THE threat of huge fines did not stop anti-coal seam gas campaigners from defying exclusion orders and carrying out their own inspections of Santos’ operations in the Pilliga on the weekend.
To conclude a busy weekend of protest activity, resulting in seven arrests, more than 60 people on Sunday entered areas of the state forest closed by Forestry Corporation last week to visit the drilling sites.
Acting on a request from NSW Police citing “public safety” concerns, Forestry Corporation ordered the closure of forests housing Santos’ coal seam gas project and Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek contentious coalmine.
While both NSW Police and Forestry Corporation maintain there was no pressure applied by mining companies to act, protesters regard the move as a cynical ploy to suppress debate and reduce scrutiny on the projects.
Sunday’s walk-on came as concerned locals, including many farmers, expressed no confidence in either Santos or government regulators to monitor the operation, given private residents were behind exposing two major contamination events.
“The Pilliga State Forest is public land that should be open to all people, not locked up for the private use of Santos and their controversial coal seam gas project,” Wee Waa farmer Sarah Ciesiolka said.
“If they have nothing to hide and it’s all as squeaky-clean as they say, why is it necessary to close the forest to prevent people accessing it?”
Many of the participants were among about 500 people who attended the Party for the Pilliga event on Saturday, featuring award-winning musician Ash Grunwald, hosted by Aussies Against Fracking, The Wildnerness Society and Pilliga Pottery.
Earlier in the day, six north-west farmers aged between 26 and 71 – Neil Kennedy, Robert Thomas, James Nalder, Josh Borowski, Charles Buchanan and Ken Waterford – locked themselves onto drilling machinery and trucks.
Mr Kennedy, a Coonamble farmer, said he took the action because he believed coal seam gas fields would “ultimately destroy the Great Artesian Basin”, rendering the area a wasteland.
“The National Party totally let us down on coal seam gas, they have betrayed us,” he said. “I can’t believe their short-sightedness in putting our water at risk.”
In a separate action at Bellata on Saturday, 64-year-old business analyst Simon Pockley locked himself under a truck carrying a coal seam gas rig bound for the Pilliga.
“We know Santos coal seam gas activities have already contaminated an aquifer with uranium and led to polluting surface spills, all from just a handful of gas wells,” he said.
“We are not going to sit by while they plan 850 gas wells across our region.”