'Digging at our conscience' -- The courage to seek justice in mining projects

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Digging At Our Conscience, published in March 2016, by Future We Need, an inter-congregational Irish group

This article appears in the Mining feature series. View the full series.
Activists against coal seam gas mining: Drew Hutton of Lock the Gate, with Shay Dougall of the Western Downs and Wider Unconventional Gas Group, and Lee McNicholl, a farmer in Australia. (Karen Auty)

Chinchilla, Queensland, Australia — A sad and sombre air surrounded the group when Sr. Aine O'Connor and I walked into the home of Shay Dougall in Hopeland near Chinchilla, Queensland, Australia last October. Shay, a very active member of the grassroots, anti-coal seam gas campaign known as the Western Downs and Wider Unconventional Gas Group (WDWUGG) was hosting us.

Both Aine and I work with Mercy International Association-Global Action that links the Mercy Family worldwide. Our visit to Chinchilla was arranged by Sr. Deirdre Gardner and Dr. Mark Copeland, Executive Officer of the Social Justice Commission, Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba.

Upon our arrival in Brisbane, we were told that George Bender, a founding member of the Western Downs group, who was loved and highly respected in the area, had taken his own life the previous week. George, a prize-winning farmer of cotton, wheat and pigs, had battled for 10 years to keep the coal seam gas mining companies and the negative impacts of unconventional coal seam gas mining off his beloved farm, which had been in the Bender family for generations.

Coal seam gas is a mixture of gases, mostly made up of methane (about 95 percent) that is extracted from coal seams at depths of 300 to 1,000 meters (900 to 3,300 feet). The remaining 5 percent is a mix of gases including the toxic chemical compound known as BTEX (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylenes). Constant exposure to it can have detrimental effects on the skin and central nervous, respiratory, liver and kidney systems. Unconventional coal seam gas mining involves thousands of gas wells, pipelines, wastewater dams and other infrastructure spread across thousands of hectares of land.

Facilitating the release of coal seam gas necessitates de-pressurising the coal seam by pumping the water out of it. As the water decreases, the gases flow freely to the well heads, but they can also flow wherever there is a conduit; for example, into stock bores in the aquifer, into rivers through fault lines and into the atmosphere. According to Lock the Gate Alliance, an Australian national grassroots organization, the wastewater is salty and can contain toxic and radioactive compounds. It is stored in tanks or holding ponds at coal seam gas sites before being trucked or piped to treatment facilities, raising serious concerns about evaporation.

We left Shay's house for a tour of the gas wells around Chinchilla and Hopeland. Shay brought along a gas monitor to measure leakage. Measurements taken at the high point vents of some of the gas well infrastructures registered around 80 percent by volume methane, indicating a significant leakage. Shay told us that sometimes it was possible to light a match and cause a gas flare, due to the mix of leaking gases. We noticed a distinctively strong smell near most of the wells.

After speaking with families who are living close to some of the wells we visited, I felt distressed. They told us that their children had many of the ailments Dr. Geralyn McCarron had noted in her 2013 report — like bleeding noses and migraines on a regular basis.

George Bender was a prize-winning farmer of cotton, wheat and pigs who had battled for 10 years to keep the coal seam gas mining companies and the negative impacts of unconventional coal seam gas mining off his farm. (Karen Auty)

That evening we gathered in the Chinchilla community hall, with George's family, his friends and fellow campaigners for a meeting. We learned that George had been approached by the Origin Energy mining company not long before he died. The company wanted to buy one of his Hopeland farming properties, Chinta, so they could sink coal seam gas wells on his productive, fertile farming land.

George's daughter Helen and his son Brian spoke to the local and national media who were present, about the pressure her father had experienced when he refused to let the coal seam gas companies sink wells on his land. Speaking calmly, yet with passion, Helen described the sense of isolation her dad and all the local farmers who were resisting the mining companies' advances are experiencing, almost on a daily basis.

Energy giants including Origin and QGC Pty Limited (previously Queensland Gas Company QGC) had been mining coal seam gas on land not far from their family farm in south-east Queensland for over a decade. Underground coal gasification was also allowed to be established not far from his family property. This had caused pollution of the water on his farm, the death of some of his prized livestock and a gradual destruction of the land George and his family had farmed for decades. Helen said her dad was also greatly pained by the fact that the once united farming community was now divided, because of the way the gas companies behaved.

"No-one told Dad there were going to be vents that emit methane straight into the atmosphere, nor that there would be drains that would continuously leak salty brine water all over the land," Helen stated. And then in a quiet voice Helen said her father was aware that the negative impact on his livestock and crops was increasing. He had recently found that one of his stock and domestic water bores had a significant drop in water level and was blowing gas, even though there were no gas wells on his land. Pam, George's wife, told me that this had proven to be the last straw for her husband.

Helen called on the Queensland State and the Federal Government, to address the issue of coal seam gas mining as an urgent priority.

The law in Queensland stipulates that the government owns minerals or any substance which occurs naturally as part of the Earth's crust. This means that the mining companies receive the rights directly from the government for their mining activities below the surface of a private holding, often with no reference to the landowner. The effect of this process can be devastating: Farmers can be farming the land above a labyrinth of pipes containing a dangerous, toxic mix of chemicals! This is why Western Downs and Wider Unconventional Gas Group, Lock the Gate, and other groups are working tirelessly to ensure the rights of the individual and communities are respected vis-a-vis the rights of mining companies. The struggle of the farmers to obtain their rights is playing out as a contemporary David and Goliath reality!

After hearing all this and witnessing the courage of the Bender family to continue George's fight for justice, I resolved to do whatever I could to raise awareness and challenge officials at every level, to evoke a change in the law.

We met again the next morning with members of the Western Downs and Lock the Gate groups to strategize about the way forward and to develop a plan of action. The idea of organizing a mini-People's Tribunal, patterned after the Permanent People's Tribunal was discussed. These tribunals are a valuable means of raising awareness of those suffering injustice at the hands of governments, corporations and companies. The tribunal in Queensland would raise awareness about the injustices related to unconventional coal seam gas mining and is being arranged by Western Downs group and the Australian Environment Law Alliance. It is scheduled for November 2016, and the findings would feed into the scheduled 2017 Permanent Peoples' Tribunal Session on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking being held in the United Kingdom and the USA

It was agreed that the report from the Queensland tribunal could also be a valuable attachment to an invitation to John Knox, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, to visit Queensland.

Following up on our commitment to work with the Western Downs group members, Sr. Aine O'Connor through Mercy at the United Nations, with NGO Mining Working Group colleagues, in conjunction with the Chinchilla community, prepared oral interventions that were delivered on March 3 and March 17 during the 31st session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, in Geneva.

Some of the above-ground machinery for an unconventional coal seam gas well. (Karen Auty)

Challenges like those facing the Western Downs communities, were in the forefront of our minds when the Future We Need, an inter-congregational Irish group I'm a member of, committed to publishing a mining activism toolkit: Digging At Our Conscience. Published in March 2016, it highlights through a series of case studies some of the issues local communities face when dealing with mining companies.

The case studies demonstrate that when faced with what appears to be insurmountable challenges of injustice, faith-based and non-governmental organizations, who network with civil society, can assist in achieving positive outcomes. Australia was included as a case study with a story that reflects a similar experience to the Bender family and their neighbors: Tammy moved to Toowoomba to get away from a busy city lifestyle, only to discover that her home was surrounded by gas wells.

Digging At Our Conscience is most importantly a call to action! Each reader is invited to make changes to her/his lifestyle, so as to become a more responsible, global citizen. Suggestions are included, as well as other ideas like changing lifestyles to incorporate the "circular economy" that mirrors nature — where nothing gets wasted.

After spending time with the great people of Chinchilla and Hopeland, I believe that it's possible to arrive at a lasting and just solution to the challenges they and others like them are facing. Globally, it all dovetails into the increasing awareness of the fragility of Mother Earth and the responsibility of each of us to tread more lightly, so that her finite resources may be shared by all, in a just and sustainable manner.

Significant steps were taken towards this in September 2015, with the unanimous confirmation of the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This was followed in December with the signing of the U.N. Paris Climate Agreement by close to 200 heads of government, pledging to work together, to reduce global warming and ensure the survival of our planet.

Pope Francis who is working tirelessly to support these initiatives, when declaring 2016 as the Year of Mercy, called us to heed "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor." Francis spelled out the 'how' in his ground-breaking encyclical on the environment Laudato Si', published in June 2015:

Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society. (91)

[Denise Boyle, FMDM, is an Irish Franciscan sister who has been the director of the Global Action Programme of Mercy International Association, in Dublin, Ireland since June 2013. Prior to that, she ministered in Australia, Zimbabwe and with Franciscans International in Geneva, Switzerland. She moved full time into education in human rights and advocacy, focusing on the rights of women and children in 1992.]