Greens and farmers fight mining land grab

The Australian - Heather Brown - 28.5.2011

THE next time you hear the words two-speed economy, think two-speed morality instead.

On one hand, the Australian mining industry is booming, and politicians and mining executives keep telling us how lucky we are. Then there’s the rest of Australia, and it’s struggling. The bush is doing it tough and there is a rising tide of anger beginning to sweep across the nation.
Rural Australia is rapidly being crucified for the benefit of the mining boom, a tsunami-like force so destructive of scant water resources and delicate farmland, that recovery will be impossible.

The environmental argument is brutal: coalmining moves into fertile farmland and leaves a slag heap behind, while coal seam gas extraction pollutes and poisons the underground water system, the most important natural resource in the world’s most arid nation. Broadcaster Alan Jones — who can read the public mood better than most — admits to being completely shocked by the destructive impact of mining on farmland. He described the public mood as “a volcano”.

Governments — state and federal — have operated under a covert two-speed morality for years and have two separate laws in place. The first insists that the landholder promote the sustainable use of natural resources, while the other allows CSG and coal companies to damage and obliterate natural resources without proper governance or penalty.

There are three things that make up rural Australia: the land, the water and the people. In rich farming regions such as the Darling Downs and the Liverpool Plains, a staggering 90 per cent of the land is estimated to be under some form of mining permit. In other words, if the miners are not coming to your farm or community, then they are coming to the one next door.

Water is the next vital component that makes up the bush, which is why the present scenario is so frightening. Coalminers and the CSG industry have demanded that compliant governments give them the right to extract water from the delicate Great Artesian Basin in Queensland as well as aquifers in NSW. This is the same fragile old water system rural Australians have lived with since the early days of settlement.
The CSG industry is further risking the demise of safe water systems with fracking, a process of fracturing underground aquifers by blasting 600 dangerous chemicals down to release methane gas; and there are other deadly chemicals used such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde.

Mariann Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network, a member of the federal chemical regulatory National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, says 21 out of 23 chemicals used in fracking have not been assessed for use in this country.

Experts are predicting fracking will cause massive water losses right across the artesian basin. The truth is that nobody really has any accurate idea about the relationships between the ancient, mysterious labyrinths that make up the underground aquifers. Only time will tell, which is part of the whole looming tragedy.

The final and most significant part of rural Australia are the people and, between Julia Gillard and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, farmers face openly hostile governments that have carefully legislated to ensure that prime farmland, and any export riches that lie beneath, is handed to the mining industry on a platter, so governments can continue to feed their unquenchable thirst for royalty dollars.

As far as farmers are concerned, one of the most offensive aspects are the legislative changes to land ownership that now effectively remove the farmers’ rights over their own land. After a farmer receives a letter from the CSG company advising it wants access to their land, they have 40 days to negotiate the terms with it. If, after that, there is still no agreement, the company can take the farmer to the Land Court. As soon as it goes to court — and before any judgment has been made — the CSG company has the right to enter the farmer’s land.

If the CSG industry represents a $100 billion bonanza for governments and multinational mining companies, it also represents a looming apocalypse for food-producing farmers and environmentalists. It will be the flashpoint for the fiercest environmental battle that Australia has seen.
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