the NSW upper house called the Responsible Mining Bill.
It recognises we need to keep making some steel and coked coal in the short term, but we need to be smarter about how we produce it.
And there’s certain areas where mining is just too much of a risk.
The NSW government’s new Office of Coal Seam Gas is refusing to answer how much public money is being spent assisting junior gas mining company Metgasco with its proposed drilling in Bentley near Lismore.
It was just one of a few questions raised by The Echo regarding the proposed Bentley mine after the recent NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) report into the Pilliga CSG operation. That report confirmed saline wastewater leached a number of heavy metals, including uranium, into two aquifers.
Additionally, Lock the Gate’s Carmel Flint said, ‘The report [into the Pilliga incident] reveals that the EPA did not conduct any independent sampling of their own, but relied entirely on data provided by the company they were investigating, Santos, and that the NSW Office of Water were effectively sidelined from the process. 170 million litres of toxic wastewater is now sitting above those two groundwater aquifers right now with no clear plan to clean it all up.’
Despite the damning EPA report, a media spokesperson instead replied with general statements regarding the legitimacy of Metgasco’s operation, citing various petroleum legislation, along with ‘over 300 conditions.’
But with only one sample of surface water movements being taken so far, there has been much public concern that testing was not comprehensive enough to ascertain the impact mining may have over all seasons.
The spokesperson said, ‘Richmond Valley Council is providing independent water bore sampling from local creeks and water monitoring bores subject to landholders’ agreement to allow access to their properties. Metgasco is paying for Council to independently oversee the water sampling, which is publicly available on their website.
‘Metgasco has in place an approved groundwater mon-
itoring and modelling plan that was developed in consul- tation with the NSW Office of Water.’
No water production
‘However, as the Metgasco bore well is a gas well and not a coal seam gas well, water production is not expected.
‘Water safeguards include all waste water being cap- tured in fit-for-purpose tanks with at least 20 per cent of the tank required to be left empty and management and transport safeguards in place.
‘This is an exploration core hole to remove a sample of the geological strata. It is not a pilot production gas well like the ones being operated in the Pilliga. Water produced in drilling a core hole is very very minor.’
The spokesperson de- clined to comment on whether they regarded the Pilliga contamination, the subsequent fine of $1,500 and the damning EPA report as responsible governance.
Again state parliament was in dis- array last week with resignations, slush funds, bribe allegations and dodgy appointments debated.
But one other item stood out.
Lennox Head-based upper house MLC Catherine Cusack (Liberal) lashed out at comments by Labor’s Walt Secord in parlia- ment after Mr Secord said Thomas George (Nationals member for Lismore) is ‘a fierce opponent of the Bentley blockade’.
Mr Secord also told parliament Mr George’s son, Stuart, is the com- munity relations manager for Metgasco. ‘This is the bloke who does spin for Metgasco,’ he said.
That prompted Ms Cusack to call out across the floor, ‘withdraw that disgraceful smear.’
When asked for clarification on why it was a smear, Ms Cusack told The Echo, ‘The imputation made was to smear Mr George’s reputation and integrity.’ However when asked if it was a conflict of interest that Mr George’s son, Stuart George, is Metgasco’s communications relations manager, she declined to comment.
Ms Cusack also declined to comment on whether she thought the fossil fuel industry unfairly influences politics and would not say whether she supported lobbyist or donation reform.
But when asked who she supported – either the protesting Bentley residents or her government – she paused and replied, ‘I support my government’s position.’
Despite being cautious with her words, Ms Cusack did elaborate on how the expansion of mining has become a hot-button issue. ‘The mining licences were issued by [former disgraced Labor MP] Ian McDonald. I can’t recall how many throughout NSW but there are a lot.
‘When I saw the map I was very surprised. He took upfront pay- ments from mining companies for the licences, so this has become their legal right. But we have changed that, so now that money is not upfront.’
Ms Cusack was also cagey on whether there is any public support for Metgasco’s planned Bentley operation, apart from Liberal and Nationals MPs themselves.
‘I would personally like to have seen a different approach and wish there had been better engagement earlier in this,’ she said.
A unified vote by Byron councillors at last Thursday’s meeting will see two letters sent to state government MPs regarding concerns over the rapidly expanding gas mining industry.
It will be requested that macadamia, dairy and beef industries of the northern rivers be classified as a critical industry cluster (CIC). Only horse breeding and wineries in the Hunter Valley have been classified as a CIC – as Cr Alan Hunter pointed out, it was only because they have open cut mines to contend with.
Water threat to region
And likewise, Council will express its concerns with pen to paper that ‘gas exploration is taking place in a location (Bentley, west of Lismore) within the surface water catchment of one of the region’s urban water supply sources.’
Cr Duncan Dey’s motion says, ‘Incidents in recent years such as wastewater overflows in the Pilliga State Forest and at Casino demonstrate that the infant unconventional gas industry is either not willing to, or not capable of averting such incidents, and that the planning for and granting of exploration licences was premature.’ Will this all make any difference? Probably not if done in isolation, as Cr Di Woods pointed out.
She suggested it would be more effective if all north coast councils were aligned. But that’s notwithstanding the public’s discontent which saw thousands turn out at Bentley recently.
One of the most interesting parts of the meeting’s debate was the idea put forward by Crs Hunter and Chris Cubis that Council should instead concentrate on the three Rs: rates, roads and rubbish. We shouldn’t be political, they said.
It’s an intriguing argument: should we operate as non- political vessels and let the state and feds take care of us?
Or, can humans ever achieve a pure non-political state of being? It’s understandable to want less work given the rates of councillors’ pay, but such is the calling to a higher purpose.
The possible contamination of waterways from gas mining at the proposed Bentley site, just west of Lismore, has sparked a motion by Greens Cr Duncan Dey for this Thursday’s council meeting.
Cr Dey, who is also a councillor of water authority Rous Water, warns that Metgasco’s attempts to extract tight sands gas from prime agricultural lands could have ‘catastrophic impacts.’
He says in the upcoming council agenda for April 10 that the risks have ‘not been adequately investigated’.
Additionally, Rous Water, which supplies water to Lismore, Ballina, Richmond Valley and Byron LGAs, has called on the state government to prevent gas exploration in areas it is planning to explore for under- ground water sources. It comes as the state government recently announced a six-month freeze on all new CSG explorations.
Cr Dey wrote, ‘My view is that the risk to water quality is substantial while the necessity for unconventional gas to be discovered or, if found, extracted in this particular locality is negligible.
‘There is gas elsewhere.'
‘Rous and hence Byron Shire Council and their de- pendent water supply community rely on the Lismore source. If it were to be re- moved from Rous’s supply system, our future water strategy would be undermined in that a replacement source would be required almost immediately. While groundwater is proposed as ‘the new source’, it requires several years of investigation prior to use.
But in reply to Cr Dey’s question on possible contamination, Rous staff said, ‘It is unlikely that surface water runoff will have the potential to impact on local tributaries’, but ‘a key question to be ad- dressed concerns the extent to which the upstream migration of contaminants occurs during... intermediate flow ranges, when potential expo- sure could occur.’
‘This analysis requires consideration of the variability of tidal flows that would also introduce variability to this situation.’
Meanwhile Council’s Infrastructure Services director, Phil Holloway, says in the re- port that council staff contact- ed Richard Green, team lead- er of the state government’s Groundwater North, over the issue. ‘He has verbally advised that they have no concerns with the Bentley project.
‘It’s a conventional gas bore in that they are looking for dry gas, not fracking for coal seam gas. He also advised that groundwater flows very slowly and said that it may not be even possible for ground- water to travel from Bentley to Byron.
‘Without further investigation he couldn’t comment any further on the issue.’
But in his comments Mr Holloway provided the federal government’s Atlas of Ground- water Dependent Ecosystems which, ‘suggest the ground- water between Bentley and Byron Shire could be linked.’
State govt refused to fund water test
Regardless, for those living next door, the possibility of toxic spills and runoff are a major concern. Boudicca Cerese from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers claims the water testing that was done last year was insufficient to make any reasonable comparison.
‘What is required is proper baseline data’, she said, ‘not just this one-off testing but actually, over a period of time, through all different seasons.’
Richmond Valley Council, which covers Bentley, commissioned Lismore-based Richmond Water Laboratories to carry out the 2013 testing, with Metgasco paying for the test after the state govern- ment refused to fund it.
No baseline testing
It was done within a two- kilometre radius of the well’s location, and looked at the water quality in two creeks, two bores and two dams adjacent to the property where the company plans to drill for tight sands gas. The tests will be repeated two months after the drilling is complete and again 12 months later.
Cr Dey is asking for Council to write to Macquarie Street- based NSW coalition MPs regarding the dangers of the activity, while Cr Basil Cameron is calling on councillors to support a letter-writing push to include northern rivers agricultural industries as a Critical Industry Cluster (CIC) status.
Currently there are only two CICs in NSW: the horse and wine industries of the Hunter Valley. That legislation protects just those two indus- tries from the state’s rapid expansion of gas mining.
There’s a new approach by activists battling against the planned natural gas industry expansion in the region: a number of Metgasco’s largest shareholders have been sent a letter advising them about the size and effectiveness of the social movement that opposes its operations.
It comes as protesters gear up for a fight against proposed drilling operations at Bentley, near Lismore.
Michael Qualmann, on behalf of Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, sent the letters last week saying that Metgasco had been understating the scale of public opposition and that the regional community was well organised and had undertaken training in non-violent direct action.
Mr Qualmann says Byron Bay resident John Vaughan, whose super fund is listed in Metgasco’s 2013 annual return as its eighth largest shareholder, contacted Mr Qualmann after the letter was sent and told him that he may lose his home in litigation.
‘I don’t know why anyone would consider this litigious’, Mr Qualmann told The Echo, ‘I’m actually doing the shareholders a service by providing them with information about risks to their investment that they may not be aware of.’ He also referred to the 87 per cent who voted against gasfield developments in the Lismore poll and that over 119 communities had declared themselves gasfield free by margins over 90 per cent and were prepared to fight to prevent gasfield establishment.
Both Mr Vaughan and CEO of Metgasco, Peter Henderson, declined to comment to The Echo.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown is, ‘the most serious nuclear crisis since Chernobyl,’ says New Scientist magazine.
While many news agencies and governments would agree, why is this topic being largely ignored – or even silenced by mainstream media?
Ever since Japan’s most powerful earthquake/tsunami on record crippled the reactor, containing the daily output of 400 tonnes of contaminated groundwater is proving unmanageable.
And when we need transparency more than ever, the very tight-lipped and proud nation of Japan looks set to introduce a new state secrecy bill, according to the UK’s Independent last November.
Critics say, ‘the law dramatically expands state power, giving every government agency and ministry the discretion to label restricted information “state secrets”.’
It triggered protests from Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists, the Federation of Japanese Newspapers Unions, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.
But that may be the least of Japan’s – and everyone’s – troubles. Scientist David Suzuki says Fukushima is the ‘most terrifying situation imaginable’ and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the Japanese government are ‘lying through their teeth.’
‘Three out of four plants were destroyed,’ he told a symposium on water ecology held at the University of Alberta in Canada last October.
‘And the fourth is so badly damaged that an earthquake of a seven [magnitude] or above and it will go.’ He says the probability of that happening in the next two years is over 95 per cent.
‘What they have in there is 1,300 rods of spent fuel that have to be kept in water all the time, and they have no way of getting it out. They are pouring water in which is leaking out. And now there’s this cockamamie scheme of freezing the soil. They don’t know what to do. What is needed is international experts to go in there with complete freedom but that isn’t happening.
‘I have seen a paper which says that, if in fact, the fourth plant goes under in an earthquake and those rods are exposed, it’s bye-bye Japan and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. If that isn’t terrifying,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what is.’
Aust govt report
But what do our government and bureaucrats say?
Back in October 2012, The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), released Assessment of the impact on Australia from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident by Julia Carpenter and Rick Tinker.
While unprecedented, and the eventual outcomes are unknown, the report says, ‘very low levels of radioactive material were detected in Darwin,’ the following month after the meltdown.
‘At these levels there was no impact on health of people in Darwin. It is expected to take at least five years for ocean circulations to transport radioactive material to Australian waters. By this time the radioactivity will be diluted to such a degree that it will be difficult to detect.’
But circulation of ocean waters is not the only way radioactive water can travel.
Ballast water is water that ships take on board when sailing without cargo. It helps to stabilise an empty ship from tipping over. Again, the report downplays possible harm, ‘given the unlikely presence of the public at ballast water exchange points, there will be no risk to public health. The effects of dilution would also mean that there will be no impact to the biodiversity of marine life.’
As for imported Japanese foodstuffs, the report leans on the Japanese government to monitor safety levels.
Japan has imposed food restrictions and their ‘testing results can be found on the Japanese Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare website.’
Thankfully Australia also monitors Japanese food imports. ‘In addition, food imported from specific regions in Japan are tested by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) for radioactive caesium when it arrives in Australia.’
Meanwhile, there is also evidence emerging that radiation fallout affected between 50 and 150 sailors tasked with the cleanup operation.
News organisation Aljazeera, and others such as www.navytimes.com, recently reported that fifty-one crew members from the USS Ronald Reagan are suing TEPCO, alleging that the utility mishandled the crisis and did not adequately warn the crew of the risks.
TEPCO sued by US sailors
‘Crew members, many of whom are in their 20s, have been diagnosed with conditions including thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and leukaemia,’ says Aljazeera.
Charles Bonner, attorney for the sailors, says, ‘Deployed ships desalinate their own water, so crew members were unknowingly drinking, cooking with, and bathing in contaminated water due to the ship’s close proximity to the disaster site.’
‘The USS Reagan was informed of the contamination after a month of living approximately 10 miles offshore from the affected region.’
The latest containment plan by Japan, says New Scientist, is to build a 1.4-kilometre wall and sink pipes carrying freezing fluids into the ground, ‘gradually freezing it to form a barrier of permafrost 30 metres deep, down to the bedrock’.
Where to now?
It will force the water to drain into the sea instead, something which is backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The expensive and time-consuming technique has been used in the US for years, it is claimed.
But mycologist Paul Stamets may have a better answer: fungi that gobble radiation to grow. He told www.permaculture.co.uk that mulching and woodchipping everything around the reactor is the first step, ‘to a minimum depth of 12–24 inches’. Then native deciduous and conifer trees need to be planted, ‘along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal mushrooms’.
The radioactive mushrooms would need to be removed continuously, burned, and the ash safely stored.
The time-frame for rehabilitation could be decades, he added.