John Jenkyn and his family moved from Australia’s Sunshine Coast to the Western Downs for the peace and quiet. Jenkyn’s 22-year-old son, Aaron, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He has a weakened immune system and heightened sensitivity to sound.
Now the family finds itself surrounded by coal seam gas (CSG)¹ fields. The noise and pollution are unbearable and the whole family suffers severe headaches. Formaldehyde and other contaminants have been found in the air inside their home.
“We were away last weekend,” Jenkyn said. “Within hours of coming home, you’ve got the headache and the sore eyes; but it’s mainly the blocked-up nose. The flares go off, your nose blocks up, and you literally can’t breathe. Even to breathe through your mouth, it’s like you’re breathing through dust; it’s like thick air.”
Jenkyn doesn’t bother to go to the doctor anymore. “You take Nurofen three times a day and it does nothing; you’ve still got the headache. It gets to the point where it isn’t even a headache anymore. It’s just a hot spot on the back of your head. It just pounds.”
Jenkyn’s family is just one of those whose life has been ruined by coal seam gas extraction. Narelle Nothdurft lives, with her husband and six of her 11 children, about thirty kilometres south of Chinchilla, right in the middle of the gas fields.
“We have seven wells on our place, and 26 within two kilometres of our house. We have screw compressors three kilometres from our house, which have flares on them all the time.”
The noise, Nothdurft says, is horrendous and the water the family uses is riddled with radiation. One of Nothdurft’s children wakes up in the middle of the night, her nose pouring with blood.
“Our children suffer really bad headaches, we have a metal taste in our mouths, and we’re always tired. We took one of the children to a specialist and she said the radiation that we have around our house is equal to one X-ray every day.”
Nothdurft says she is literally being driven crazy. She was clearly overwhelmed just talking about the conditions in which she and her family are living.
“I am exhausted all the time. We can’t sleep at night from the noise. We have more than sixty decibels from the neighbouring wells. I sleep four hours during the day to try and counteract what that we put up with at night.”
Narelle Nothdurft; photo by Andrew Quilty/Oculi for Smith & Nasht.
There are high-point vents, which enable the removal of trapped gas, eighty metres from her house, Nothdurft says. “They leak methane 24/7, and have done for five years, but we’ve had all this infrastructure on our place for more than ten years.”
Governments ‘ignore health impacts’
Doctor Geralyn McCarron (pictured left) has done extensive research into the effects of coal seam gas extraction. She says that people surrounded by Queensland’s gas fields aren’t just reporting nosebleeds, sore eyes, headaches, and a metallic taste; they are also suffering from nausea, abdominal pains, and neurological symptoms.
Speaking at a recent Lock the Gate rally outside Parliament House in Brisbane, she said: “The noses of the children living in the Tara gas fields have bled throughout the terms of the Bligh and the Newman governments.”
The Queensland governments have systematically refused to gather baseline data, set limits on emissions, monitor emissions and health impacts, or measure the exposure levels of residents to toxins, McCarron says.
“The peer-reviewed medical literature has documented that children born in areas of intensive gas development have a thirty percent increased rate of congenital heart defects compared to children born in areas with no gas wells within ten kilometres.”
Studies showed that babies born within two and a half kilometres of a gas well had lower birth weight and more health problems than babies born within two and a half kilometres of a well that was planned, but hadn’t been drilled, McCarron added.
Chemicals released during unconventional gas extraction interfere with human reproduction, McCarron says. “A review of 150 studies concluded that the chemicals released during natural gas extraction may harm human reproduction and development with strong evidence of decreased semen quality in men, higher miscarriage in women, and increased risks of birth defects in children.
“There were animal deaths, stillborn calves, congenital defects, and failure to breed in animals; and fair warning has been given regarding the risk of contaminated food entering the food chain.”
McCarron said in her submission to the inquiry into the Landholders’ Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2o15: “It is unconscionable that, with the evidence of harm freely available in the medical literature, landholders (and communities) in Australia do not have the legal right to prevent the coal and gas industries coming in over the top of them.”
Calls for a royal commission
More than half of Australia is covered by leases and applications for coal and gas mining and exploration. About half of the proposed gas fields in the country are shale gas operations, but, in Queensland, CSG dominates.
There are, however, serious challenges to the unconventional mining industry, and there is a currently a CSG moratorium in South Australia. The anti-CSG campaign is led by a national grass-roots organisation, the Lock the Gate Alliance. A small number of politicians, including the independent senator for Queensland, Glenn Lazarus (pictured left), and Greens senator for Queensland, Larissa Waters, are also committed to the campaign.
Lazarus, who resigned from the Palmer United Party (PUP) in March this year, is pushing for a royal commission into the human impact of CSG mining. He is also calling for a national moratorium to stop all CSG projects that have been approved and a scaling back of existing projects.
“I’m imploring the government to stop thinking about their pockets and the people who donate to them and start thinking about the people of Queensland and Australia.”
Lazarus says the government refuses to read the evidence of the effects of CSG, and examine it first hand.
Anti-CSG campaigners are also calling for the establishment of a resources ombudsman to support Australians affected by mining, and CSG extraction in particular.
“The resource sector is an important industry for Australia,” Lazarus said, “but, as a country, we cannot allow the health of our people to be compromised. All levels of government have let the people of Australia down, allowing the unfettered growth of an industry that is known to be harmful to the environment, human health, communities, and ultimately our future.”
Anti-CSG campaigners say Australian farmland is being ravaged for gas that is being exported overseas.
Australia is the biggest exporter of coal in the world and plans to become the biggest exporter of gas by 2020. Eighty-three percent of the mining industry is foreign-owned and mining is one of the smallest employers in Australia, providing jobs for only two percent of the population.
The country has plentiful supplies of conventional natural gas and some of the best solar and wind resources in the world.
“Gas field free”
One Western Downs community, Hopeland, has declared that it is “Gas Field Free”. Shay Dougall from the Hopeland Community Sustainability Group presented the declaration to Lazarus and Waters during last week’s Brisbane rally.
Some other communities in Queensland, and in New South Wales and Victoria, have also declared themselves “Gas Field Free”, but Hopeland is the first in the Western Downs.
“We don’t want the gas fields here,” Dougall said. “This is beautiful agricultural country; it can be irreparably damaged and it cannot be regained. We cannot live in the most arid continent in the world and allow multinational companies to take our water away from us.”
There has already been crippling, record-breaking drought in the region, Dougall says, and food and water security in Australia are major issues. “We are going to say to the gas companies and to the parliament, and to the government and the local council ,that we are saying no. We will not be signing contracts for access to our lands.”
Dougall says there is a plan to install more than one hundred wells across Hopeland. “This means that there would be up to 16 or 17 wells on some people’s farms.”
Along with the wells, Dougall says, come the low-point drains and the high-point vents, the evaporation ponds, the gathering systems, and the roads – and the inevitable contamination.
In Hopeland, residents have been warned not to dig deeper than two metres in certain areas because they will hit dangerous gas. “This is just ridiculous in a farming community,” Dougall said.
People have been led to believe that they are not able to say no, she adds. “I believe that we can say no, and we will.”
Narelle Nothdurft felt she couldn’t say no. “We were told that if we didn’t allow a well to be put down we’d get our property taken off us through the land court. We’d only bought the property three years before that.”
The Nothdurfts own 860 acres of land. In addition to their large farming operation, they have a big trucking business and a ten-bedroom house. Their hope is that one of the gas companies will buy them out. “We will have to move because all this is so unsafe for the kids, but the problem with us moving out is that it makes the gas companies unaccountable for what they do.
“While we’re here, we can still make them accountable for where they put their water, how much water they pump up, and what they are doing to our land.”
Dougall lists some of the reasons she wants to see a royal commission set up: the lack of reporting of CSG incidents, the lack of transparency in the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) in investigating incidents, and “the lack of action taken to prevent the harm to innocent people and their businesses”.
There is also, she says “a lack of planning, a lack of risk assessment, and a lack of accountability for CSG activities and their resultant impacts.”
Dougall says the CSG industry is often spoken about terms of jobs and how much money is spent in her region.
“What we never hear about are the things that I have witnessed personally in my own community: the illness, the people who are impacted who are walking off their homes, the people who have to start again, the families that are torn apart, the heartache because they have been forced into having a multinational company come into their home and onto their land, and the unconscionable conduct, the damage, the way the government is absent in this industry and in dealing with its impacts.”
CSG companies pay for their behaviour behind the closed doors of mediation, Dougall says, “and we never get to hear about their dirty laundry”.
Larissa Waters says people don’t currently have the legal right to lock their gates against mining companies. “The law is not 100 percent clear and the best thing to do is to put that beyond doubt and actually give people the right to say no and to legally lock their gate.
“People shouldn’t have to go through the courts to make an argument about protecting their land and water and everybody’s climate.”
The mining companies often don’t want the bad public relations of taking people to court to force their way onto their land, Waters says. “Even though the law is inadequate, there’s been a real strength from people locking the gate, anyway, and the companies have in the main respected that, but it would be much more satisfying and reassuring if people also had the law on their side.”
The Knitting Nannas Against Gas at the Brisbane Rally.
Lazarus has launched a petition, which he will present to Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott.
“Once I feel I have enough signatures, I will shirt-front Tony Abbott. I will voice the concerns of the people of Chinchilla and the surrounding areas – anyone who has issues with CSG mining.
“I will tell him, and make sure he understands, that the people of Queensland and Australia do not want CSG mining or open-cut mining anywhere in this country.”
Lazarus says many farmers and landowners now have CSG wells and infrastructure all over their properties.
“Landowners have been bullied, harassed, and intimidated by CSG mining companies into signing agreements without any legal support. The value of their properties has plummeted. Parts of rural and regional Australia are littered with CSG wells and above-ground infrastructure.”
Water and air pollution
Lazarus says farmers who once used their bores as a fresh water source can no longer access that water as the bores now have methane gas bubbling up from them.
“Bores and wells have gone dry, animals are dying, surface water has been contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, and people are becoming ill.”
John Jenkyn now has to go into town to get water from someone who has a bore. “For every three inches of water in my rainwater tank, there is half an inch of oil on top of it, with a fine black line between the two.”
Jenkyn says his water has been tested and is more polluted than that at the AGL plant in New South Wales (NSW), which was closed down because there were believed to be contaminants in the supply. “Up here in Queensland, the government tells me that my tank water is fine to drink.”
The NSW government has since cleared AGL of any “adverse findings” at the energy giant’s coal seam gas operations in northern NSW and the Division of Resources and Energy said AGL was entitled to resume operations at its Waukivory pilot project near Gloucester.
Anti-GSC campaigners say AGL should not be cleared to resume operations. They say the company has no way of disposing of its toxic flowback fluid or its produced water.
Wendy Rogers from Lock the Gate said: “With CSG, they have to pump all the water out first, which is problem number one. A lot of people rely on bore water to grow their crops.
Natural areas that aren’t farmed yet also rely on bore water, Rogers says. “The underground aquifers supply the springs where the wild animals drink; in the state forests and the national parks those springs are essential for the existing creeks and water supply for animals and vegetation.
“We’ve been told that it takes two hundred to three hundred years for the aquifers to replenish themselves, so we’re looking at an industry that will last twenty to thirty years taking water that will be gone for three hundred years.”
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is carried out to crack open the bedrock and stimulate gas extraction.
It cannot be proved that the chemicals used in fracking are not contaminating other aquifers that are above or below the coal seam, Rogers says. Also, the gas has to be purified, hence the flares.
“They cannot sell it overseas unless it’s 98 percent pure methane so what they do – out in the gas fields, in the middle of our food producing areas, and in the middle of areas where people are living – is that they flare the gas. When they’re burning off those impurities from the gas, it affects the air quality so people are getting sick and animals are dying.”
People are ending up homeless, Rogers says, because they simply have to leave. “There’s no support from government and there’s a culture of misunderstanding, let’s say, from the coal seam gas companies themselves.”
Dougall says the CSG flares can be seen from 15 kilometres away. “We live within four kilometres of one, and it turns the star-spangled evening night into broad daylight. Within twenty kilometres of our property, there are about ten of them.”
Push for expansion
In the Northern Territories (NT), the shale and tight gas industries² are in the early stages of development, but the NT government is backing the shale gas industry financially and pushing ahead with plans for a gas supply pipeline to eastern Australia.
The push for further exploitation of CSG is massive in New South Wales – despite forecasts of a falling demand for gas in the state.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald, which highlighted the “revolving door between politics and the mining sector”, says this push in some of the state’s richest agricultural areas is about to regain momentum.
“Even though the Australian Energy Market Regulator says there is now no supply gap in NSW and demand for gas will fall 17 per cent by 2019, the CSG industry is preparing to step up its efforts, arguing that the issue is now one of ‘energy security’ for NSW,” Anne Davies wrote.
There’s currently a freeze on new exploration licences that will be replaced with a strategic release framework, Davies says, and the NSW government plans to have a “use it or lose it” regime for licences.
Davies points to the large number of former politicians and political staffers who are now working for the CSG industry. Many of them had a role in the industry’s regulation, she says.
Some people, Davies says, have moved from top jobs in major gas companies to senior advising roles in minister’s offices.
In 2013, NSW chief scientist and engineer Mary O’Kane released a report that said CSG drilling could pose health and environmental challenges and more research was needed.
The government is trying to hasten gas development when the core policy settings are still in development, says Lock the Gate spokesman Phil Laird.
There was a major success for the anti-CSG movement in May last year when the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas suspended Metgasco’s Rosella exploration licence.
The NSW Minister for Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, said the company had failed to undertake genuine and effective community consultation.
Hundreds of Bentley blockade protesters had been camping on a farm next to the proposed drilling site in the Northern Rivers for months.
Last month, however, a Supreme Court judge ruled that the NSW government’s moves to suspend Metgasco’s licence were unlawful. Metgasco is now pushing for an out-of-court compensation settlement and a possible four-year licence extension. It also wants police protection at the drilling site.
As Metgasgo prepares to return to the Bentley site, protesters are gearing up for another even larger protest.
The Queensland government has announced that it will allow 11,000 square kilometres of petroleum and gas exploration – both CSG and shale – in the Cooper basin.
Hutton is also concerned about the forthcoming expansion of the Acland coal mine on the eastern Darling Downs “on some of the best agricultural land in the state”.
Hutton says that, before the 2012 election, the Liberal National Party (LNP) promised that the Acland mine expansion would not go ahead. “When they got into government in 2012, they reversed that decision and they allowed New Hope Coal to put in another application, slightly amended.”
New Hope Coal has donated nearly a million dollars to the LNP, Hutton says.
Geralyn McCarron sees the new exploration announcement as yet more proof that the Queensland government is ignoring evidence about the effects of non-conventional mining on people’s health.
“The new government had the opportunity to fully assess the health of people already impacted in Queensland before making any major decision regarding the expansion of the non-conventional gas industry, but they didn’t,” McCarron said. “Health should always come first and, once again, it simply hasn’t.”
In 2013, the World Health Organisation recognised that outdoor air pollution caused cancer, McCarron says.
“There’s proof that exposure to diesel fumes actually changes human DNA. Particulate air pollution causes heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage, and high blood pressure. There’s no safe level of exposure. Women exposed to high levels of fine particulate air pollution in late pregnancy have twice the risk of having an autistic child.”
Children and babies in utero are most vulnerable to exposure to toxins. In pregnancy and early infancy, McCarron says, chemicals can cause permanent brain damage at levels of exposure that would have little or no adverse effect in an adult.
Even mining magnate Clive Palmer has urged the coal seam gas industry to slow down until more is known about the impact of CSG exploitation on people and the environment.
The Queensland leader of the PUP, John Bjelke-Petersen, called for the tightest possible controls for CSG operators to protect the state’s environmental and economic future. He said the PUP would seek a moratorium on future CSG approvals until strict guidelines were met.
Traditional owners reject mining projects
The federal government has approved Palmer’s 6.4 billion AUD coal and rail project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which stretches for more than 300 kilometres. The “China First” project will include the construction of a coal mine and infrastructure project near Alpha. This, Burragubba says, is where the ceremonial big bora rings are located.
Burragubba is going to the federal court to challenge plans by the Indian multinational Adani to construct the huge Carmichael coal mine, also in the Galilee Basin. “We rejected their land use agreement and we don’t consent to mining on our country and the homelands of our ancestors,” Burragubba said.
“The Doongmabulla Springs that feed the Carmichael River come from the great artesian basin and these waters have been running from the beginning of time and these are our stories of the rainbow serpent and how they give life.”
‘Noise and more noise’
John Jenkyn compares the gas companies to an army going to war. “They don’t really care about the people; they will march over the top of you to get the gas underneath. That’s the way I see it. To them we’re just an inconvenience.”
For weeks, Jenkyn says, trucks have been moving backwards and forwards up and down his road to supply water to the drill rigs roughly every hour. There is noise all night. “The only time you don’t hear it is when the government turns up to do some noise monitoring.
“When we first moved to the area, you could probably have dropped a pin on a table and you would have heard it. Now, it’s just noise and more noise.”
Jenkyn says QGC (previously the Queensland Gas Company) has offered the family 100,000 AUD for noise mitigation, “knowing quite well it would cost more than 400,000 to do it”. A builder has told Jenkyn his walls would need to be made six inches thicker, but, because the footings are not suitable, it would be better to knock down the house and start again.
“I used to feel angry, but at the end of the day it’s happening to a lot of other people, too. Either you move or you take action until you can’t do it anymore, and then you walk away.”
Around the Jenkyn house, the operations are mainly run by QGC. “Independent noise testers said a drill rig would impact on Aaron if they come inside 1,350 metres, so they haven’t,” Jenkyn said. “There’s supposed to be a two-kilometre buffer zone, but they tell me that’s only around a town with a certain population.”
Jenkyn’s 23-year-old daughter, Yasmin, says she will move away from the Chinchilla area.
“It’s not fair that this should happen to anybody. I’d like to see the whole thing go away. I know that’s pretty well impossible, but I just want people to stop and think about the health effects of it and what it’s actually doing to our land, our water and our air.”
1) CSG mining involves drilling deep down into the earth to reach methane gas trapped in coal seams by natural water pressure. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is undertaken, which involves the use of highly toxic chemicals and the injection of water under extreme pressure to crack open the bedrock and stimulate the extraction of the gas.
While CSG is natural gas trapped within an underground coal seam, conventional natural gas is sourced from reservoirs that largely consist of porous sandstone formations capped by impermeable rock. The gas can move to the surface through the gas wells without the need to pump.
2) Shale and tight gas are two types of unconventional gas now being exploited in Australia. Shale gas is found in shale rocks, whilst tight gas is found in low permeability sandstone rocks.
- Impose an urgent moratorium on coal seam gas and other unconventional gas mining.
- Create no-go zones to protect productive agricultural land, national tourism icons, and all residential dwellings from coal and gas mining.
- Strengthen federal environment laws to exclude coal and gas mining from important water sources, cultural heritage sites, and environmentally sensitive areas.
- Institute national standards on coal and gas pollution and enforce compliance.
- Stop using taxpayers’ money to provide handouts to big coal and gas corporations, and make the miners pay their fair share in taxes.
- Reject current development proposals for coal ports, mega-mines, dams, and unconventional gas wells in significant areas.
- Conduct research into greenhouse gas emissions from mining and make sure they are properly accounted and fully paid for.
- Hold a royal commission to investigate the management of coal and gas resources by all Australian governments.
Report on the developmental and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional ol and natural gas operations.
Headline photo: QGC’s “Ruby Jo” coal seam gas central processing plant and field compression station near Chinchilla (AAP Image/Dave Hunt).
Article edited on 30/1/2016