Helen Bender is a woman of inordinate courage. Not only is she grieving for her father, who was so driven to distraction by coal seam gas company harassment that he committed suicide, she is continuing George Bender’s fight and is challenging the system that pushed him take his own life.
This means she is taking on the combined might of the coal seam gas (CSG¹) companies and the federal and national governments that are complicit in devastating lives and livelihoods on the Darling Downs² and other areas of Australia.
Landowner John Jenkyn is equally dauntless. His tenacity is astonishing and he has somehow kept his sense of humour and irony after tirelessly battling for nearly eight years against the CSG companies that have made his life, and that of his wife Jo and their two children, a living nightmare.
The Jenkyns have about 700 gas wells within a 17-kilometre radius of their house.
Then there are the Nothdurfts, who are living with seven gas wells on their land and thirty within a narrow radius. Like the Jenkyns, they are suffering massive health problems. Their children literally throw themselves to the ground in agony with migraines caused by CSG pollution.
Nood and Narelle Nothdurft are facing so many challenges – and have confronted so many already – that they hardly know which way to turn. Their strength and determination are remarkable.
There is also the indomitable Joe Hill, an Angus stud cattle breeder who has kept the CSG companies off his land for years. Hill is a no-nonsense, straight-talking character.
He also has a wonderful sense of humour, but woe betide anyone who tries to push their way onto his land, or tell him what he should or should not do.
And then there is Annette Hutchins, an extraordinary Brisbaner who doesn’t live in the Darling Downs, but has so taken the cause of its people to her heart that she spends a huge amount of time and energy conducting “Bridging the Divide” tours of the gas fields.
The divide refers to the Great Dividing Range, which stretches for more than 3,500 kilometres. Few people living in Brisbane or on the coast ever cross the range into the expanses of bush and agricultural land on the other side.
Hutchins organises meetings with local people on the Darling Downs so that visitors can better understand the impact CSG exploitation and coal mining are having on their lives.
People who come on the tours are shocked by what they see, she says. “Even people who didn’t think they would be are shocked. I have even had people cry.”
Bridging the Divide’s aim is to establish and maintain long-term communication and support networks linking rural-, regional- and urban-based Australians around issues of health and social justice.
“We also share information and resources so that people can be updated with what is happening in communities and offer practical support,” Hutchins says.
Bridging the Divide facilitates independent health and environmental testing and monitoring in rural and regional areas. It also organises capacity-building activities in rural communities around citizen journalism, photography, video, art, and social media.
In addition to those who are publicly visible in the battle against CSG exploitation, there are many people who are as badly affected as those who do hit the headlines – or are in even worse situations – but who shy away from publicity. Their stories rarely get told.
In 2000, there were no CSG wells in Queensland’s Surat and Bowen basins. There are now more than 7,000.
Under the 2004 Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act, landholders in Queensland own their land, but the state government owns the minerals beneath it.
Energy companies can apply to the government for the right to use the land for exploration and production. The area where that right is granted is known as a tenement.
There are numerous landowners, however, who challenge the current legislation. They cite common law and say they do own what is underneath their land.
The health problems suffered by those living in the gas fields are horrendous, but even visitors who are only there for a couple of afternoons have suffered physical effects.
“Visitors don’t usually stay in the immediate vicinity overnight, but many have nosebleeds nevertheless,” Hutchins said.
“On a recent trip, organised by the activist group the Knitting Nannas Against Gas and Greed, most of them had the tingly lips and sore eyes and several had nosebleeds. Some, myself included, had the sunburnt feeling; the feeling that your face is sunburnt, but it isn’t.
“Some visitors have had more severe reactions like swollen and red hands, nausea, headaches, and a swollen face, which I had last time.”
Hutchins recalls the time when she washed her hands in a water tank on one of the Darling Downs farms.
“My hands went red, then started to itch and burn; they ended up covered in small, hard blisters. I went to the local GP and she said that it was chemical dermatitis. My hands were peeling for more than four months. John Jenkyn and someone else showed me their rashes; they were very similar and it was the same diagnosis.
“The coal seam gas companies say all these things are just anecdotal evidence, so prove nothing.”
Local doctor Geralyn McCarron (pictured left) has done extensive research into the effects of coal seam gas extraction and says 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.
Environmental scientist Mark Taylor from Macquarie University analysed the results of independent laboratory testing of tank water collected from residents on the Darling Downs. The results showed that arsenic, chromium, nickel, lead, and hydrocarbon products were present in the water, all at levels that exceeded Australia’s drinking water guidelines. The lead content was ten times that considered to be safe.
McCarron 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.
“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,” McCarron added.
In a video published last year McCarron said: “The people coexisting with this industry have been reporting adverse health impacts since 2008. No health impact assessment was done prior to the coal seam gas production licences being issued from 2010 onwards. In Queensland, comprehensive health studies have still not been done.”
Locals living in the gas fields say they are given the run-around when seeking medical help.
In a report about air pollution in the Darling Downs, published in 2015, the author, Wayne Somerville, cites National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) data.
The data reveals that in 2013-14, about 1,383 tonnes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), 13 tonnes of acetaldehyde, 2.2 tonnes of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX), 241 tonnes of formaldehyde, 8,788 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 12,189 tonnes of oxides of nitrogen, and 2,325 tonnes of particulates were emitted into the air above the Darling Downs.
Those living in and close to the gas fields have to put up with night-time flares, sometimes as high as 20 metres. The flames from the flares can be seen from seven kilometres away.
Flares at Brentleigh Park. Photos by David McIlwraith.
On October 13 last year, 68-year-old George Bender reached the end of his tether with the stress he and his family were enduring because of Origin Energy’s push to exploit CSG on his land. He went into his shed and ingested the weed killer that killed him. He died the next day.
George immediately bitterly regretted what he did, his daughter Helen says. He rushed back to the house and tried to rid himself of the poison, but it was too late. He survived for about 28 hours, and Helen was with him in the Chinchilla hospital for the whole night before he died.
“The one thing he kept on repeating to me over and over all night was ‘They just wouldn’t leave me alone’. There was huge emotion in his body. It was like he was so torn.
“I think he was really upset with himself that he’d let them get to him and that he did what he did. The very first thing he said to me was ‘I am so sorry, Helen; I shouldn’t have done it. My brain snapped’.”
The Queensland coroner has not yet determined that George Bender’s death was suicide and Helen is urging him to hold an inquest.
There was a great deal of bullying throughout George’s dealing with Origin, Helen says. “None of it was in writing, obviously. The bullying was all verbal, although we did have some letters in which they hinted that they would take us to the land court if we didn’t sign a Conduct and Compensation Agreement.”
Origin are no longer pushing to operate on the Benders’ property. “What makes me really angry,” Helen said, “is the only thing that has changed is that George is no longer here.
“If Origin are prepared not to develop our property now, they were clearly in a position to not develop it when George was alive, or to accept the coexistence that he was willing to live with.”
The 838-hectare “Chinta” property that Origin wanted to operate on is used for the cultivation of barley, chickpea, and cotton.
George Bender always insisted that he didn’t want any gas wells within a kilometre of his house, and he wanted one paddock free of CSG infrastructure.
From 2005, George resisted overtures from another gas company, the Queensland Gas Company (QGC), and then he had to deal with the distress caused to his family by the Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) activities of Linc Energy on a site just six kilometres southeast of another family property, Valencia.
The odour from the Linc site was nauseating, Helen says, and the family’s pigs started falling ill and dying. They had trouble breathing, broke out in rashes, and got swollen eyes, and sows delivered stillborn litters.
In 2012, it became clear that two of the Benders’ water bores were affected by CSG exploitation.
The bores were identified in a government underground water impact report published this year.
The water in bores drops because the gas companies pump out water from the coal seams to lower the pressure within the seam and release the gas. Landholders can then find their bores blowing out gas.
The CSG companies are supposed to “make good” for all bores that lose water.
Helen (pictured left) says that, during negotiations about a make-good agreement in relation to the Benders’ bores, Origin tried to bribe her father to the sum of AUD$200,000 to sign a Conduct and Compensation Agreement (CCA) “so that they could come on and drill wells and do whatever they wanted to do”.
In the three years of negotiations about the make-good agreement, George had to deal with six different liaison officers. “They just kept on changing,” Helen said, “so he would have to repeat himself and go over everything all over again.
“I think there was one point at which things were said to him that quite simply pushed him over the edge.”
George needed a water supply, so he decided to opt for monetary compensation for the bores and to make his dams bigger.
“He wasn’t one hundred percent happy with the make-good agreement he signed, but it was better than the pittance that Origin put in front of him at the beginning,” Helen said.
“And the solicitors’ fees were up over $70,000, and there was no guarantee that Origin would pay that.
“That’s what scares landholders, and that’s why they sign contracts; they are afraid of being landed with huge legal costs, and they fear that, if they don’t sign a contract within the ‘negotiation period’ referred to in the legislation, the gas company will trigger the land court process. They are afraid they will end up losing their properties.”
George signed a make-good agreement – with no CCA clause – on September 11, 2014. “In June 2014, the two water bores had started making a bubbling noise and leaking gas,” Helen said.
Bore photos taken on November 22, 2015.
In November 2014, the Benders received an entry notice stating that only up to ten QGC employees would be coming on to their land. “On the Saturday morning, there were 13 people and six motor vehicles,” Helen said.
Origin continued to push for the Benders to sell their Chinta property to the company, and the whole family was torn apart over what to do. This was something George Bender couldn’t bear.
Helen told a hearing in Dalby in February 2016, which formed part of the Senate inquiry into unconventional mining, that the Benders consider the Queensland government to be one hundred per cent responsible for “lying to the people of this state and placing Queensland lives in the path of serious harm”.
She told the senators: “They have breached their duty of care to all Queenslanders and, basically, they have forced this industry on our lives.
“There is the depth of the crime and corruption that they have committed and, I believe, are still committing and trying to cover up.
“They have cunningly deceived their way through legislative and regional planning changes, which were of no benefit to the state and just to the benefit of the government and the resource industry.”
Helen said that, on the day that her father took his life, the Queensland government released a report entitled “Review of the socioeconomic impacts of coal seam gas in Queensland”.
This report, Helen says, “is a complete disgrace and an insult to the local communities and landholders who have been directly impacted by this industry”.
Helen told the senators of her complete lack of confidence in the Queensland GasFields Commission and in the government’s CSG Compliance Unit, which, she says, “has absolutely no enforcement capabilities to even be effective”.
It is a common consensus among landholders that the GasFields Commission has given them minimal assistance, Helen says.
“Essentially, they are there to help the resource companies come onto the land, as opposed to trying to assist the landholders with the negotiations to reach the best outcomes.”
Helen is calling for a CSG moratorium across Queensland so as the right testing can be done.
“There should be no further approvals; no expansion. There needs to be real-time collection of data about contamination and the impacts on the water table and on the air and people’s health. These need to be peer-reviewed independent studies. The right testing will prove that this industry is not safe.”
The Bender family engaged an expert hydrogeologist to review QGC’s Environmental Impact Statements, and those of Origin, along with half a dozen reports about the Surat basin, and the Condamine river in particular.
“She just punched holes through everything, and showed what the industry and the government have deliberately ignored,” Helen said. “The Condamine is a major Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem, and that isn’t even mentioned in the reports.”
George Bender spent years immersed in paperwork about CSG. His copy of the 899-page Petroleum and Gas Act is tattered and filled with page markings and underlinings.
Now it is Helen who spends long hours lobbying, writing letters and emails, making phone calls, arranging meetings, and basically stirring up officialdom; doing all she can to correct misinformation and bring the truth out into the open.
Everyone involved in the battle against CSG has to deal with a mainstream media that mostly only scratches the surface of the issues.
Helen has a pessimistic and dramatic view of what could happen in the future. In a recent meeting with the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, she told Palaszczuk that the next thing that would happen because of CSG would not be a suicide.
“Someone will be killed,” Helen said. “And it will be someone from the resource industry. I know that people are at that point where they are prepared to protect themselves.
“I have heard a few landholders say they will shoot next time someone from a gas company trespasses on their property. It’s going to get that bad.”
That blood, Helen told the premier, would be on her hands because she had failed to do anything to try and remedy the situation.
“I think dad taking his life has thrown a lot of people, some of whom had contemplated it themselves. Dad actually doing it has shocked them out of that and they would now be more inclined to defend themselves.”
George’s wife Pam tends to stay in the background. Helen has become the public face of the Benders’ struggle, and she does whatever she can to represent the family, but she works closely with her brothers. Her bother Brian also presented evidence at the Dalby inquiry.
When Pam speaks about the CSG companies, her comments are brief and direct: “They are quite simply liars, cheats, and thieves.”
The Jenkyns live on a 155-acre property. There are no gas wells on their land, but there are 255 within an eight-kilometre radius of their house, causing unbearable air and noise pollution.
Jo Jenkyn has had five nervous breakdowns in recent years, and an asthma-related heart attack.
“Jo’s breakdowns all happened in a two-year period during which we had continual harassment and hassle with QGC,” John says. “Since they have stopped ringing us, she hasn’t had one.”
Ironically, the Jenkyns moved from Australia’s Sunshine Coast to the Darling Downs for the peace and quiet.
The couple’s 23-year-old son, Aaron, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He has a weakened immune system and heightened sensitivity to sound. He is often awake in the night, and this puts a huge amount of pressure on John and Jo.
Aaron’s metabolism is about two and a half times faster than the norm. Every hour that he is awake when he should be resting or sleeping, he is burning energy, so he is losing weight constantly, which deteriorates his body.
“He used to be in bed at 8.30 or nine o’clock every night,” John said. “Now he can still be going at two o’clock in the morning.”
Aaron (pictured left) loves machinery, and lies awake listening to the trucks going back and forth. The noise level inside his bedroom can be as high as 64 decibels.
“Being sleep-deprived literally drove me crazy,” Jo said. “Aaron went from having at least nine hours sleep a night to having four or five. Then there has been the traffic, and the drilling rigs.
“It just went on and on and on for years, and there was no-one to complain to; no-one to act on it anyway, and it is still that way. Usually now they start the noise at the weekend when you can’t even ring someone to complain.
“We’ve been on to the council; we’ve been on to the police; we’ve been on to Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and the health department; so many different departments, and they just keep sending you around and around and around.”
And the noise is due to get worse. “They are putting in 14 more wells across the road from us, so that’ll be noise 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Jo said.
“When they’ve got the Kenya reverse osmosis plant up and running it’s like living at an airport. When it’s running at full capacity it just sounds like a plane engine. It makes you feel physically sick.
“What really annoys me is that this is all done for someone else’s greed; just so somebody makes themselves very wealthy. They are raping the land; there is no other word for it.”
The Kenya plant is just three kilometres from the Jenkyns’ house, and there are four other processing plants in the vicinity.
The Kenya plant, which delivers treated CSG water to the Chinchilla weir, where people go swimming. The water is then treated again, and is used in the drinking water supply.
QGC offered the Jenkyns AUD100,000 to bring the noise inside their house down to 50 decibels – a level that would still be intolerable – but the real cost of doing this would be at least 400,000.
Jo has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, a problem that is severely aggravated by stress and lack of sleep. “We have been constantly asking for heavy metal testing to prove to us that it is not what is in the air or what is in her system that is overriding her medication,” John said.
Given the health problems faced by the Jenkyns, it is extraordinary how little testing has been done by the authorities. The family is still waiting for more than a superficial gesture.
There are people on social media who tell the Jenkyns “Just leave”, but not only is their property now heavily devalued, their house is set up as a wheelchair-friendly home. “It would be really hard to get other suitable accommodation,” Jo said.
“What do you do? Leave everything? Leave the animals? Leave the farm machinery? Leave the house and just walk away with the clothes on your back? And go where?”
When Jo first came to the Darling Downs she was mesmerised by the beauty of the night sky. “Now all you can see is CSG flares.”
The Jenkyns’ daughter Yasmin says the reverse osmosis plant now wipes out half of what you should be able to see in the sky. “When we first moved here I had a telescope, but I have packed it up. You can’t use it. You can’t see anything.”
At just 24 years old, Yasmin has already decided that she won’t have any children. “Who knows what we are being exposed to?”
Jo says acid rain has eaten all the new paint off the house and the paint off all the cars. All the rainwater tanks, which were new, are now covered with white and black residues.
“The water contains things like arsenic, lead, iron, and radon so we can’t drink our rainwater anymore. We have to buy water; although we still cook in our own; and we still shower in it because we don’t have a choice. We can’t eat our eggs anymore.”
It’s pointless having a farm when you can’t eat your own produce, Jo says.
“I had a beautiful vegetable garden, but everything died. It’s just dust again. It just rained one night and the garden was dead the next day.
“And the fish we had in our dam, they all died. Eighteen cows died. And our animals have gone mental. The dog is now really, really nasty.”
For every three inches of water in the Jenkyn’s rainwater tank, there is half an inch of oil on top of it, with a fine black line between the two, John says.
John says the family’s 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.”
If heavy rain is expected, QGC is allowed to pump untreated water from the Kenya water treatment plant straight into the river system, John says.
“They run a pipeline from Kenya into a creek that runs straight into the Condamine. On one occasion, 50,000 litres of untreated water were released into the creek by mistake because an automatic switch malfunctioned.”
The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) lets the gas companies know when they are going to do noise monitoring, Jo says, so everything goes quiet until the listening operation is over.
Formaldehyde and other contaminants have been found in the air inside the Jenkyn’s home. “Sometimes it is like trying to breathe through dust, the air is so thick,” John said.
Methane, John says, is leaching directly out of the ground.
John says he can’t sit on his settee for more than a few moments without dropping off to sleep. “The gas build-up just knocks you out. If I am sitting here doing nothing, I just nod off.
“I can be sitting at the computer, typing away, then I will wake up and there will be rows of the same letter from where I’ve gone to sleep with my finger on a key.
“When you wake up, you don’t feel refreshed; you feel worse, and that can happen twenty or thirty times a day. It can be at 8 o’clock in the morning. You just have to get up and do something because, if you don’t, you just keep falling asleep.”
Like Helen Bender, John spends an enormous amount of time submerged by paperwork. He has done so much research over the years that he is now extremely knowledgeable about every aspect of CSG exploitation, and the legislation governing the industry. His technical know-how is impressive.
Everything in the petroleum act overrides the groundwater protection legislation, John says. “I have never been able to get over the fact that the gas companies can take untold amounts of water for nothing.”
The companies would rather knock down ten huge iron bark trees than move a well pad ten metres, he adds.
John told the hearing in Dalby in February that there were about 16 unanswered complaints that he had sent to the EHP in the previous three months. “They don’t even acknowledge them anymore.”
He is exploring the possibility of charging Queensland’s health department and the EHP with reckless endangerment for not doing proper testing.
“Either one of them is deliberately not doing what their own health recommendations say they should.”
John became front-page news earlier this year when he took New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham onto the Condamine river. Buckingham put a lighter to the river and it burst into flames. The video of the blaze went viral.
“I was shocked by the force of the explosion,” Buckingham said. “So much gas is bubbling through the river that it held a huge flame for over an hour.”
Buckingham (left) and Jenkyn at the Condamine river.
Origin Energy says the seeps of gas into the Condamine “pose no risk to the environment, or to public safety, providing people show common sense and act responsibly around them”.
The company put forward various scenarios about the possible cause: the underlying geology, faults, and natural events such as drought and flood cycles. However, it admitted that CSG operations could be contributing.
The chief executive officer of Origin’s integrated gas business, David Baldwin, said: “While evidence of shallow gas in the area is well known, and the nearest gas wells are several kilometres away, we are starting to see more bubbles than there used to be.
“We have always been interested in better understanding the seeps – not just studying them, but also doing something about it.
“We have identified a possible way to reduce the seeps and we are pursuing that. As a minimum, we will learn more about what is occurring, which will shape our future activity.”
Such words won’t wash with John Jenkyn, who also points to the oily residue on the surface of another local waterway, Nine Mile Creek.
John also highlights the fact that QGC has removed fencing put up to stop dingoes coming out of the forest. “Here there was a six-foot fence,” he said. “They took it down and now there is nothing to stop the dingoes coming out of the state forest onto the farming land.” And where there are fences, John says, they are not maintained.
He indicates one place in the state forest where there are 14 dangers signs in an area measuring less than one hundred metres.
“If it’s safe, like they say it is, why do they need so many danger signs?”
Along with the seven CSG wells on the Nothdurfts’ property, there are four QGC high-point vents leaking methane very close to their house.
“The noise of the gas rushing out was over the limits on their Environmental Authority (EA),” Nood Nothdurft said. “That’s how much gas is coming out. They finally put silencers on there so we can’t hear it as much. That’s the solution. They’re not worried about how much gas is coming out. If anyone comes to do any monitoring nearby, they just turn them off.”
The Nothdurfts have been complaining about the noise from the vents for ten years and it was only about 18 months ago that QGC and the EHP finally accepted that their complaints were valid.
“It’s cost us about AUD20,000 just in noise monitoring because we’ve had to prove it. We had to engage our own independent monitors.
“The problem now is we’ve got to convince them that the leaking gas is a problem too; not just the noise. It’s worse than the noise.”
The gas drifting over the Nothdurfts’ home has been causing huge health problems for the family. The children are constantly coughing and suffer awful headaches.
One specialist has told the family that the radiation they have around their house is equal to one X-ray every day.
Nood suffers mainly from headaches, and lethargy.
“I’m just tired all the time and I’m forgetful now. I’ll be talking to you and I can’t think of the words, even stuff that we talk about every day; the words are just gone.
“How bad the headaches are depends on the weather and how much gas is leaking. Sometimes you won’t have a headache, then other days you just wake up in the morning with one and it doesn’t leave you all day. I don’t take medication for headaches anymore. Nothing helps.”
Six of the Nothdurfts’ 11 children live in the family house, which is about thirty kilometres south of Chinchilla. Four of them now get rapid-onset migraines, Nood says.
“They get them really, really bad. A couple of the little ones, they’ll be just running around the yard and all of a sudden, bang, they’re on the ground screaming in agony.”
When Matt, the 15-year-old, gets a migraine, he goes numb and start slurring his words, Nood says.
“We’ve had MRI scans done on all of us, and we’ve found out that most of the kids have polyps in their noses. The doctors in Toowoomba and a specialist in Coffs Harbour have both said the cause is definitely environmental.”
Nood says that, in a two-and-a-half-kilometre radius around his house, there are thirty CSG wells and at least 82 points where gas is being vented. Because they are up on a hill, they also hear the noise from the Kenya water treatment plant.
“When they first put in the high-point vents, QGC said they were nothing to worry about. Not so long ago, they started putting up new signs saying these are hazardous areas. But they still tell us it’s completely safe unless we’ve got an ignition source.
“What would happen if there is a bushfire? We have been told that QGC has an emergency plan, but we don’t know what that is.”
Many people have been pressured into feeling that they cannot say no to the gas companies; and Narelle Nothdurft felt like this.
“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 also badly needed a water supply so when, in 2005, QGC offered them all the water they might need if a well was put down on the property, the proposal was irresistible.
The rosy picture faded very fast, however.
“Twelve months later, they said they were going to put six more wells on our land. We get AUD265 per year per well, and we got AUD1,000 upfront. And we get AUD531 per hectare of land used.
“We get AUD16,000 per year in compensation for all of this, and we spend more than that on monitoring. Every year, all that money goes into an account to be used against the company. We can’t even afford to take a holiday; we can’t get a break from it.”
The Nothdurfts are currently getting air and water testing done and the quote is AUD12,000 for all the tests combined. “We’ve just had to pay half of that,” Nood said.
Nood says it would be even more expensive (between AUD20,000 and 30,000) to get testing done that he would consider to be truly independent and reliable.
“When we were getting tests done for radiation in our water, there was a serious lag between the time the sample was collected and the time it finally reached the lab.”
The Nothdurfts cannot afford to pay the even higher price for testing. “This is stuff that the Queensland government and the EHP should be doing. We shouldn’t have to do it ourselves.
“And the whole system is the wrong way around. The gas companies should have to prove safety. We shouldn’t have to prove that they are at fault and that there are dangers to our health and our lives.”
The Nothdurfts own 868 acres of land. In addition to their large farming operation, they have a big trucking business.
Nood says he is almost at a loss as to what to do. “So many people tell us to sell up and move out, or just move. But why should we? The kids say that, too. They don’t want to leave. Little Luke, who is eight years old, sent a message to the prime minister, saying ‘Why should we have to go?’.”
He tells the heart-breaking story of his 13-year-old daughter, who is so traumatised that she is self-harming. “She has been sitting in class scratching her wrists, making herself bleed. She told the social worker that she doesn’t want to leave the farm.”
For Nood, it is this effect on his children that is one of the hardest things to bear.
“This was a beautiful, quiet, dead-end road when we bought out here. We looked for a long time to find this place. We have irrigation here now. Everything is set up perfectly. If we move, we will have to throw away our business. And where do we go?”
Annastacia Palaszczuk visited the Nothdurfts’ home earlier this year.
“We found out afterwards that it was the day she opened the APLING liquefied natural gas complex plant at Curtis Island.
“She flew to Chinchilla, came out here in a car, and watched us cry in front of her, telling her what’s going on; and she’s gone and done nothing. We’ve never heard from her; not a thing.
“I’d never cried in my life. I can’t control myself anymore.”
Nood points to the huge financial interests that are driving decisions about CSG and other unconventional mining operations in Australia.
He knows very well that most politicians will do nothing to stop the tidal wave of devastation that is taking place. Only a few individuals, like former senator Glenn Lazarus and the Greens senator for Queensland, Larissa Waters, are actively opposing CSG exploitation.
Lazarus (pictured above), who lost his seat in the last election, has done a huge amount to publicise the dangers of CSG exploitation. He remains committed to helping the affected families.
“The noise in our house is about 34 to 38 decibels at night,” Nood said. “And we get low-frequency noise that vibrates through your body. Your mind spins and you feel anxious; you get butterflies in your stomach. It’s torture.
“The kids will sometimes wake up in the night and yell out that they are scared. They haven’t had a nightmare; they are just feeling fear in their body.
“These are things we have got to prove; that’s the biggest problem.”
If you touch the fence around the gas wells, you can feel the wire vibrating through your hand like a guitar string, Nood says.
QGC offered the Nothdurfts under AUD50,000 for noise insulation. “I got a quote from an engineer and a builder and the total came to more than one million, and there was no guarantee that we wouldn’t still get vibration up through the floor. And this would be noise reduction when all the windows and doors were closed and we were inside.”
The Nothdurfts already have solicitors’ bills totalling AUD60,000 in relation to an Alternative Arrangement Agreement that QGC wants them to sign.
“We have been arguing about this for two years and we are not going to sign. We would be enabling QGC to make as much noise as they want and we would never be able to complain in the future, either about the noise or about anything else, including air pollution.”
The Nothdurfts have suggested to QGC that the company buys them out. “They aren’t particularly interested,” Nood said.
The couple have locked the gate to QGC over seeds and weeds. The company is supposed to ensure that any vehicle coming onto a person’s property is properly washed down and this regulation has not been adhered to.
“And we’ve gone to the land court to try and renegotiate our compensation agreement. We will be putting in for compensation for effects on things like land value and we are bringing up the gas leaking and the noise and health issues; those are all things they never told us were going to happen.
“We are going to try and go back to square one and see if that can get us enough money for us to get the hell out of here.”
Joe Hill insists that he has the constitutional right to keep the CSG companies – and anyone else he doesn’t want coming onto his property – off his land.
And he doesn’t beat around the bush; he would like to see CSG banned. “It makes me sick how they are treating good agricultural land.” If they let it go on much longer, Hill says, “this land will be worthless because anyone who is relying on underground water won’t have any”.
There is a CSG tenement over Hill’s land, which covers just under 2,000 acres, but he refuses to be intimidated by gas company representatives.
“We are told that we can’t stop them and can only fight for the best compensation deal; but this is not the case. This is my land, and if they come on here without my permission they are trespassing,” Hill said.
“They lie to get on your place, they cheat you out of the money they should be paying you, and they’re thieving the water. I don’t care how much they pay you, it’s never going to cover the water. You can’t believe anything they tell you, even when they put it in writing.”
In the seven years that Hill has been dealing with the CSG companies, he has put many a company representative in his or her place. “They don’t know anything about agriculture, and they are just a damn nuisance.”
Hill cites one occasion, in February 2010, when QGC wrote to him saying that if the company was unable to reach “mutually acceptable access and compensation arrangements”, it might, as a last resort, ask the coordinator-general to acquire an interest in his land on QGC’s behalf. Origin wrote him a similar letter, Hill says.
“That’s bullying tactics. There are a lot of people who haven’t had much experience of this kind of thing who think they had better just sign up.”
Hill, however, knows his rights and is well versed in the CSG legislation. He’s not a man to be messed with. When something, like dust suppression, isn’t being done correctly, he gets out there and makes sure it is.
Hill shares other farmers’ concerns about biosecurity. “They can’t guarantee that they are not going to bring a disease onto your place.”
And farmers who do allow CSG exploitation on their land are not being paid for all the time they spend negotiating, checking on what the company is doing, or sorting out problems that have been caused, Hill says.
Hill would agree with Helen Bender about the GasFields Commission. He told the Dalby hearing: “As far as I am concerned, the GasFields Commission Queensland is just another lot of bureaucracy that has no teeth. All those commissioners were hand-picked. They are all sympathetic to the gas industry.”
Joe Hill has part of the gas pipeline that runs to Gladstone named after him. QGC and Origin wanted to run the pipeline through Hill’s property, but he of course said no, so the companies had to divert it.
That section of the pipeline is now known as “Joe’s Bend”.
Dale Stiller is the chairman of Property Rights Australia (PRA) and assists people who are impacted by CSG and the associated infrastructure.
“The worst thing, for me, is the industry’s complete disregard for the people,” he said. “The debate in the metropolitan media is often ‘the economy versus the environment’, ignoring the fact that people live and run agricultural businesses where these gas fields are constructed; they act as if it’s a terra nullius (nobody’s land) out here.”
There is talk of the farmers getting paid for having CSG wells on their land, Stiller (pictured left) says, but what they are getting is compensation.
“They are getting what they can negotiate for, and it is individual landowners negotiating against a multinational. The contracts are for thirty years, so you have to prove loss of income over that whole period. You really have to hang on in there.
“The best possible outcome as far as compensation is concerned is to break even. It’s not a commercial arrangement and no-one should be pretending it is.”
Stiller says the Queensland government has allowed the CSG industry to disempower anything and anyone that stands in its way.
“Anybody who is advocating for people who live out here is fighting an uphill battle. We spend a lot of time on the phone with people who are at their wit’s end over what’s happening to them.”
People have been paid hush money, Stiller says. “There are people who have been hugely impacted by things that are so embarrassing to the gas company that the company has paid out big money to them to shut them up and get them to sign a confidential accord.”
Stiller doesn’t mince his words when he talks about the way landowners are treated by some gas company representatives.
“Right from the very beginning of the process, you could almost call it criminal the way many of them approach landowners and intimidate them and lie to them. A lot is said verbally; assurances are given verbally, but you can’t count on these.”
This goes totally against the way things are usually done in regional Australia, Stiller says. “Here, if somebody comes and looks you in the eye and shakes your hand on an agreement, you believe that’s what they’re going to do.”
The landowners deal with access officers, who are not employed directly by the gas company, but by a consultancy firm. And landowners find themselves dealing with different people all the time.
There is no support from government for the landowners, Stiller says. “In fact, in the early days, the government made quite clear that people had no choice when it came to coal seam gas.”
The role of the access officers is to ingratiate themselves with landowners, and to put aside any fears they may have so that they sign on the dotted line as soon as possible, Stiller says.
“They use a lot of tricks and tactics to get alongside the landowners. There are those who know what’s going on and outright lie to you. You’ve got people who are just functionaries and actually don’t know much themselves, and will just tell you what they’re told. Then there are some access officers who do try their best. There are a few about.”
The gas industry likes to point to the people who have signed up, Stiller says. “They will say there are 5,000 CCAs out there, so there are 5,000 happy people.”
Stiller says, however, that most CCAs are signed because the landowners have no real support and believe they have got the best deal they could possibly obtain; and they are still quite unhappy with that.
There are a couple of categories of landowners who are happy, Stiller says. “The gas companies do a lot of research before they come to an area. They get to know the lay of the land very well and they identify the individuals who are most likely to advance things for them.
“These people are often referred to as poster boys. They are people whose geographical position is quite critical to the gas companies, or they have a leading position in the community. Or they could simply be someone with the gift of the gab.
“These people will get an incredibly good deal.”
There are people who have very large properties where the CSG infrastructure isn’t close to their homes. “Then, they are not living right beside it and have some kind of amenity of living that is denied to a lot of people.
“If you’re living on a 20,000-acre property and there are a hundred wells in your back paddock, it isn’t such a big deal, but if you live on 2,000 acres and the first well is within sight, there is a big difference there.”
Families like the Jenkyns, with what are known as “lifestyle blocks” that can cover just 100 acres, are particularly disadvantaged, Stiller says. The Jenkyns only have a small farming operation.
“Their land may not have a big agricultural value, but it has value for those who bought the property and came here for peace and quiet; to get away from the city. These people are hugely disadvantaged.
“The gas industry should either not be allowed onto these blocks, or the landowners should be bought out for the full value of their property before the gas industry came along and devalued it. And they should be paid to relocate.”
“These people have been treated with absolute contempt by the establishment, by government, and by the so-called GasFields Commission.”
There is a precedent for buy-outs. Six families from Tara, near Chinchilla, who included the first anti-CSG campaigners in the state, were bought out by QGC. Gag orders were placed on those who accepted the buy-out deal.
On a lifestyle block, the owners cannot argue for compensation for loss of income from land being taken out of production.
The only people who are purchasing small lifestyle properties in the gas field area are buyers from the coast, who are getting the land dirt cheap, and aren’t living on the property so can make some money out of the gas wells and not suffer the ill-effects, Stiller says.
Stiller says Queensland governments have let down all landowners badly by introducing opt-out agreements, under which gas companies can convince landowners that they don’t need a detailed CCA.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing. It places landowners at a huge disadvantage, with a total lack of protection, legal or otherwise.”
Conduct in a CCA, Stiller says, is just as important as compensation.
Landowners get to the point where they sign an agreement, and wipe their brows, then discover that the company is breaking the conduct arrangements. They need true tenacity to fight on.
“I know one landowner who has taken two companies to court over their conduct, but he had the means to do it,” Stiller said. “Not many landowners have the means.”
On the first occasion, the company settled out of court. “They didn’t want a precedent.” On the second occasion, the landowner went to court and won.
One of the cases concerned weed certification, which is a big issue for farmers.
During one inspection, half of the vehicles the gas company was bringing onto the landowner’s property distinctly failed bio-security measures in the CCA. “The landowner had to take them to court to make them do what they had actually signed up to do; not to bring weeds onto his land.
“The companies operate across hundreds of kilometres; they pick up weeds on vehicles and machinery and transport them to your property; and weeds are very, very costly to an agricultural business.”
Stiller says there was a dramatic change after British Gas bought out QGC. “Before that, there were a lot of smaller, Australian-based companies.
“There was more give and take; the companies were willing to change where they planned to put their wells. A managing director would come out in the field. People in the head offices were not so far removed from what was happening on the ground.”
Once British Gas was involved, the only concern was company profit, Stiller says, and workers were told to give landowners the bare minimum. “This affected all the companies; their methodology changed and the way they treated people changed.”
For Stiller, it is the Queensland government that holds the biggest responsibility for the current nightmare.
“We can complain all we like about the companies, but it all comes down to government; it’s the government that is ultimately responsible.
“It’s the government that granted the petroleum leases. It’s the government that drew up an Environmental Authority with those companies. It’s the government that doesn’t bother to do monitoring.
“The government is there to provide the legislation; to provide the framework. The companies will only do what they are required to do. They’ll do no more.”
The CSG companies hold many tenements that have not yet been exploited, Stiller says.
“Tenements are made up of little squares on a map, so many kilometres by so many kilometres. They bear no relation to the boundaries of properties, or physical boundaries like creeks or roads. It’s just a grid pattern on a map.”
Arrow’s exploration tenements cover about 21,000 square kilometres across Queensland. GGC has gas exploration licences over more than 28,000 square kilometres and states that it expects to drill 6,000 wells over more than 4,500 square kilometres of tenements by 2030.
By the end of December 2015, QGC had drilled more than 2,650 wells across 3,800 square kilometres.
There are already more than 6,000 CSG wells on the Darling Downs and the number is expected to increase to more than 40,000 over the next twenty years.
Arrow Energy was acquired in 2010 in a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and PetroChina, China’s largest oil and gas producer. Earlier this year, Shell bought out British Gas.
Helen Bender predicts that once Shell has removed all the gas from the Darling Downs – and drained it of water – they will then carry out open-cut mining across the whole area.
John Jenkyn wonders whether the company might also tap into the gold resources it has already detected in the Darling Downs sandstone.
Coal seam gas field in Tara, Queensland.
The laws covering petroleum exploitation and mineral mining have been updated several times in recent years, as has the water Act, Stiller says.
“We started from a position of imbalanced legislation and politicians seem quite keen to make it further imbalanced.
“They are making changes to legislation all the time; changing the legislative landscape that we have to live under.”
Stiller does point to new legislation introduced by the Queensland government earlier this month – the Environmental Protection (Underground Water Management) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. “The Bill contains improvements that the PRA and other landowner advocates have been calling for for a long time,” he said.
The Environment Minister, Steven Miles, said that, under the new laws, the environment department would have “stronger, clearer powers to assess the potential environmental impacts of groundwater extraction as part of the Environmental Authority process”.
A rigorous scientific assessment of the impact of new mining projects on groundwater would be required before environmental approval was given to those projects, Miles said.
Where there is impairment of a landowner’s water supply the resource company will be obliged to make good on this impairment where there is likelihood, rather than a certainty.
“Companies would also be required to cover the costs of any alternative dispute resolution process and allow a cooling-off period for make-good agreements,” Miles said.
The new legislation would also require resource companies to pay a landholder’s costs in engaging a hydrogeologist for the purposes of negotiating a make-good agreement, the minister added.
The new laws will apply to new EA applications received by the EHP. Existing holders of a water licence, administered by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM), would continue to operate under that licence.
In a column published in the Rural Weekly, Stiller said that, with the new legislation, “the Queensland government may be leading the way back to better protection of landowners’ long-term water supply”.
Stiller says, however, that the gas companies go to the government all the time to get their EAs changed, and they are altered on a whim.
He talks also about the catalogue of inefficiencies he has witnessed, not least in work on the pipelines to Gladstone, which take the gas out for export.
“I ended up with two easements side by side going through a property I own, where the greatest asset is the timber. It was a forested paddock. I think four companies were in the race to get the pipelines to Gladstone,” Stiller said.
“There must be about 600 career pipeliners in Australia, but they ended up with about 10,000 people working on these pipelines. They ended up with a lot of inexperienced people, corners cut wholesale, inexperienced management, and woeful management decisions whereby a lot of money was wasted, especially with the QGC pipeline
“The Origin pipeline was started a year later, but it it nearly beat the UGC one to Gladstone. The QGC inefficiencies were incredible.”
One of the things John Jenkyn points to is the subsidence caused by the CSG companies when they lay pipelines.
Photos by John Jenkyn.
Are there risks of further suicides? “There are no known figures of who has died of a heart attack from stress, or of any other CSG-related health problems,” Stiller said. “All this brings an incredible amount of stress and each person has his or her own level of stress that they can bear.
“You come across people you think are quite strong, and doing OK, and then you find out they have ulcers or something like that.
“I know of one woman, a farmer’s wife, who drove the family car head on into a big truck that was coming on the property breaching the conduct arrangements.
“It was sheer stress. She survived. Fortunately, the truck wasn’t going very fast and her seat belt and airbag took over. But there was a lot of damage. She had just got to the point of emotional overload with companies not meeting their conduct arrangements.
Stiller says he knows a lot of similar stories that don’t hit the headlines. “There are a lot of stories out there that people don’t wish to be told. Not everyone wants to see their name in the newspaper or on the radio or the TV. Very few do, actually. We’re a subculture out here; we’re a minority in the Australian population.”
Does Stiller have any hope for the future for the landowners in the Darling and Western Downs?
“There is no such thing as silver bullets. There’s no magical cure that’s going to change everything overnight. We have to work for the long term; we have to be consistent and persistent, and not give up.
“Behind the heavy cynicism that you develop over the years, you’ve got to believe that someday enough change will happen to make it bearable.”
Bust after the boom
During the “Bridging the Divide” tours, visitors are taken to the now dismal town of Miles.
Miles used to be a thriving little place with a good community spirit. Then CSG arrived. There was a boom, from which few locals benefitted; then a terrible bust that has left the township in a doleful state.
The town’s Crossroads caravan park, which used to be in council ownership, but was sold to a private investor, is now empty and abandoned. One of the Miles locals, Ken Brown, who has lived in the town for more than forty years, said: “When the boom happened, they more or less kicked out all the permanent residents. There are no caravans left in there now. They put all these cabins in and now there’s no-one in there because all the workers have now left.”
The main street of Miles is lined with empty shop buildings, and there are hundreds of vacant houses in the town, most of which have additional units built in the backyards. Designed to accommodate half a dozen workers, and packed closely together, they are not the kind of homes that would attract local families.
When the CSG companies arrived in Miles, real estate companies brought in investors and investors bought houses, Brown says. “There were no workers’ camps here at the time, so they built all these houses around town; about a hundred-odd new houses.
The CSG companies also filled up all the town’s motels. “They were all booked out for six and eight months at a time.”
Motels usually attract passing trade, but, in Miles, that trade has now been lost.
“When the camps were being built,” Brown said, “the workers started going into those, so they moved out of the houses and the motels. The motels have got hardly anyone in them now.”
The gas boom, which reached its peak in Queensland in mid-2013, lasted less than four years.
“All of a sudden we were inundated with thousands of workers. Now Miles is like a ghost town. The construction phase is more or less finished. They are going into the production phase now so they don’t need as many workers.”
There are numerous businesses in Miles that have gone bust because sub-contractors bought materials and never paid for them. “It was like a domino effect. A small business in a town like this can’t carry thousands of dollars of debt,” Brown said.
Prices for a beer or a pub meal nearly doubled during the boom, so local pubs did well for a while, but they suffered once the CSG workers left.
Rents in Miles before the CSG boom were about 120 to 200 dollars a week, depending on the kind of house and its location.
“When the boom happened, the landlords saw that they could get 700 or 800 dollars for those houses,” Ken Brown said. “Their tenants couldn’t find anywhere else to live in Miles, so they left town.”
The original tenants were often people who were very involved in the local community, so there was a loss to that community when they left, Brown says. “The families that come with CSG workers are mostly nomadic families.
“They follow the work, so, when the work is finished, they go as well and we end up with a town full of houses and no-one living in them.”
The CSG companies need to start thinking about the impact on local towns before they even start, Brown says, and they need to think about infrastructure.
“They shouldn’t go building a thousand houses in a town, use them and then go again, because the people who have invested in those houses are going to go broke.”
The companies need to start building the workers’ camps before they go into a town, Brown says, then they can pull them down when they are no longer needed. “And they need to build them out of town, and use their own water supply and deal with their own sewerage.”
There is an unsightly CSG workers’ camp right opposite the Miles historical village, museum, and information centre.
“I just hate seeing what CSG has done to Miles,” Brown said. “We used to be a vibrant little town; everybody just going about their daily business quite happily, but now everybody’s just so negative; and you can’t blame them because there is just nothing here now.
“Everything has just gone to crap, really, just because of the boom. It’s ruined our whole community. After all these years that I have had a home here, I don’t want to live here anymore.”
Hutchins tells numerous stories of landholders living in the gas fields who could take no more and chose to turn their backs on their farms and just walk away.
One of the first stories she was told, back in 2011, was that of an elderly couple who had been told that work to lay a gas pipeline on their property would take three months.
“The gas company was still working on their land nearly three years later. They had to renegotiate their compensation deal, which was very stressful for them.
“Their cattle used to fall down the trenches and die a horrible death. They’d have rubbish being left all over their property by workers: bits of tape, bits of plastic, toilet paper blowing all over their farm.”
Many landholders have had the same problem of having to renegotiate compensation deals, Hutchins says.
Hutchins says CSG places additional stress on top of the stress that farmers expect, that they know is part of being a farmer. “This is something else entirely; losing control of the connection that you have to your land, especially if it is generational.
“And there is what it’s done to communities. And it’s not just CSG; it’s also the coal mines.
“Many people in the city have no idea what’s going on out here, and this is where we get our food from.”
There is more awareness now, but, in the early days of CSG exploitation, many farmers had no idea that gas companies had tenements on their land.
“It caught people in Queensland by surprise,” Hutchins said. “The community consultation that they go on about. That’s a joke.”
“When the companies came, they made people sign confidentiality agreements; they were built into the contracts and so people were not supposed to talk about how much they were paid or anything else about the deal.
“A lot of people in the early days got really bad deals and the companies dissuaded them from getting a lawyer.”
The gas companies breach laws all the time and nothing gets done about it, Hutchins says. “I’ve seen, over and over again, these farmers having to take them to court over them pulling their fences down all the time without asking; without having their wash-down certificates.”
Most people in Brisbane don’t realise how big a problem CSG is, Hutchins says. “That’s why they need to see it for themselves.”
She cites a letter she received from one Bridging the Divide visitor to the gas fields, who wrote: “Most farmers are capable, independent people; watching the health of their family and their property be affected by people who don’t understand the land, or care about it, is extremely disempowering.
“One quietly-spoken farmer told me his main concern now is that a normally peaceful farmer could be driven past the point of what’s bearable.
“Knowing that people elsewhere are concerned makes a big difference to farmers and residents.”
Farmer Belinda Marriage, who was an independent senatorial candidate in the last elections, and has visited the gas fields several times, is outraged at what the CSG companies are doing to landholders and the prime agricultural land on which they live.
“Once you have wrecked a water table, where do you get the water from to replace it with?” she said during one recent visit.
Hutchins points to the fact that, currently, the government isn’t even getting royalties from the CSG companies. “The royalties are ten percent of a company’s profits, and that’s after they deduct all their infrastructure costs.
“At the moment, now that the oil price has gone down, the companies are making a loss.”
Challenge against Santos
The Western Downs Alliance community group has begun legal proceedings to challenge the federal environment minister’s approval of 6,100 more CSG wells in Queensland.
The minister, Greg Hunt, has given the green light to the Santos Gas Field Development Expansion, which would extend across nearly one million hectares of land. The group is calling for donations to fund the action.
The alliance has lodged a case in the federal court. It cites national environmental law and argues that Hunt’s approval was unlawful because he ignored plans by Santos to discharge large volumes of CSG waste water into the Dawson River.
The Independent Expert Scientific Committee advised that there is considerable scientific uncertainty about the project’s potential impacts on surface water and groundwater:
- a reduced water supply to important springs of the Great Artesian Basin,
- cumulative impacts on groundwater pressures,
- impacts from the discharge of waste water into the Dawson River, and
- changes to groundwater and surface water quality.
“The people of Queensland are sick and tired of CSG companies riding roughshod over farmers and communities, and putting long-term water supplies and food production under threat,” the group stated.
The right to say no
Brain Monk is a farmer in Tara, who has long been an outspoken anti-CSG activist. He says the only thing that can stop the CSG industry is communities and individual landowners saying no. “This industry can’t exist without the compliance of the landowner,” he said.
Government and legal representatives keep telling landowners they don’t have the right to say no, but Monk remains convinced that the law is on the side of title holders when it comes to access to the surface of their land.
However, he says, the gas companies take great care to ensure that landowners don’t make it to the high court.
“You’ve got to lose a case before you can appeal and the industry has been very careful to make sure they’ve never won a case that can be appealed.”
Another activist who has been at the forefront of the anti-CSG battle for years is the formidable Shay Dougall from the Hopeland residents’ campaign. Last year, the community declared that it is “Gas Field Free”, which means that all residents will refuse to have CSG wells on their land.
Dougall speaking at a rally in Brisbane.
Dougall also says people have been led to believe that they cannot say no. “I believe that we can say no, and we will.”
Underground Coal Gasification
Hopeland residents have also had to deal with the nightmare of underground coal gasification (UCG), which has finally been banned in Queensland after Linc Energy was unable to put out an underground fire at its Hopeland plant and an Excavation Caution Zone (ECZ) had to be declared.
The Bender family’s Valencia property is in the heart of the ECZ.
The soil in the area around the Linc plant has become heavily contaminated by highly explosive gases. A study commissioned by the Queensland government found soil near the plant had been permanently acidified.
Shockingly, Origin now plans CSG exploration and development within and adjacent to the ECZ.
And efforts to prosecute Linc Energy for causing wilful and serious environmental harm are running into problems.
The company is accused of polluting up to 320 square kilometres of prime agricultural land with toxic and explosive gases.
Linc Energy is now in liquidation and the liquidators have indicated that they will seek to not answer the charges. The argument would be that the liquidators lack power to cause the company to mount a defence against the prosecution.
The company faces five criminal counts of wilfully and unlawfully causing serious environmental harm at the Hopeland UCG plant. Linc Energy denies the charges.
Queensland’s environmental regulator has, meanwhile, filed a complaint and summons against the founder of Linc Energy, Peter Bond, in relation to the operation of the company’s UCG trial at Chinchilla.
Environment Minister Steven Miles said Bond had been charged with three indictable offences of failing to ensure that Linc Energy complied with the 1994 Environmental Protection Act.
If convicted, Bond could face a fine of more than AUD310,000 per offence, or even a jail sentence.
The Queensland government has rejected a request by affected landholders to place a moratorium over the ECZ until further testing and investigations can be undertaken, and told CSG companies to proceed “with caution”.
The expression “adding fuel to the fire” could not be more appropriate.
Lawyer Tom Marland, who acts for landholders within the ECZ and in the class action against Linc Energy, says it has been established that Linc’s activities in Hopeland have caused widespread soil and groundwater contamination.
“The investigations by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection found extensive fracturing of the landform and contamination of the soil by toxic gases that have accumulated above their explosive limits.”
Marland says Hopeland landholders are concerned that CSG exploration and development within and adjacent to the ECZ not only has the potential to seriously compromise the ongoing scientific investigations being conducted by the EHP, but also risks causing further soil and ground water contamination.
“CSG development within the ECZ cannot be undertaken without posing unacceptable risks of the further release and spread of toxic gases and other contaminants.
“This is the same flawed process that lead to the Linc approval and contamination in the first place. Jump first, look later.
“On the one hand, you have the government shaking the finger at Linc and crying crocodile tears for the people of Hopeland and then, with the other hand, they are letting CSG companies sneak in the back door.”
There have been allegations that the UCG plant was built using cheap, unsafe, and illegal equipment,
There are even claims that Linc Energy had no serious intention to produce fuel, but was instead attempting to manipulate the stock market.
In underground coal gasification, coal seams are burned underground after pathways are created, usually by injecting water under high pressure in a hydraulic fracturing process, also known as fracking. The gases given off are then processed into fuel or other products.
According to ABC Australia, mechanical engineer Dennis Orford told investigators that, in December 2007, Linc ignited the underground coal seam as a trial, but it was a dangerous failure because the company had used air instead of water for the fracking.
Generally in fracking, a high-pressure blast of water, sand, and chemicals is used to create a shockwave that breaks open cracks deep in the earth.
Companies say they work with landholders, not against them
In a statement issued after a Nine Network’s “60 Minutes” programme about CSG, aired on June 19, QGC said that it valued the “coexistence of the agricultural, pastoral and natural gas industries” and was “committed to conducting our natural gas operations to the highest safety, environmental and social performance standards”.
The company stated that it had more than 2,100 voluntary land access agreements across 3,800 square kilometres in the Surat Basin.
“We place a high value on maintaining landholder relationships through trust, integrity and the open, honest and two-way flow of information.
“We have developed detailed and thorough policies for working with landholders to ensure we minimise our impact and give landholders a strong voice in ensuring our work coexists with their individual requirements.”
Whether farmers and the gas companies can coexist remains to be seen, Hutchins says. “As far as farmers see it, it’s them having to make way and make allowances for the gas companies. The companies can’t even give the farmers a definition of what coexistence is. It’s just a word.”
QGC says it negotiates in good faith to agree compensation and access rules with landholders.
“We go above and beyond compliance with Queensland’s Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act 2004 (Qld) to reach voluntary access agreements.”
The company stated the following:
- Landholders have the ability to negotiate on terms and conditions of the access to their land, as well as the level of compensation to be paid for this access.
- QGC encourages landholders to seek legal advice to ensure their informed consent and will cover the reasonable costs of legal, valuation and accounting advice throughout the negotiations.
- QGC’s compensation agreements always include a significant commercial premium in addition to statutory compensation payments.
It added: “We seek to minimise the effects of our operations on landholders and make a positive contribution to the protection of the environment. We run our business in accordance with all government regulations, industry standards, and the access rules that we agree with landholders.”
In its response to the 60 Minutes programme, Origin Energy said its approach to development was about working together. David Baldwin said in a statement: “We change designs to move wells and pipelines. We adjust timings, pause and reschedule where necessary. We talk with and learn from our landowner partners.”
The company said it did not concede that pressure from its agents contributed to George Bender’s suicide.
“Any suicide is a tragedy and complex – and we were deeply saddened when we heard the news,” the company stated. “We are confident that we acted appropriately in all interactions with George Bender and his family.”
Origin further stated: “Of the hundreds of landowners we partner with, many now support CSG development after coming from a sceptical starting point – through educating themselves on everything. We wanted to offer the Benders a similar opportunity …
“Any land we have purchased has been on mutually agreeable terms. We had the same approach with the Benders.”
Baldwin said Origin had signed more than 900 agreements with more than 400 landholders, involving 700 properties.
“There is a populist narrative that this issue is one of conflict. The reality is we have good relationships with almost all of our landowners.
“Our preference is to develop this resource on good terms – in agreement based on an informed, transparent relationship built over time.”
Helen Bender says, however, that there are four levels of silence that have enabled the CSG industry to become established.
“There is the legal silence – the legislation that allows such things as free and unlimited use of our water. There are all the hazardous chemicals the companies are allowed to use, and the fact that they don’t have to declare how they are going to get rid of their waste.
“There is a layer of federal and state government silence, and this includes the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and the health department. There are the gagging orders and confidentiality clauses, and then there is the media silence.”
There has been an interim report from the senate select committee inquiry into unconventional gas mining.
Dale Stiller says the report was rushed, coming out, as it did, in May this year, just before the last election.
The committee, chaired by Glenn Lazarus, made 18 recommendations.
It said the commonwealth government should work with states and territories “to cease approvals for any further unconventional gas mining projects across the country or the expansion of, or installation of further wells on, any existing unconventional gas mining projects” and to ban hydraulic fracturing across the country.
The government should also work with all states and territories to give all landholders the immediate right to refuse mining on their land, the committee said.
The senators also said the government should work with states and territories “to develop a national strategy to manage the conduct of unconventional gas mining in Australia”.
The committee said an unconventional gas mining commissioner and resources ombudsman should be appointed.
It also recommended the rehabilitation and ongoing monitoring of decommissioned sites and the establishment of free legal assistance and dedicated medical services for all those affected by unconventional gas mining.
There should be more scientific study into the effects of the industry, the senators also said.
The senators also called for the establishment of an independent national testing and research centre and of a royal commission into the human impact of unconventional gas mining.
They also said the government should introduce legislation to ban donations from resource companies to political parties.
Larissa Waters, told the Dalby hearing in February: “I hope that, through the course of these sorts of inquiries, history will show that there has been a great injustice perpetrated on this community. And I hope that criminal charges are laid. That is my personal view. I am sure that view is not shared by everyone on the committee. But I think that is what will happen.”
Waters and Lazarus with the Hopeland “Gas Field Free” declaration.
Victory in northern Queensland
Anti-CSG campaigners did have cause for celebration last year when plans to exploit CSG at the foot of the sacred mountain Ngarrabullgan, or Mount Mulligan, west of Cairns in northern Queensland, were cancelled.
Ngarrabullgan is one of Australia’s oldest indigenous heritage sites.
The company Mantle Mining promised economic opportunities to the local community, but told people very little about the impacts CSG exploitation would have on the environment and on sacred sites.
Hearing about what had happened to people on the Darling Downs helped to inform the local Djungan people and contributed to their decision to reject Mantle’s project.
In the face of what was clearly going to be significant opposition – with the Djungan people supported by the Greens, Katter’s Australian Party, and Lock the Gate – Mantle withdrew its application to drill for CSG at Ngarrabullgan in April last year.
The chairman of the Ngarrabulgan Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Judulu Neal, said that, while it was a relief to see the CSG application withdrawn, unconventional gas mining using fracking remained a threat across the whole of northern Australia.
He said the mining industry’s unlimited access to water and potential contamination of aquifers must be stopped at all costs.
“That water is needed for people, for farming, and for the ecosystem, not just now, but for future generations.
“Fracking is an attack not just on the Woomera nation, but on all Australian people. We Djungan support the calling of a moratorium on fracking across Australia.”
In other states
In the Northern Territories (NT), the shale and tight gas industries 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. There is very active opposition, especially over Santos’ plans to drill in the Pilliga Forest.
Hutchins says it is easier to fight against CSG in New South Wales because it is a smaller state. “Queensland is just so big and it’s so hard to get people to cross the Dividing Range and come out here.”
In August, the Australian state of Victoria announced a permanent ban on CSG exploitation.
It also banned fracking, which is used in many CSG operations and is always used to extract gas from shale deposits.
1) CSG mining involves drilling deep down into the earth to reach methane gas trapped in coal seams by water pressure. To get at the gas reserves, the CSG companies have to remove the water. This reduces the pressure in the coal seam, enabling the gas to flow.
The companies sometimes use hydraulic fracturing, 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.
2) The Condamine alluvium is the core Darling Downs, which include towns like Cecil Plains and Dalby. The Western Downs are further west and include towns such as Chinchilla, Tara, and Miles. The town of Roma is in the Maranoa region. With the coming of the gas industry, all these areas are collectively referred to by the industry, government, and the metropolitan media as the Surat Basin, but locals still tend to describe the wider area as the Darling Downs.
3) In Queensland, all companies seeking a licence to engage in an “environmentally relevant activity” (ERA) must apply for an Environmental Authority.
Activities requiring an EA include all mining activities under the 1989 Mineral Resources Act; petroleum activities including coal seam gas activities under the 2004 Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act, the 1982 Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act, or the 1923 Petroleum Act; geothermal activities according to the 2010 Geothermal Energy Act; and Greenhouse Gas storage activities under the 2009 Greenhouse Gas Storage Act.
Report on the Risks of Coal Seam and Shale Gas Extraction on Groundwater and Aquifers in Eastern Australia.
The headline photo is by John Jenkyn and shows the twin field processing gas plants seven kilometres south of his house.
The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) has declared a further 47,000 hectares of land at Hopeland to be an investigation area. This is in addition to the original 34,000-hectare Excavation Caution Zone (ECZ).
Recent testing at several testing sites has revealed the presence of hydrogen above flammable limits.
“EHP’s second phase of testing has revealed hydrogen contamination at potentially hazardous levels outside the boundary of the existing excavation caution zone,” the department states on its website.
The additional investigation area covers more than 200 properties.
Lawyer Tom Marland, who represents landholders already affected by the ECZ at Hopeland says the environment department only made results of the testing public after a secret report was leaked to the media.
No formal announcement about the investigation area has been made by the government or the Environment Minister, Steven Miles, Marland says, but the EHP website, where advice is given to affected landholders, was “quietly updated” on February 16 to include an amended map with the additional investigation area included.
The EHP says that the cautionary advice that applies to the original ECZ now also applies to the “investigation area and surrounds”.
The following risk minimisation measures should be considered, the EHP says:
- Avoid conducting works unaccompanied that involve excavation or disturbing the soil at depths greater than two metres;
- Monitor gases during works, particularly at the point of disturbance and prior to introducing an ignition source or entering a confined space;
- Ventilate areas of disturbance and confined spaces to disperse and dilute gases;
- Remove or avoid ignition sources completely from the immediate vicinity of the disturbance, i.e. establish a buffer zone around the works; and
- Keep other flammable items and liquids well clear of the excavation/disturbed area.
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