Authors: Peter Ralph
Tags: #Fiction - Thriller, #Fiction - Environmental, #Fiction - Political, #General Fiction
Published by Melbourne Books
Level 9, 100 Collins Street,
Melbourne, VIC, 3000
Peter Ralph 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publishers.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
Dirty Fracking Business
Cover illustration: Ning Xue.
Most of us would like to think that Australia’s mines are situated in the deserts, on barren mountains or on infertile, useless land.
Fifteen months ago I read a paper by Dalby Lawyer, Peter Shannon, which basically said that Queensland landowners were virtually without rights if a coal seam gas miner, armed with an exploration licence, wanted to sink wells on their properties. I had to pinch myself when I read that farmers and graziers who had put years into developing their properties could be forced to let coal seam gas miners access their properties. It was then that I discovered that the landowners only owned the ‘above the surface’ part of their properties and that the crown, in Australia’s case the State, owned what was below the surface and this is what enabled exploration licences to be issued
. I was staggered by the inequity of this and thought and still think that it’s ‘un-Australian’.
I then started communicating with Debra Anderson, the producer/director of the superb US documentary, the aptly titled
Debra gave freely of her time and I bought her DVD so that I could learn more about land rights, which I did, but I learnt far more about the horrors of coal seam gas. Around this time,
was released at the Nova Cinema in Melbourne, and I was the total audience at the first showing. This documentary is a graphic portrayal of the damage that coal seam gas miners have wreaked in the USA. To further my knowledge I read Tara Meixsell’s detailed exposé,
which added to and reinforced what I had learnt from
I had visited the beautiful Hunter Valley in NSW many times and was shocked to find that coal seam gas mining was taking place there. After spending a little time on the Net I was lucky enough to find the CEO of The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, John Thomson, who has been an enormous help to me. I suggested to John that I visit him but he said, before doing so, I should go to the Darling Downs and meet Drew Hutton of
Lock the Gate
and Dayne Prazky, aka
As it turned out, I met John and Drew at a meeting of the Greens in Sydney to protest the granting of exploration licences in St Peters and the eastern suburbs of Sydney. I later travelled around the Darling Downs, in Queensland, with Drew, whose assistance was invaluable, looking at gas wells and meeting farmers. I interviewed Dayne Prazky at length and was amazed by some of his revelations. I then visited the Hunter Valley and saw the onset of the gas wells and spoke to a number of locals, including shopkeepers, who were unanimously opposed to coal seam gas.
This story is fictional and many of the events have not taken place in Australia, but similar events
occurred in the USA.
Land rights and the unfair treatment of landowners remains a huge issue in Australia, while the mining of coal seam gas puts at risk our air, water and food security. This issue transcends politics, and Greens, farmers and graziers, and those to the right, like Alan Jones, find themselves unlikely allies in the fight against coal seam gas.
It was a rainy, dark Friday. The solemn ringing of church bells echoed around the near-deserted streets of the small New South Wales country town of Paisley. Many of the townsfolk braved the bleak conditions to attend the funeral of Charles Willis Paxton Junior, who had succumbed to cancer before his seventh birthday. Those who could not be there stayed at home as a mark of respect.
Four pallbearers carried the tiny white coffin down the steps as white-haired Father Michael O’Rourke, stood ram-rod straight, consoling mourners as they left St Stephen’s Church. At the bottom of the steps, the organist, a plump, pleasant woman, was passing out long-stemmed red roses. A large, ruddy-faced man, eyes red with tears, hunched over in the manner of one far older, lurched from the chapel, supported by a petite, auburn-haired woman wearing a black hat and veil. Her mouth was drawn in a thin line as she fought to hold her composure. Father Michael took the man’s arm. ‘Charles, his suffering is over and he’s with God in heav…’
Charles Paxton momentarily straightened up and shoved the priest’s arm away with a huge, calloused hand. ‘Don’t talk to me about God, Father. If there were a God he would’ve never made poor little Charlie suffer in the way he did.’ Tears streamed down his anger-contorted face.
‘Now, now, Darling.’ Faye Paxton sniffled, squeezing her husband’s arm. ‘Father Michael is only trying to help. It’s not his fault.’
‘We all know whose fault it is and they’re going to pay in blood,’ he snarled, pulling away from her and stumbling down the slippery steps.
‘I know the pain you’re feeling, Faye, but God can help ease your burden. Please don’t forsake the church.’
‘I won’t, Father.’ She sobbed and hurried down the steps to catch up with her husband.
Paisley cemetery was at the southern end of town, perched on a grassy hill and surrounded by a small white picket fence. There were about two hundred graves and fresh flowers adorned many tombstones. Charlie would be buried in a plot next to his paternal grandparents and his dad’s brother, Uncle Joe, who had been killed in a tractor accident two years earlier. Charles Paxton had cursed God then, as he did again now and, being deeply religious, he wondered whether his cursing may have been responsible for Charlie’s death. He didn’t dwell on this thought for long - he knew who the guilty parties were.
Charles Paxton was the owner of a medium-sized dairy farm, where the family lived, and the largest privately owned vineyard and winery in the valley, which together employed many of the townsfolk. A third generation owner, he had worked tirelessly to improve the properties but, still childless as he approached his forties, he had despaired of ever having the son he so desperately wanted. He started to ponder the meaning of life and the sacrifices he was making and wondered what the point was if he had no-one to leave his legacy to. And then, after years of IVF, the terrible discomfort for Faye, the inconvenience, the travel and cost, she fell pregnant. Suddenly everything they had endured was made worthwhile. When a healthy little Charlie came into the world in the early hours of a perfect spring morning, all Charles’s prayers were answered. He was overjoyed.
Charlie had flaming red hair, freckles, the lightest of light blue eyes and a perpetual smile. He was a curious young kid who had to have his nose in everything. His father bought him a black German Shepherd pup, Cosmos, just after his second birthday and the two became inseparable, exploring the wonders of the family farm. By the time he was three he could swim and float well enough to save himself, and he could ride a horse, milk a cow and shout instructions at the Border Collies which kept the herds in check. He would follow his father around the farm, wearing cut-down overalls and oversized gumboots. Sometimes, when in a mischievous mood, he would chase the hens around the pen and the family would go without eggs for a few days. Unlike most toddlers, Charlie had never wanted or needed an afternoon sleep and he and Cosmos were on the run from dawn to dusk. Shortly after he turned four, this changed and he started taking afternoon naps. Charles and Faye thought this natural and paid little heed to it. As the year progressed, however, Charlie became more listless, his throat became sore, his nose ran incessantly and red welts appeared on his chest and back.
When their son’s symptoms showed no sign of improvement, they took him to the local doctor, George Bingham, expecting him to prescribe a tonic that would soon fix Charlie. They were surprised when the doctor was circumspect about what was ailing Charlie and became more concerned when he took blood samples and sent them to Sydney for analysis. Ten days later they received a phone call from Dr George asking them to come to his surgery, instantly knowing by his tone that the news wasn’t going to be good. What they had never anticipated was cancer and, when they plied the doctor with questions, he gently explained that he wasn’t qualified to answer them. He had, however, made urgent appointments for them with specialists and oncologists. For the next two weeks they trudged around Sydney, where Charlie was prodded and poked, had more blood tests, x-rays and numerous scans. When the tests were over the specialists delivered their dreadful verdict - Charlie had aggressive tumours attacking his kidneys and liver which had progressed to the extent that treatment was pointless. Charles, while shocked, was dismissive of the specialists’ advice; Faye clung to hope, the strength of her husband and her prayers.
Charles and Faye took Charlie to the best specialists in New York and, when that met without success, took him to Harley Street and, after that failed, to the quacks in Thailand and India. By the time they returned to Australia, Charlie’s condition had severely deteriorated and the cancer, radiotherapy, chemo, drugs and other concoctions had all but destroyed his immune system. Desperate, his father turned to the internet and the secret elixirs and powders that fast-buck merchants flogged as hope to those facing death. Charlie’s final months were a living hell, as he was forced to eat and drink potions extracted from frogs, powders made from diluted snake venom and other vile remedies concocted by heartless quacks. As the cancer devastated the last of his bodily functions he could not eat anything solid and the weight fell from his frail body. His eyes were sunken and his ribs protruded from his tiny body; this tore at the heartstrings of his doting parents. Finally there was no choice but to admit him to Paisley Memorial Hospital where, with tubes poking into every part of his body and with the aid of morphine and other drugs, his life was unnecessarily prolonged. Faye tenderly cleansed his transparent skin and weeping red welts. ‘I … I … I’m going to die aren’t I Mum?’ he rasped, his throat red raw.
Faye looked at her husband, unable to answer. ‘No,’ Charles lied, fighting back the tears. They were the last words they would hear little Charlie utter. Still praying for a miracle, Charles insisted that a bed be made up next to his son’s and he didn’t leave his side during the final sixteen gut-wrenching days. When Faye wasn’t at the hospital she was at St Stephens praying with Father Michael.
The rain went from drizzly to pouring during the burial. The hundred or so
black umbrellas that went up around Charlie’s grave reminded his father of an evil shroud, as blind hate replaced the feelings of loss and sorrow that had devastated him for the past three days. Father Michael sensed the anger emanating from the mourners and knew better than to draw the burial out with extended prayers. After a few kind and carefully considered words, he nodded to the undertaker and the coffin was lowered into the grave. After the internment the rain stopped and weak rays of sunlight fought their way through the clouds. The smell of incense hung in the air as mourners filed past the grave, dropping their roses on top of the casket.
Tom Morgan was a small self-made man who had made a fortune out of retailing, before buying a run-down stud on two hundred and fifty acres of prime land some thirty kilometres from Paisley, and restoring it to its former glory. He restocked it with some of the finest stallions from the northern hemisphere and now owned the largest stable of thoroughbreds in Australasia. Paxton had raced many horses, the best being the brilliant Cox Plate-winning mare, Gentle Lady, who was in foal to the mighty stallion, Achilles, at Morgan’s stud. The two friends agreed to race and own her progeny in partnership. Morgan was a hard man and some said that he was stingy and still had the first dollar that he’d made, but this was unfair as he generously supported many worthy charities. However, he always demanded complete anonymity - anxious not to be seen as a soft touch.
Charles and Faye Paxton were thanking and farewelling mourners as Morgan approached. His rapidly receding fair hair was soaked and water ran down his craggy face. ‘A black day my friends and I cannot adequately express my sorrow, but if there is anything I can do you need only ask.’ He placed one hand on Faye’s arm while with the other he reached up and grasped Charles’ shoulder.
‘They killed him Tom, as sure as if they’d shot him, and I’m going to make sure the bastards pay.’
‘I know they did Charles, but you’re not going to help anyone by taking the law into your own hands. We can bring these heartless mongrels down but we won’t do it by being violent. God, I know how you feel.’
‘You’re a good man and a good friend Tom, but don’t tell me you know how I feel. You haven’t just lost your only son - you haven’t just lost your best mate - you haven’t just lost the most fantastic little boy who was ever born.’ Paxton closed his eyes and ran his hands up his weather-beaten face past his bushy eyebrows and through his wet, dark brown hair.
‘I’m sorry Charles. What I said was inappropriate. Take care Faye and remember, if there’s anything I can do …’ Morgan sheepishly took his leave.
A tall, skinny, dark-haired, young man had been standing just behind the Paxtons and had heard every word of their exchange with Tom Morgan. Steve Forrest was a reporter with the
, the only reporter; he was also the editor, accountant, distribution manager and the son of the retired owner. After completing a commerce degree he had joined one of the four big accounting firms but, after three years, the only high point was being sent to Harvard to undertake an advanced management course. Suffering from acute boredom, he returned home to spend a few days with his mates only to find that the family’s newspaper business was in diabolical trouble and that his elderly parents had mortgaged everything they owned to save it. The
was a Monday to Friday tabloid and, if the obituaries, engagements, marriages and a few paid advertisements were removed, it amounted to about four pages of gossip, recipes and the fortunes of the Paisley Football Club. Circulation had fallen to less than a thousand copies per week and advertising revenue and subscriptions no longer covered costs. Steve, with little objection from his father, Len, took control of the newspaper. He got rid of the old equipment, created a website, reformatted the layout, removed the gossip column,
Heard Around Town,
increased the coverage to the whole of the Fisher Valley and replaced the old homilies with current affairs and exciting news stories. The circulation increased tenfold. Len Forrest was well-liked and the community had wanted to support him but, as he had aged, the standard of the paper had slipped from average to abysmal and the valley had welcomed his son’s return and supported a vastly improved
The increased advertising revenue more than covered costs and Steve managed to pay off half of his parents’ debts and, on his projections, they would again own their home within five years.
‘I’m so sorry about Charlie, Mr and Mrs Paxton.’ Steve awkwardly scratched his large crooked nose, the result of a football injury.
‘Thank you Steven.’ Faye was weeping, glad they were not holding a wake and wishing the dreadful day was over.
‘Steve, you know they killed Charlie. Are you going to expose those scumbags?’
‘It … it’s not tha … that easy Sir but we … we’re doing our research, build … building our story bu … but we have … have to be careful,’ Steve responded, anxious not to upset him.
‘Dammit! Didn’t you hear me? They murdered my son. That’s all you need to damn-well print.’
‘I … I can’t, Sir. Our lawyers won’t let me. I’m sorry.’
‘Everyone’s sorry but no-one’s doing anything. Well, I’m going to fix that. Write that in your rag, Steve. Tell your readers that I’m going to exterminate the blight that’s destroying our beautiful valley. Tell ’em that Steve. Tell ’em!’ Paxton shouted, as Faye grasped his arm.
‘Let’s go home, Darling.’
‘We don’t have a home.’ He choked. ‘All we have is a bloody empty house.’
Steve watched as they shuffled down the cemetery path and his heart went out to them. He didn’t know if what Paxton had said was true; without scientific evidence he could not run the story. Charlie was the only young child to die in the town for years and it wasn’t as if there was a cancer epidemic running through the community. Maybe little Charlie had just been plain unlucky. He waited a few minutes before following in the Paxtons’ footsteps, anxious not to catch up to them and receive another rebuke.
As he reached the gate, Steve heard angry voices coming from across the street. He looked up to see Tom Morgan jabbing his finger into the chest of Andrew Brown, the local branch manager of the Federal Bank of Australia, who was strenuously trying to push him away, while furiously shaking his head
Simon Breckenridge, one of the town’s more eminent lawyers, got between them and seemed to be pleading with Morgan to stop. Never one to miss a story, Steve headed straight for them but, when they looked up and saw him coming, they broke apart, taking off in different directions. Glancing behind him he saw Dr George stooped over and dragging his feet along the path. He was prematurely grey, with deep creases in his forehead and sunken jowls that belied his thirty-three years.
‘It’s a terrible day, George.’
The doctor had been deep in thought and looked up in surprise. His face was kind and gentle but his eyes were red and there were still tears on his cheeks. ‘That it is, Steven.’