Deformed fish, sick kids, but for some it’s a ‘risk that’s worth it’

Four hundred and thirty-seven million hectares of Australia is covered by coal seam gas licences or applications, and 20 billion litres are needed every year for the coal seam gas industry, stated Sydney right-wing radio broadcaster Alan Jones when he appeared in Frackman, an Australian feature-length documentary film which follows the exploits of former construction worker turned anti-fracking activist, Dayne Pratzky responding to the expansion of the coal seam gas industry near Tara, Queensland.

Organised by Friends of the Earth, the documentary Frackman was screened last week at the Nova cinema Carlton to a packed audience, mostly young to middle-aged inner city dwellers very concerned about the growing industry. Friends of the Earth Australia’s campaign coordinator Cam Walker told the audience he formerly regarded the expansion of the coal seam gas industry as solely a climate change issue, but now saw it as a human rights and a health issue also.

Every kid in the estate is sick, says one unhappy mother whose land is now inundated with gas wells. They suffer headaches, blood noses as well as eye irritations, she added. Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylene or BTEX are volatile organic compounds found naturally in crude oil, coal and gas deposits and associated groundwater and are released from the coal seam via drill holes or fractures. The short-term health effects of BTEX include skin, eye / nose irritation, dizziness, headache, loss of coordination and impacts to respiratory system. Chronic exposure can result in damage to kidneys, liver and blood system. Benzene is strongly linked with leukemia and diseases such non hodgkins non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.Then there are the heavy metals and radioactive isotopes – also very damaging to health. There is also the very real risk that up to 40 per cent of the toxic chemicals from fracking remain within the structure of the seam and can move through the groundwater polluting the Great Artesian Basin.

Queensland anti-fracking activist Dayne Pratzky, former pig shooter and self-professed “world’s worst environmentalist” had settled on his bush block, having escaped his hectic city life and planned to build his brick house but had his plans thwarted after the gas companies moved onto his land.

How can this happen? How is it possible that our properties can be appropriated, our livelihoods destroyed and the collective community soul destroyed and all for corporate greed?  The grim reality is that these coal seam gas resources are owned by the Crown, and not by the property owner. The coal seam gas company must first apply to the state government for an exploration licence so it can conduct seismic surveys and exploratory drilling in order to ascertain the quantity and quality of gas reserves in an area. The crown gives landholders only a minor right to ‘negotiate’ an access agreement and compensation deal with those companies. There are 4.5 thousand gas wells across QLD and the plan is to have 50,000 in all.

Incredible resistance to coal seam gas mining is taking place in New South Wales which currently has 259 mines. NSW landowners have watched with dismay what has happened just over the border. Exploration licences for coal seam gas mining (CSG) cover 75% of the land in New South Wales where people live. From the Northern Rivers around Lismore, to the north-west, down through the Northern Tablelands and through the Liverpool Plains, people have formed community groups to fight the threat of CSG by holding public meetings to inform their communities, organising rallies and petitions and in some cases refusing to allow gas companies  onto their land.

ltg-logo-banner1 Lock the Gate  is a movement of thousands, formed to protect Australia’s natural, environmental, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining. The group encourages landholders to ‘lock the gate’ to coal seam gas companies as a form of non-cooperation.

550 kilometres north of Brisbane lies Gladstone, home to Queensland’s largest multi-commodity port. The coal-seam gas industry has invested about $45 billion into three liquefied natural gas export projects in Queensland, around the coal port of Gladstone. The three projects will ship the fuel to customers in Asia, mainly Japan, South Korea and China.

Frackman featured a clip of the Mayor of Gladstone, Gail Sellers admitting her support for the coal seam gas industry. Her words were chilling: ‘The risks are worth it’. I remember hearing such words from the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright when she was defending the half a million children sacrificed at the altar of the UN Embargo on Iraq, declaring the deaths as a ‘price worth it’.

Frackman also included interviews with some of the Gladstone fishermen who reported that 50% of dolphins had disappeared from the area and that the fish they were catching were badly deformed and diseased. ‘Short term gain for long-term losses’, said one of them – the camera focussed on the lifeless and strange fish at his feet, his livelihood lost in the wake of the dredging and construction of the LNG plants. The locals believe the disease is likely related to a 46 million cubic metre dredging program releasing heavy metals and/or acid sulphates and high turbidity levels.    

A third of the state of Victoria is under license for CSG. In 2012, Friends of the Earth and its collective Quit Coal, seven councils, and more than 70 organisations called on the State government to enact a moratorium on all new coal and unconventional gas projects in Victoria. The moratorium is presently in place but it will take strong community action to ensure it stays active and it’s imperative that it does for most of Melbourne’s food supply is from regions under threat of coal seam gas mining and fracking such as Gippsland, the Western District and areas along the Murray River. Lock the Gate urges Victorians to join the fight to keep Victoria free from fracking. 

In one of the most frightening scenes in Frackman, Dayne Pratzky, is waist-high in Queensland’s Condamine river. He’s holding a candle-lighter. Forget about a tap in the kitchen: when he ignites the lighter a small part of the river itself catches fire.

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