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COMMUNITY and environmental groups, farmers and some politicians say the NSW government has fallen short of safeguarding North West agricultural land with its new coal seam gas protection measures and may not be enough to prevent federal intervention.
Agricultural areas were not included in the government’s “hands off” protection policy announced yesterday which will see two-kilometre exclusion zones attached to all future coal seam gas activities adjacent to residential areas and certain industries, including vineyards and horse studs.
The change in policy announced by Premier Barry O’Farrell, whose government had previously declared it had the most stringent safeguards in place in the country, was, it says, in response to community concerns.
Mr O’Farrell said the government had listened to community concerns and “fine-tuned” its land use policy, which was first announced in September.
“These actions clearly place public health and safety at the heart of all coal seam gas activities,” Mr O’Farrell said.
Independent member for New England Tony Windsor, who pushed the federal government to intervene, questioned why exclusion zones applied to urban areas with more than 1000 residents but not to farmers or rural-residential areas.
“This announcement is designed to appease horse breeders and wine makers in the Hunter Valley and residents of western Sydney, but it does nothing for farmers,” Mr Windsor said.
“People who live in a Liverpool Plains farmhouse with five kids should be worried.”
Mr Windsor has been pushing for greater federal intervention in the state-based coal seam gas approval process and said he would maintain that push, after NSW ignored the independent science.
“The only way to ensure our water resources are protected for future generations is to have the commonwealth intervene under the powers of the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act,” he said.
“I know the commonwealth is looking seriously at this.”
David Quince, a farmer and chairman of the Mullaley Gas Pipeline Accord, said there was nothing in the amended policy for the North West.
Last weekend the Mullaley community declared itself coal seam gas free, after a community survey found 98.5 per cent of the more than 200 residents of the district declared they were opposed to coal seam gas mining.
“If Barry O’Farrell is telling us that coal seam gas mining is not safe, then it is not safe anywhere – not in Sydney and not in the Gunnedah Basin. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander,” Mr Quince said.
“As far as we can see, there is absolutely nothing in these changes for the North West.
“It looks to us as if the Liberal Party has taken action to look after its voters in Sydney for a political quick fix, but the National Party has hung us out to dry.”
Penny Blatchford, of the Bellata Gurley Action Group Against Gas, who was in Canberra last week pushing its message of agricultural and environmental concerns, said if coal seam gas was unsafe in Campbelltown, then it was unsafe everywhere.
“If coal seam gas is a risk to wine-growing and horse-breeding areas in the Hunter Valley, then it is a risk to our food and fibre-producing areas in the North West,” he said.
“Barry O’Farrell said that families in residential areas should not have to worry about their quality of life being affected by noise and visual impacts – but what about our families?
“Why should we be treated differently?”
The Lock The Gate Alliance said the government should put on hold the renewal of coal seam gas licences in the North West.
These include licences over Bellata, the Pilliga, Coonamble and the Liverpool Plains.
With the coal seam gas dispute intensifying as a federal election issue, Richard Torbay entered the debate, calling on the NSW government to halt all mining and coal seam gas activities on the Liverpool Plains.
He has effectively endorsed the stand taken by Tony Windsor, his political opponent in the September 14 poll.
While he sits in the NSW Parliament as the member for Northern Tablelands, Mr Torbay made the call as The Nationals’ endorsed candidate for the seat of New England, sending out a media release late yesterday under his campaign banner.
Mr Torbay has sought an assurance the government will extend its sanctions to permanently protect the rich blacksoil plains of the New England and its aquifers, which will put him at odds with members of his own party.
Mr Torbay said he was aware it would step on some state politicians’ toes but he had to be serious about the prime agricultural lands of the Liverpool Plains.
“Protecting our best agricultural land is essential and it makes sense to base decisions on rigorous scientific research,” he said.