John Court and Joe Woodward from the PAC heard a total of 17 speakers during the four-hour-long public meeting in Helensburgh on Monday. The meeting followed a weekend rally attended by over 3000 local residents.
The speakers included representatives from Rivers SOS, Darkes Forest Resident Group, Wollongong City Council, Stop CSG Illawarra, St Georges River Environmental Alliance and Otford Protection Society.
Court stressed that the day was an important step in the approvals process, and assured residents the PAC would be considering "public interest" when it makes its final decision on the borehole which lies in a Sydney Catchment Authority Special Area.
However at one point during the meeting, he also noted that legal restrictions placed on the PAC may influence the decision too. "We’ve been appointed as decision makers, but we have to make our decisions within the legislative framework," he said. "We’ve heard what you’ve said today, and I’m sure you’re aware in making submissions that there are limits to what we can do. We have some restrictions on our powers — they’re legal restrictions."
The proposal to drill another borehole was referred to the PAC by the Department of Planning and Infrastructure due to the high number of public submissions it received. The PAC is independent of government, however its members are appointed by the NSW Minister of Planning.
Karen Dinsdale from the Darkes Forest Resident Group was the first to speak at the meeting. She says she hopes the PAC heard the community’s concerns.
"I’m hopeful that they are independent… and listen to logic. This should not be approved, there are so many different reasons — it’s not just one, it’s many," she said.
Dinsdale was one of many speakers who criticised the Department of Planning for its actions leading up to the recommendation of approval.
"We actually did go to [the]Department of Planning after begging for a meeting. We were told we would be given advice before their assessment," she said. "To date we’re still waiting, and obviously then we found out it had been approved and passed onto PAC for the final assessment."
Wollongong City Councillor Greg Petty was scathing in his criticism of the Department of Planning. He said the Department may face legal action from residents over its handling of the issue.
"The Department of Planning has placed itself on an inevitable collision course with residents for legal action. I know these legal liability discussions are to start with the Environmental Defender’s Office tomorrow," he said. "The conflict is the Department of Planning assessing a document that has proven to have errors of fact".
The document referred to by Councillor Petty is Apex Energy’s Environmental Assessment for the additional borehole. It was found to have misquoted potential storm durations and frequencies in the area.
Natasha Watson from the Otford Protection Society told New Matilda that it will be difficult for the PAC to ignore the objections raised during the meeting. "All the evidence is there from a hell of a lot of people and different interests, that really show that we should not proceed with gas mining in our water catchment," she said.
The PAC is yet to meet with the Sydney Catchment Authority, but has already visited the site of the borehole with its assistance.
Geoscientist Dr Ann Young also spoke with New Matilda after her presentation to the PAC. She says there was a lack of public awareness on CSG when the original approvals were granted.
"I don’t think it probably would have gotten to this stage … if more of us had realised a couple of years ago that exploration licenses and exploration gas wells were done with no environmental assessment and no public process," she said. "This is not an exploration bore in the classic sense of a geological exploration well. This is an investigative borehole related to how a mine might develop, not whether a mine is feasible."
Sharyn Cullis from the St Georges River Environmental Alliance noted that Apex Energy’s project lies adjacent to the Dharawal State Forest, which Premier Barry O’Farrell recently announced will soon become a national park.
She says the 15 approved exploratory boreholes almost totally overlap with the concentrated density of ecologically important upland swamps.
"It’s just the most unfortunate coincidence that the area of Apex Energy’s gas field is that area of upland swamps that should be protected," she said. "Incidentally, a large number of those swamps — 2000 of them now — are set to become part of the new Dharawal National Park."
Court acknowledged the strong feelings in the community over the issue, and said both Apex Energy and those who made submissions would be able to appeal the Commission’s decision.
He could not say exactly when the decision would be made.
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