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2011 Gloucester AGL Blockade

Barrington Gloucester Stroud Preservation Alliance Inc (BGSPA) set up a blockade for 12 days in early December 2011 to prevent a coal seam gas (CSG) drilling rig from entering Maslens Lane.

The intention had been to drill at 4 sites. At two of the sites there were to be two holes close to each other, one going to 600 meters and testing a new process called under-reaming and the other hole to about 1100 metres with the intention of fracking it when the moratorium on fracking is lifted.

The blockade was removed following a pledge from AGL to defer drilling until after the court has handed down the result of the judicial appeal, heard against the decision by the previous State government to grant AGL a license to mine CSG in the Gloucester Valley.

This license had been granted by the Ministers Macdonald and Kelly. The Alliance believes the precautionary principle had failed to be applied in respect to water studies and the consent was a reckless decision.

BGSPA stated a ‘whole of the project’ and independent water study was required. AGL deceptively stated they agreed to an independent peer reviewed hydro-geological study but then stated this would only be of the 50sq km in Stage 1 not the whole 210sq km, and they would use their data and their reviewer. There has therefore not been agreement to date, as to what would constitute an acceptable study.

The project that had received a conditional approval is for a minimum of 330 coal seam gas wells located in 210sq kms comprising most of the Gloucester-Stroud Valley, together with a processing unit at Stratford to compress the gas and a pipeline to Hexham.

Why did we set up the blockade?

Many members of BGSPA have viewed mining as an inappropriate activity in the valley and a recent survey by Gloucester Council also suggested the large majority of shire residents support no expansion of mining.

Water Quality and Security

Over the 9 months since the approval was granted, we came to learn more and more details of the inadequacy of the approval process and of the conditions required of AGL.

One example is that MidCoast Water was excluded from the planning stage for this project even though Stage 1 of this project is entirely located in the catchment area for the 75,000 customers they supply domestic water to in the Greater Taree and Forster area.

A second example is that the precautionary principle was not followed and instead AGL insisted that any problems encountered could be tackled by an “Adaptive Management” approach. This amounts to a ‘trial and error’ strategy of trying to remedy problems after they have occurred, (not trying to predict problems in advance and estimating whether such a problem is capable of being avoided – the preventive principle approach).

This is particularly concerning because the geology of the valley is known to be the most chaotic of any CSG mining area. There are multiple fractures and the multiple components of each seam are at steep angles. These result in a very high risk of migration of gas, and of water contaminated with coal seam poisons and also introduced drilling and fracking chemicals.

AGL Minutes say all of the drill holes have been fracked. ABC website says there are 42 drill holes in the Stage 1, Avon catchment, area and a further 6 south of this in the Karuah catchment. Fracking increases further the already high risk of migration.

The depressurisation required to obtain gas is likely to progressively result in water following new pathways.

Gas migration has already resulted in at least two potentially dangerous incidents and one property owner in the exploration area describes how when it rains he now sees bubbles emerging from the ground where there are puddles and gas bubbles coming up from old water boreholes. There is about one property for each of the 330 proposed wells in the gas field. Some accident seems almost inevitable.

Water that has flowed through a fracked coal seam picks up any heavy metal poisons and BTEX cancer causing hydrocarbons. (BTEX was not injected by AGL but it can be absorbed by water in contact with coal). Water migration can then carry this ground water into the river recharge zones or into springs used for stock water.

MidCoast Water provided sworn evidence, at the Taree hearing of the CSG NSW Upper House Inquiry, that well water had been found to contain heavy metals. We believe they are referring to the very high levels of strontium and barium found in some well water samples. The 100 fold variability in well water strontium levels reported in phase 1 of Stage 1, seen between wells in close geographical proximity is an example of the fact that conclusions for the whole area cannot safely be drawn from limited sampling. Additionally in the ‘Advocate’ MidCoast Water have stated they haven’t been testing for BTEX in the domestic water they supply.

It is estimated each well will produce 18,000 litres of water /day so that at full capacity approximately 2 million litres per day will be taken from the ground water systems. MidCoast water again commented to the Inquiry about the high salinity of this water. This will continue for years. It is unknown what effect this will have on stream flow levels, viability of swamps, river recharge capability, and dam levels and bore water supply; also the extent of subsidence that will result from removing such a huge underground volume.

MidCoast Water Sustainable Water Cycle Management Committee state “At this stage SWCMC does not have confidence that CSG developments can be undertaken without causing unacceptable impacts on the local community…..”

Both Gloucester and Taree Councils support a moratorium on CSG Mining.

BGSPA believes, in the face of all these facts, the action to impose a blockade was an entirely responsible one.

Other Important Issues

Food supply and quality

Each well has to have a power supply, a water collection line, a gas collection line and an access track. Wells will be on average 600metres apart and the 330+ wells will produce a spider’s web of tracks and collection lines. Large collection dams are required. The future area of useful agricultural land and the quantity of food produced has not been calculated but must be greatly reduced. The disposal of the large volume of contaminated production water is a major problem and the temptation to irrigate saline water on the pastures, causing a slow degradation in quality and risking heavy metal and salt build up, must be high. Much of the Avon Valley is used for dairy farming.

Health of the Community

Wells are permitted 200meters from houses and each well will need a pump that operates 24 hours per day. The noise is likely to disrupt sleep, concentration and learning and diesel fumes also constitute a significant health impact. Gas migration through the ground is likely to accumulate in some enclosed areas such as a shed and a 15% mixture of CSG and air is explosive. It has been noted by a local farmer every time it rains he sees bubbles coming up through the puddles. Accidents involving pipelines seem inevitable when placing such a mining development in a comparatively highly populated rural area. Heavy metal, BTEX, drilling and fracking chemical exposures are all very possible.

All the CSG health impacts are cumulative with the impacts from existing coal mining

Heritage and Cultural Issues

This valley has great historical importance to white Australians as the birthplace of the AA company, and to Aboriginal Australians, their culture is intimately bound to land. Devastation of the landscape of the degree that is being proposed is irredeemable and will cause an eternal sadness for both indigenous and non-indigenous cultures.

Special Environmental Issues

This area has its share of threatened and endangered species of fauna and flora. The grey crowned babbler is just one example which Gloucester has given a special place. Endangered ecological communities have been identified and the massive land clearance that is inevitable with this project covering 210 sq kms will cause irretrievable habitat and landscape damage.

Climate Change

This project is a new one, if agreed to it is likely to continue for at least 30 years. We are already suffering severe climate extremes as a consequence of increased acidification and temperature in our seas and atmosphere. To start up a new development that is long lasting and emits vast amounts of CO2 is contrary to what the world is trying to do to cap human induced global warming. Far more harmful fugitive methane is escalating just from the exploration activities (described above). The country’s assets need to be put towards accelerating sustainable energy production rather than unnecessarily prolonging the fossil fuel age.

Tourism, Retirees, Employment and the role of Government

Mining is a visually ugly and health damaging industry and it serves as a disincentive to people to travel to our valley, either to retire or to have a holiday here. Compounding this, in the mining construction phase whilst there are jobs created, many are inevitably filled by outside skilled miners who stay in motel or rental accommodation. The inability to get a hotel bed in the Upper Hunter at short notice is notorious. The same thing has been happening here. Mines pay tradesmen more than local businesses can afford and so electricians and plumbers etc are unobtainable for the local resident. A few local businesses will do well in the short term but the overall damage is not worth it to the town as a whole.

The real estate impact can readily be seen in the many properties which cannot be sold in the Forbesdale area.

A small power station may be established which will attract other unhealthy industries. Are such jobs worth it for a town based on agriculture and tourism? Tourism is worth $28million+/yr to the Gloucester economy and will be ongoing.

The short term nature of the CSG industry means a society is disrupted and then left to sort out the mess caused by others.

The Gloucester Project has highlighted our reliable high rainfall and attracted a $250,000 grant to expand employment by teaching the skills of growing a wide range of ‘niche’ agricultural products. It is dependent on clean water and uncontaminated pastures. This initiative has long lasting potential that could be sabotaged by a ‘quick buck’ from CSG Mining.

The government has a conflict of interests in that it is meant to protect our water, food, health and environment but the royalties tempt some ministers to turn a blind eye to these issues. We need to remind them who elects them and that mining is inappropriate in some areas.

AGL is a company, who like all companies, has increased profits for its shareholders as its prime reason for existing. Not surprisingly, AGL will therefore try to dismiss and downplay the harm they will cause to the Gloucester community.

Where to from here?

This is a brand new industry and we are the advance guard. That means detailed and comprehensive studies should be essential. The big issue at the moment is to organise an independent hydro-geological study that covers the whole project area. AGL are desperate to limit the study to less than one quarter of the area and to use just the data that they have obtained. Any such study would at best be a ‘Claytons’ study, and at worst dangerously deceptive.

Even as non-professionals we know that each area has different characteristics and each area impacts on the other areas. Stage 1 area may be the most fractured with the most risks of gas and water migration and since it is also the most populated, it may pose the highest safety risks. Data sites will need to be particularly close together with the many fractures causing changes over short distances. Further south, the geology changes to a marine influenced one. We know from the coal at Duralie the sulphur content and other poisons are a great problem and ‘produced water’ disposal will be especially critical.

Camden CSG, Southern and Western NSW coal fields rely on near horizontal claystone/siltstone horizons. This is absent in the Gloucester basin.

The whole project needs to be viable. Only a group of independent experts will be able to describe how the areas are likely to interact. Further drilling might be necessary to obtain a comprehensive water study, but further drilling should not be used under the excuse of exploration as a defacto way of putting in place future production wells. Since the obligation is AGL’s to prove their project is safe, it should be AGL who finances the study but this should be at arm’s length.

A meeting of the AGL Community Consultative Committee on 12/1/12 was persuaded to delay appointment of a reviewer by a month, but still restricted their planned review to the small Stage 1 area. A Phase 2 water study of this Stage 1 has just been completed but we have yet to see how extensive that was, or the results.

The Federal government has set aside funding for an expert scientific committee to examine CSG and this project could be an early one for them? You may wish to lobby politicians for this to be a way of resolving our current impasse.

Visit this website for updates. BGSPA Members receive newsletters. If you are not a member, please consider joining.

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