WILD applause erupted in the Leongatha RSL last Wednesday afternoon as South Gippsland Shire Council voted unanimously to pressure the state government for a moratorium on coal seam gas exploration and mining until they are shown to be safe.
The room was packed (a rough estimate put the crowd at 130), justifying the decision to move the June council meeting from Council Chambers to the larger space of the RSL. This followed huge attendances at public presentation sessions the week before in which scores of worried ratepayers made clear their opposition to CSG exploration and/or mining, arguing passionately and urging Council to take action.
There were more public presentations in Leongatha on Wednesday morning.
Gayle Margaret from Mirboo North said there was much to learn from the experience of landholders in NSW and Queensland who had been “extremely let down by both the CSG industry and governments”.
“Taking a leading role with many other councils to ban CSG mining until the regulation surrounding it is satisfactorily resolved is wise,” she advised.
Landcare member Kath Goller from Wooreen, concerned about the threat to the environment, argued for the need for full public disclosure of all chemicals used in coal seam gas mining.
Kelly Vandenberg, one of the founders of the Gippsland branch of the anti-CSG ‘Lock the Gates’ movement, cautioned landowners against believing the promises of the mining companies. “They target individuals and pitch landowner against landowner…They tell a bunch of lies… Rural people won’t stand to benefit,” she warned. She asserted that the compensation given by mining companies to farmers whose land they drill on is “pathetically small” considering the havoc wrought – to the land, the aquifer, neighbours’ land and ultimately to the wider community.
Well-known local landowner Max Jelbart spoke on behalf of the South Gippsland branch of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria (UDV) and the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF). He submitted that Council should support a moratorium on CSG until a number of issues are answered “to the satisfaction of the farming and extended communities”.
These ranged from the shortcomings of the Mining Act to how gas would be excluded from waterways and other serious environmental concerns such as pressure loss in aquifers and saline build-up.
“We acknowledge that CSG is a valuable energy resource, but just ask that SGSC has a moratorium on any further work until all the above issues are satisfactorily resolved,” he said. “SGSC should obtain the best information available and share it with the community.”
Mayor Warren Raabe recently advised that representatives of the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) had agreed to meet with Council to discuss CSG but had insisted on the session being private. He said, however, that he would ask for a public meeting.
“This is Day One of our fight for the future,” said an impassioned Pat Fraser of Toora. A keen environmentalist, she feels so strongly about the threat posed by coal seam gas mining she organised a petition – and in a couple of days attracted around 500 signatures. She slammed coal seam gas exploration and mining as “a threat to our farming land, which I believe to be the best in the country” and praised Cr Kieran Kennedy for his “inspiring leadership” in the campaign for a moratorium.
She presented Cr Kennedy with her petition, and he tabled this and another petition at the afternoon meeting of Council. Together they carried approximately 900 signatures.
As Cr Kennedy pointed out in his speech to Council, “The community has been crying out for action from Council.”
In summing up his reasoning for calling for a moratorium he said it would be “catastrophic” for towns such as Foster if their water sources were affected by the CSG industry.
“We must move heaven and earth to address the situation and allay the fears of the community,” he concluded, to tumultuous applause.
Several councillors took the opportunity to voice their support.
Cr Mohya Davies remarked on the numbers in the gallery. “It’s wonderful to see democracy at work – so many people at our meeting.” She said she had received lots of requests for Council to act on CSG. “We’re all passionate about South Gippsland and our pristine environment,” she insisted.
Cr Bob Newton said it was “a very very important issue for the South Gippsland Shire and the South Gippsland people…an issue for the whole of Victoria, I believe.”
He added, “A lot of our farmers rely on water from bores, so I cannot stress enough that we need to act on this and send a strong message to Government and to the DPI.”
Cr Harding concurred, saying that she knew well from the experiences of Yarram farmers the problems that could arise if an aquifer were disturbed.
“It will cause untold damage. It affects everybody’s livelihood,” she warned. “Water is much more important than money.” She added that she had family members in NSW and knew well how the CSG industry can “rip a community apart”.
Cr Harding felt strongly enough to arrange a public screening of the film ‘Battle for a CSG-Free Northern Rivers’ at Welshpool last Monday night, with more than 70 people attending at short notice.
No councillors spoke against the call for a moratorium, and at the suggestion of Cr David Lewis, the original motion was strengthened. Council will ask the state government for a moratorium on existing as well as new licences and will oppose coal seam gas exploration or mining on land the shire owns or manages, and it will keep the community up to date with relevant information.
South Gippsland has now joined Bass Coast, Colac/Otway, Port Phillip and Yarra councils in supporting a moratorium.
Cam Walker from environmental activists Friends of the Earth was at the council meeting and praised the community action which led to Council’s call for a moratorium.
“This is a wonderful testament to community power. Congratulations to everyone who has emailed or called councillors and shown up at recent council sessions,” he said. “The community keeps winning on this issue. This will be a long struggle and I have no doubt that with a strong, unified and concerted campaign, we will be able to get a moratorium.”
Larry Giddy, president of the Foster Community Association, which recently added its weight to the opposition to coal seam gas exploration and mining, also expressed delight. “It was a great result at yesterday’s Council meeting,” he said. “What we need to do now is to keep up the pressure on the State Government especially Peter Ryan – firstname.lastname@example.org – by writing letters calling for a halt to coal seam gas exploration and mining in South Gippsland.”