Cops Dismantle Community Gas Blockade


Residents of a rural residential community north of Newcastle are taking their battle against coal seam gas company Dart Energy to the Land and Environment court.

The prospective coal seam gas site is located on a cattle grazing paddock in the middle of a closely-settled community about 20 minutes’ drive from Newcastle.

The drilling site is located a few hundred metres from internationally recognised Ramsar listed wetlands, and it borders the Tomago Sandbeds that supply drinking water to about 20 per cent of the lower Hunter.

Just over two weeks ago Dart Energy commenced work preparing the site on Fullerton Cove Road to drill two coal seam gas wells.

In response, the local community established a peaceful protest blockade at the gates of the site to stop any further work by Dart Energy.

The blockade was visited by nine local council candidates, and many local businesses offered their support. The local fruit shop, three local butchers, the bakery, a nearby service station, a local Dominos pizza outlet, and two independent supermarkets were among those who donated to the community blockade.

The blockade was dismantled after nine days on Tuesday by police at the request of Dart Energy. Two local women locked-on to a tractor that was blocking access to the site’s gates were cut off by police rescue, arrested, and charged with obstruction. They will appear before Raymond Terrace court next month.

A number of people were issued with fines for refusing to leave the blockade. NSW Greens Environment spokesperson Cate Faehrmann, Newcastle Greens Lord Mayoral candidate John Sutton, and a local 95-year-old great grandmother Linda Reynolds were among those issued infringement notices.

Reynolds told the police officer she would frame her infringement notice. "I thought the police were here to protect us," she said.

95 year-old Linda issued an infringement notice by police. Photo by Kate Ausburn/Lock The Gate

The residents of Fullerton Cove believe there are grounds to challenge the NSW government’s approval of Dart Energy’s coal seam gas pilot drilling project. The Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group is working with the Environmental Defenders Office on the case.

The residents’ group wrote to Dart Energy requesting it voluntarily stop work pending the outcome of a legal challenge. The company refused, and the community is now seeking an urgent injunction from the Land and Environment court to have Dart Energy’s work put on hold until the case against its state government approval can be heard by the court.

Lindsay Clout is a local resident and small business owner. He has also been one of two resident representatives appointed to a formal mediated consultation group established by Dart Energy as part of their community engagement strategy for Fullerton Cove.

Clout said that residents did not take the blockade and legal challenge lightly. He said the community have been actively communicating their concerns to Dart Energy and the state government for over a year.

One of the local community’s key concerns is groundwater. "We have consistently sought a guarantee from Dart that our water source will be safe but neither Dart nor the government can provide one," Clout said.

As part of the state government approval process for coal seam gas exploration, companies are required to submit a Review of Environment Factors (REF) to outline potential impact of a project on the surrounding environment. Dart’s REF (pdf, p. 66) for Fullerton Cove states that potential impacts to local hydrology include cross contamination of water tables and aquifers when drilling, and contamination of surface and groundwater sources.

"The drilling operations will intersect the areas underlying aquifers. Therefore there is the potential to cross contaminate groundwater and the underlying aquifers such as the Tomaree or Stockton Aquifer through the mixing of aquifer water sources, water tables and or trapped gases in different geological levels," the REF says.

A number of methods to mitigate and manage these impacts are outlined in the REF, including installation of groundwater monitoring wells.

While the both Dart Energy and the state government concluded that these risks are not significant, the residents of Fullerton Cove are seeking stronger assurance. The community is calling for Dart Energy to undertake the more rigorous Environment Impact Statement process, including a formal public exhibition period. (pdf, p. 2)

Last week while residents were blockading the Fullerton Cove site, NSW Energy and Resources Minister Chris Hartcher spoke out against the community protest. "If and when Dart seek to access the site they should be free to do so, and I expect Police to uphold Dart’s valid and lawful consent by enabling access," he said.

Justin Hamilton is the other local resident who has been part of Dart Energy’s formal community consultation meetings. He spoke with Alan Jones on 2GB earlier this week about how disappointed the local community is with the government’s response to the concerns of Fullerton Cove residents.

Hamilton told Jones the local residents’ group had written to all local members as well as to Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, State Environment Minister Robyn Parker, State Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but they have had little response.

"As Joe Average it astounds me to think that we must be the ones to protect ourselves, as we clearly cannot wait to be represented by our elected officials. It comes down to our mothers and grandmothers needing to chain themselves to tractors to get any reaction from government," Hamilton said in a letter to Jones.

Clout said that the Fullerton Cove community blockade had offered the NSW Premier and choice between siding with community or a gas drilling company. "Barry O’Farrell made his allegiance very clear. He sent in the Riot Police to assert Dart Energy’s agenda over the clear will of the community."

The community vows to continue its battle against Dart Energy’s coal seam gas drilling. The "Lock the Gate" placards and hand written banners remain on fence posts right along Fullerton Cove Road, and the legal case will soon come before the Land and Environment Court.

"Dart Energy do not have a social licence to operate at Fullerton Cove," said Clout.

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