Deep Dives

Fracking Up a Storm

A booming coal gas industry promises to bring a new era of wealth to Australian cattle country. A handful of feisty farmers don’t quite see it that way.

Fracking Up a Storm

My guess is you’ve never heard of Ewingar. Most people haven’t. It’s rocky, marginal country, more than an hour from the small town of Casino, the so-called beef capital of Australia in Northern New South Wales. No shops, no post office, mail delivered only three times a week. Population: 150. No celebrities live here, no fancy houses or iconic tourist attractions.

In March 2012 an advertisement in the classifieds section of The Land newspaper announced that Macquarie Energy had applied for a license to mine for unconventional or coal seam gas over an area of 1,275 square kilometers, which included Ewingar. The map showed two adjoining rectangular boxes superimposed on the veins of rivers and roads. The squiggly line at the bottom of the skinny rectangle on the PEL’s map, that’s Ewingar Road. Halfway along, that’s where I live with my partner, Jen, and our dogs, horses and beef cattle. That’s our home.

Malcolm, the contact person listed in the advertisement, assured me that coal seam gas mining could coexist with agriculture. He’d only ever heard of two landholders refusing access, and one of them had changed his mind. He rattled off a list of draft guidelines and codes of practice that protect farmers and the environment.

“Nothing to worry about,” he said. “They won’t drill within 200 meters of a residence.”

I looked down past the post and rail fence of our front yard to the paddock of blady grass and spotty gum trees where our grey mare grazed. As if on queue, a wallaby sat up on her hind legs, her ears twitching.

“Two hundred meters from where I’m standing, Malcolm, is just past the vegetable garden. Would you want a drill rig just outside your front gate?”

Malcolm didn’t answer my question. He suggested I call back if I had further questions.

The advertisement said we had twenty-eight days to lodge written responses to the application with the NSW Department of Trade & Investment. I knew little about gas mining, other than what I’d learned when I’d watched U.S. filmmaker Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland. Along with cattle drench, Jen had brought home a copy of the film from the rural supplier—someone had left a stack of free DVDs on the counter. We’d digested images of industrialized farmlands, sick children, toxic spills and contaminated water that people actually lit on fire. We’d sighed about corporate greed and environmental degradation and unsafe mining practices in America. But that was there, not here in Australia. Over the last few years we’d heard locals say it was a good time to buy property in neighboring Casino because they’d found gas. Surely this wasn’t the same type of gas mining as in the U.S.A.?

I didn’t look into it further. Even though I live on a farm with a stand-alone solar system and rainwater, I’m no “greenie.” My version of environmental activism is signing the occasional online petition or donating to Greenpeace. I’m just plain lazy when it comes to reading and understanding the nitty-gritty of environmental issues, and have never seen an urgent need to do so. Although I care about the logging of old growth forests, I don’t have the slightest interest in chaining myself to bulldozers to protest. Human rights violations like violence against women and children, racism and discrimination— that’s what gets me going. Not the environment.

But suddenly, with the news of the exploration license, I had to know if they really could mine our farm and what it would do to the land, and our lives. As an ex-legal academic, my first stop was the Department’s website. As I read through the Petroleum Onshore Act, I discovered that we can’t stop the government from granting an exploration license because we don’t own the minerals underground, but we can refuse access to our land. If we do that though, the company could force us to arbitration to see if an agreement could be reached. And if the arbitration failed, we could appeal to the Land and Environment Court. But there were no precedents, as this type of mining had only recently begun in NSW.

Two days later, together with more than a hundred locals, I turned up for a public meeting at the Drake Community Hall with its mudbricks and stained glass windows. Wartime honor rolls banged up against pictures of evaporation ponds and the post-mining wastelands of Pennsylvania and Queensland. Trestle tables were swamped with scones and photocopied reports from the Toxicology Network. The dreadlocked drummer Flame sat labeling little brown dropper bottles with the word “Focus.” Jo, a self-funded retiree in polyester trousers, strung up sheets of paper that listed the chemicals used in coal seam gas mining and their known health effects. A man sporting a pork pie hat and a fuzzy white beard sold yellow triangles with “Lock the Gate to Coal Seam Gas Mining” in bold black letters.d

In the audience, I recognized those farmers whose paddocks of canola and corn I often pass to get to our place, the guys I’ve met out fighting fires, the local steel fabricator turned sculptor, and our hippie neighbors. When I bent to pick up my dropped pen, I saw thongs and blackened toenails, muddy work boots, sensible shoes, sandals, and a single pair of high-heeled boots (ah, Shelley, the three-day-a-week mail contractor). Two Aboriginal women I’d met at the school told me one of the kids watched the DVD “about this mining” and said it was “scary.” They wanted to know more.

On a small television with poor sound we watched segments from current affairs programs about coal seam gas mining and saw images of the gas fields of Queensland. A man in shorts and sandals introduced himself as Ian, a carpenter from an area two hours away. He told us Arrow Energy was going to drill a well next door to his property. I felt a little ashamed of my ignorance—my determination to not have a television might need reviewing. Clearly, coal seam gas mining was very much here in Australia, and even in NSW. In fact the industry was growing so fast, governments were struggling to keep up.

Ian told us we could do things to stop this: write submissions opposing the application, and “Lock our Gates” to the unconventional gas mining companies so they didn’t come onto our land. The screen flashed the Margaret Mead quote, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of concerned citizens.”

The voices of concerned citizens pinged around the Drake Hall that night. An elderly woman said she was worried about what it would do to the native animals, “and the cod in the Clarence River, that’s a threatened species.”

A farmer in an akubra hat yelled out, “They won’t care about that. All they’ll care about is that this isn’t prime agricultural land.”

“But what about the river? It’s the biggest river in NSW; surely they won’t let that be contaminated?” said a bearded man with long grey hair. There was a smattering of applause.

Someone else was concerned about the narrow potholed roads and the single-lane bridge. “We don’t have the infrastructure for their trucks and pipes. And what about the tree plantations and the state forest?”

The captain of the fire brigade added, “What about that flaring they do with the gas, and all that methane? We don’t want another bushfire.”

Everyone nodded, everyone applauded. I squeezed Jen’s hand. In 2002, a bushfire had swept through the area. She’d lost everything.

As I sat on an orange plastic chair listening to my neighbors’ rage and concern, I thought about the statute and administrative structure, the conversations I’d had with Malcolm from the mining company, and the bureaucrat from the Department. The whole system seemed to be geared to granting mining companies licenses to explore and produce gas. The most the landholder got was compensation. I wondered whether we’d be able to do anything.

Our sparsely populated rural community leapt into action. Bev, the mosaic artist who told me she felt like Erin Brockovich, organized an information night at Tabulam Hall. Our phone ran hot. Emails with scientific reports flooded my inbox. None of the science made any sense to me until Geoff, a neighbor I barely knew, explained how the shaded blobs on the geological map were the coal seams—the layer of coal deposit that the mining company would drill into in order to release the gas. In some areas, where there weren’t coal seams or the coal seams were deep and impermeable, they’d need to fracture the rock to release the gas. Fracking involves pumping a mix of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals down the well. The geology of our area suggested the companies probably would want to mine here.

None of it seemed real to me. But I didn’t like what I heard, and certainly didn’t want it on the farm. Together with our new best friend Geoff we toiled over a submission. When I sent off the twenty-six-page document, I exhaled. I’d done my bit, and I’d had enough of all this environmental stuff. It wasn’t happening on our land yet, so like a good NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), I could forget about it once I sent off the submission. I wanted to go back to my life of helping Jen in the cattle yards and writing stories about people and relationships, not things like trees and water and air and wildlife. There was nothing more for me to do.

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Or so I thought, for a time, until I went to Casino’s Beef Week Parade, where I heard about the “Resource Reality Tour,” a kind of environmental Freedom Ride to raise awareness about mining in Queensland and to offer support to the locals enduring it.

Look, I’m all for a road trip—preferably with Jen in the driver seat, my bare feet up on the dash, thoughts cruising, tuneless singing, the eternal hope of a roadside eatery with checkered tablecloths and homemade bread—but I wasn’t keen on a middle-aged bus tour with flasks of tea. And did I, a person who likes my space, really want to spend two full days in a small bus with a pod of coal seam gas activists spouting rhetoric?

“We won’t know what it’s like unless we see for ourselves,” Jen said, as she headed out to saddle the horses. “How can you not care?”

“Of course I care,” I said. “What were those four weeks I just spent on that submission?”

She gave me one of those “I don’t understand you” looks and headed outside.

She never even got the chance to say she was going without me. I realized she was right. I knew I should eyeball this industry that might come to our backyard. I figured Michelle, the sassy woman in a cowboy hat who’d informed me about the tour, would probably tell us a good story. Mostly, I hate to miss an adventure.

So at six-thirty on a cold July Saturday morning saw Jen and I at the cavernous Brisbane Transit Centre with its Muzak and morning television. I asked a few people if they were waiting for the Resource Reality Tour. Finally, I found Emma, a nurse from Brisbane who’d heard about the tour on Facebook.

Seven o’clock came—the departure time listed in the email. There was no sign of the bus but our numbers had swelled to four. Mohammad, a tall, lean young man who had overheard our conversation with Emma, was a PhD student from Norway researching community participation in decision-making. He was quick to tell us he wasn’t an activist and that he thought activists are anti-development and against progress.

Eventually we squeezed into the remaining seats of a twelve-seater bus. Annette, the organizer with a nervous laugh, told me, “It makes it much more ‘real’ when those who are living with it show and tell people.”

I sat beside Lesley, a fit, grey-haired British ex-pat. As she poured herself a cup of milky coffee, she explained she’d come on the trip because “this is something you can do something about. It’s not like wars.” Behind me, a woman with a lilting Irish accent said, “I thought gas was clean until I looked into it because they’re going to frack our little county back home.” In front of me was Anne, proudly seventy-four, a farmer’s wife who used to vote for the conservative National Party; she wore stylish leather boots and regularly touched up her lipstick. “CSG has changed my life,” Anne said. “Now I go to demonstrations, I talk to reporters, and last week I was in the Lismore production Coal Seam Gas The Musical. Did you see me?”

Squeezed into the very back corner was a woman with a long plait and deep black eyes who passed around almonds and goji berries. She didn’t know much about CSG but she needed to get out and meet people. And in the driver’s seat was Michelle, whom we’d met at the Beef Week Parade and described herself as a “foot-stomping, head-bashing woman who hates CSG and what it’s doing to the agricultural industry and tourism. And that’s without considering what it’ll do to the water.”

Two men and ten women, most over forty, who all seemed to know so much about coal seam gas mining. I fished out my pencil and notepad.

I listened as people talked about the millions of gallons of water pumped at high pressure into the rock to release the gas, and the poisonous chemicals in that water like ethylene glycol, glutaraldehyde, and fumaric acid 2-butoxyethanol. How the Australian Petroleum Association claims the chemicals cause minimum risks, even though there have been no studies of populations exposed to fracking. How gas and fracking fluids creep up through cracks after the fracking. How it produces huge quantities of wastewater containing salt, which they don’t know how to dispose of. How mining sucks dry the water table and saps aquifers and rivers. How chemicals used in drilling can migrate to the bores of groundwater users. How the CSIRO and the National Water Commission have said they don’t know what the long-term impacts of CSG drilling will be on groundwater and farmland. How volatile organic compounds released during drilling contaminate the air. How there are risks associated with the flaring of wells. How a federal senate inquiry suggested there are many unanswered questions. Everyone seemed so informed and articulate. I scribbled down what they said, my mind doggy-paddling around facts I’d heard and read before, but still struggled to retain.

Before long, my attention strayed from the cavalry of comments to the paddocks of broccoli with rich dark green leaves, millet and peas, and fluorescent green winter oats. In the distance, horses grazed, and a red tractor ploughed a paddock of dark soil. Michelle pointed out the old federation barn where she got married, the little town where her brother was posted for his first teaching job. I craned my neck to catch her landmarks. I was thinking how fat and happy the cattle looked compared to our herd. This was such good, fertile country compared to our rocky little block.

And then on the outskirts of a small town, I saw the first sign of the mining industry: a billboard featuring a smiling man in a miner’s hat and the caption “Careers are built here.” When we passed sheds the size of airport hangars and Olympian car parks jammed with white pickups, Michelle said, “Training school for drill pigs.” I wondered what the “drill pigs” called themselves.

Our white bus was following a line of white cars, white SUVs, white utilities and large trucks carrying pipes–all mining vehicles. Now the roadside paddocks alternated: plastic-wrapped bales and irrigators, then piles of black coal, then paddocks of bobbly white cotton, then a plant with towering funnels and drills and pipes and wheels and valves. That, I was told, is a gas-fired power station. And what was the next field of steel with pipes and machinery painted in the primary colors of playground equipment? A compressor station to liquefy and compress the gas.

The only consistent feature as we drove through this landscape was the crop of warning signs.

“Those warning signs,” Michelle said. “That’s where the pipes are buried. And guess what? In fifty years, the companies will be long gone, but the methane will still be there, in those pipes.”

The bus was quiet except for a rattle.

At an old timber country hall in Western Queensland, there were firm handshakes all round. Joe had the logo of his cattle brand tucked into the brim of his Akubra, and around his neck he pulled out a medal on a red ribbon to show us the inscription: “Cranky Old Bastard.”

“One of the ladies decided to give me a medal,” he said. “And one for me mate. He got ‘Whingeing Old Bastard.’”

Robyn. (Photos courtesy Hailey Katzen)
Robyn. (Photos courtesy Hailey Katzen)

In the kitchen, Robyn, a tall graceful woman in an apron embroidered with the hall’s logo, lifted the padded tea cosy and poured me a cup of strong black tea. I asked if she had gas wells on her property.

“No, but we’ve got the coal mine next door,” she said.

Robyn told me her husband can’t sleep because of the noise. They’ll go to bed and moments later he throws back the covers; he gets up and paces up and down beside the windows, raging against the mine. All night they hear the groaning and shunting and cranking of the motors and trucks and dozers. It’s not just the coal mine either. Her husband’s been battling a gas company for compensation. For three years they couldn’t use a local paddock after a salt spill on a neighboring property contaminated the soil and creek water. The spill took place when the gas company buried the plastic liner from an evaporation pond.

She told me her husband was a good man, a good husband and father; he’s never been cranky like this. But since the mine and the salt spill, he’s always fighting—with the mining companies, and with some of the neighbours who “sell out” to them.

“We’ve worked hard to get our cattle stud going,” she said. “Not that I’m complaining. It’s been a good life here. It’s a good community.” Her smoky blue eyes fill with tears. “But I don’t know now, since the hall committee accepted money from the mining company.”

Robyn paused. I wondered if it was her husband who was awarded the “Whingeing Old Bastard” medal.

“One night he brought us down for the annual dance,” she said. “The girls were all dressed up; they looked so pretty. But he just sat out there in the ute with his mate, drinking beers.” Tears trickled down her cheeks. “He wouldn’t come in. Wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

We stood together with our backs to the room. I was surprised by this matter-of-fact country woman’s tears. She dabbed at her cheeks with the corner of her apron.

“Probably seems like nothing,” she said, and forced a laugh. “But he’s powerless against all the companies; we all are. I don’t blame him. The noise, the salt spill, always on the phone to the companies, all these papers to read, letters to write. It’s a full–time job on top of the farming.” She looked out the window at the men, some clustered around the barbecue, others over near their utes. “All this mining,” she said. “It’s bad for the family, and for the community. It divides us.”

I couldn’t shake the image of Robyn’s tearful blue eyes. As we drove around the area seeing how native bush was being destroyed to make way for the pipelines—one for each gas company—her story clung to me.

Celia.
Celia.

The next morning we drove to Celia’s farm to see what a pipeline looked like. Celia, who, like many of the people interviewed for this story, did not want her last names used, is a wiry, tanned woman, dressed in faded blue jeans and scuffed work boots. She stood legs astride, hands shoved deep into the pockets of her red fleecy vest. She is a mother and a grandmother, and a cattle, sheep and crop farmer. She’s the archetypal “Aussie battler” who’s done it tough on the land, but persisted through drought and flood and interest rate hikes.

A gas company has been building a pipeline across her property. It was meant to take three months to build and bury; it has taken ten months and is still not finished. During that time, wild dogs began to use the cleared pathway as their highway. 127 sheep had been killed by dingos.

It made it hard to muster and move sheep. The sheep slipped under the pipeline, but she couldn’t—she had to go around—and by then she’d lost the mob.

“You’re travelling a kilometer to do a 100-yard-job,” she told me. “Used to take me an hour to muster my sheep, now it takes me three days.”

She can’t plan because the company won’t give her a date when they’ll be finished. So she’d lost a summer and winter crop already and it looked like she’d lose the next crop too. “A farm doesn’t work on a three-month cycle,” she said. “You plan two to three years ahead.”

Her complaint was that the companies didn’t consider the farmer’s operation. “It’s all about them. Your place is not your own. It’s like share farming.”

She nodded as her neighbor Joe, with the “Cranky Old Bastard” medallion, said, “They tell us gas is compatible with farming but it’s as compatible as a high-class restaurant in the same room as a dog grooming business.”

As Celia swung her leg over her quad bike, her Kelpie cross dog leapt up onto the tray behind her and we followed her to what used to be her all-weather access road. Now it was a mucky watercourse with blue metal dust and gravel dumped over the wettest area.

“They destructed my all-weather road,” she said. “So in the flood I was stranded for two days.”

She stared at the muddy ground and in a low voice said, “I used to get nice clean water coming, now it’s filthy. They change the way the water goes. The Environmental Assessment, that’s written by them, for them. Nowhere do they mention livestock or people.”

And compensation?

She shook her head. “My expenses won’t stop until this is under the ground. As if they’re going to pay for the lost animals and time and crops. How do you put a price on half this stuff? My advice is: Do not let them onto your farming country. No way are they going to realistically compensate you for what you lost.”

And rehabilitation?

She laughed. “Once they bury it, nothing’s going to grow there, not with this kind of soil. The dirt they pile onto the pipeline’s going to sink and then the stock’ll get bogged in the cavities. Next thing Animal Cruelty will be after me—if the banks don’t get me first. Either way the place isn’t going to be worth what it used to be.”

As we drove away from Celia’s farm, no one spoke. I wondered if she’d wind up losing her farm to legal bills and bank foreclosure. Driving into the area of Tara, we saw the creep of steel, swarms of mining vehicles, drill pad after drill pad, compression stations and production plants. The gas fields.

Through a gate with a yellow “Lock the Gate” triangle sign, we drove up to a hand-built home with solar panels and a small mob of kangaroos watching from a stand of ghost gum trees. This was where the Lock the Gate movement began.

Debbie.
Debbie.

I meet Debbie beside an open fire where a kettle boiled. She was a woman somewhere in her late thirties with freckles and red hair, six months pregnant with her sixth child. She and her husband and kids have lived on their block in the Tara Residential Estate for eleven years. “We bought here for the kids. It was untouched cypress country in its natural state with all the birds and trees and wildlife.”

In the shade of the shed, I leaned over a topographical map showing the Tara Estates, an area of 135,000 acres with blocks ranging in size from 250 to thirty acres. Debbie traced her finger over her block and then the first well where they’d drilled for gas, one kilometer from her house. All the little balloons on the map indicated wells—there were eleven within three kilometers.

She told me her family uses rainwater and she’s had burns on her hands after doing the family washing in the twin tub machine. “Whenever they’d be working we’d get that rotten egg smell, like sulphur, and the kids’d get burning and irritated eyes.” When they drilled the first well in 2005, her ten-year-old son started getting headaches and nose bleeds. They’d miraculously clear up when she sent him down to stay with her mother in Newcastle.

“He takes Mersyndol when it’s really bad,” she said. “And then a few years ago he got asthma. But it only plays up when they’re drilling or when the air is really yuck.”

She told me it isn’t just her children whose health suffers. One day a week she works at Vinnie’s Opportunity Shop in town. “Every second person I talk to knows someone who’s sick. There are twenty-six families who are experiencing health impacts. There’s a little girl ten-years old, vomiting and nose bleeds. Brian’s grandson has had seizures of unknown cause and rashes. For many people, it’s because their bore water is contaminated.”

Last week Debbie saw an eight-week-old baby with dark circles under the eyes, holding its head and screaming continuously. “Then,” she said, “when they leave the area it’s a perfect child again. One lady had a breakdown—she went crazy when her kid got sick so she just left, just walked away. Didn’t even sell her property.”

“Look,” she said, “We moved up here to live a quiet life. I’m just a mum. But this is my children. It’s a situation where we don’t have an option. We have to deal with it. Not like we can go anywhere else. No one’s going to buy our property now.”

Debbie told me she wrote a letter to the local paper about her concerns about the mining. “Then the teacher at my kids’ school went on in class about ‘the feral blockie who wrote to the media.’ That’s what we get called—‘the feral blockies’—and then she went on at the kids about how mining is good for our community.”

She shook her head. “Some people still think the gas wells are good for the economy. Even with people having to move ‘cos they can’t afford the rents.”

Debbie complained about the teacher’s comments to the school principal, to the Department of Education and to the Education Minister, but they all left it to the school to handle. Eventually she moved the kids to another school— further distance, more expensive—but at least they’re happier.

Hesitantly she told me: “It’s a bit tricky for the kids. My boys work in town, they tell me, ‘Don’t talk about us in interviews, don’t say our names.’ Even when the girls will get on Facebook, if we’re doing a blockade, the town kids will say ‘feral blockies,’ and if it happens to rain they’ll write ‘hope youse all catch cold and drop dead.’ The kids just want to leave here.”

When I asked if she had used the legal avenues, she shook her head and said, “I’ve been to the government and its enforcement people and the Department of Health, but we can’t prove anything. It costs a fortune to do all the tests—and we don’t have that money. Queensland Health have collected data relating to symptoms, but have done no further investigation into the health issues. No medical testing. Nothing! They say we can’t prove that all the health impacts are related to coal seam gas.”

Jen and I barely spoke on the drive home from Queensland. The weight of what we’d seen hung over us, as if we’d just witnessed an apocalypse. But this wasn’t the stuff of movies. It was happening seven hours from where we live—and it was coming to a town near us soon.

And just like that, unconventional gas mining was no longer a NIMBY issue for me. I kept thinking about those three brave and embattled women: the wife, the farmer and the mother. They weren’t complainers; they were brave, tough country women. I wondered what I could do to help them. Should we buy Debbie an automatic washing machine? Encourage others to go see what was happening? Find pro bono lawyers? This had ceased to be some intangible environmental issue I couldn’t get my head around. This was about women as wives and mothers and income earners. This was a human rights issue—one I could no longer pretend didn’t exist. Oh, how underrated are the psychological benefits of NIMBYism—to focus on your own backyard is to contain your worries and concentrate on your personal priorities.

Fifteen months after that “Resource Reality Tour” to Queensland, the application for an exploration license over our farm hasn’t yet been granted. I fear that it’s just a matter of time. Apart from protecting horse studs and vineyards and banning gas wells within two kilometers of cities and towns, the New South Wales Government has given gas mining the green light. They’ve granted a company called Metgasco a production license to build a power station in nearby Casino and to drill for gas in the surrounding areas–which will also mean a pipeline at some stage. Although the power station project is currently on hold, the company’s C.E.O. keeps telling us the project will go ahead and that it will be good for Casino.

I don’t believe him. In Queensland I saw small towns with boarded-up family businesses, rents too high for local families, schools with noticeboards thanking mining company sponsors, Lions Club signs swinging off their hinges, and pubs selling expensive beer to DIDOs (Drive-in Drive-Out miners) while slot machines pinged and clattered.

So why has this mining company put its project on hold? They say they’re reconsidering because of changes in energy demands and electricity markets. My guess is it has more to do with the peaceful community movement against gas mining that’s mushrooming in this state – their lack of a ‘social license’. You see, many like me have now realized that writing letters to government won’t stop our region from looking like nearby Queensland, where maps are studded with thousands of balloons, each one a gas well. So we’ve locked our gates and roads to mining and declared ourselves a “gasfield free community.” We’ve painted banners and placards and joined thousands at rallies and marches, and we’ve sung peace songs as we’ve blockaded drill rigs despite the riot police hauling some of us off to custody.

And what’s happened for those three women since we met? Robyn and her husband are still fighting for compensation. During the recent dry period they had to battle a raging fire started by a welder’s spark on an easement near a gas mining site, and now a coal mining company is taking them to Land Court because they’ve refused its offer of purchase.

Celia was slowly finding ways to farm around the pipeline that, as expected, sank after it was buried. Her losses exceed $100,000 and the legal bills are rising. Then the drought hit and, although she’d never missed a mortgage payment, she had to go work away on another property to prove to the bank that she had sufficient cash flow. As she said, “This has taken me to rock bottom. I just want my life back.”

Debbie had her baby but she can’t take her outside if the wind’s blowing from the direction of the compressor station. The government won’t pay for any health testing but a private doctor tested a couple of people within the gas field area. Results for one of the children tested showed extremely high levels of hippuric acid, relating to toluene exposure, a chemical found to be one of the contaminates in recent air testing. When I looked it up on the National Pollutant Inventory, I found that exposure can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, and, in extreme cases, death. Long-term exposure at low levels has detrimental effects on the kidneys, causes problems with speech, vision and hearing, loss of muscle control, loss of memory and balance, and reduced scores on psychological tests.

The author, Hayley Katzen.
The author, Hayley Katzen.

Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I’d never gone on that “Resource Reality Tour” to Queensland. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen those women’s lives and farms, I’d have remained an apathetic NIMBY and been able to keep my “I’m not a greenie” mask pulled tight.

It’s not only the stories of those three women that have stayed with me, but also, ironically, the occupational health and safety reminder embroidered in white cotton on a miner’s high-visibility vest: “See something, say something, do something.”

* * *

Bailey Sharp is an all-round cartoonist currently living and studying in Australia.