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Authors: Peter Ralph

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BOOK: Dirty Fracking Business
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Someone else interjected. ‘Simon, isn’t it true that no matter how hard we fight, the courts will eventually side with the gas companies and order us to let them enter our properties?’

‘Not necessarily and, if we could win a major case like Don is suggesting and establish a precedent, we might be able to throw them out of the valley but, if we lose, we’ll be at their mercy, so there are great risks in adopting that strategy. I think a better plan is to stall them for as long as we can in the hope that, as the issue becomes more mainstream, public opinion forces the government to have a change of mind about the extraction of coal seam gas.’

There were groans from those more interested in taking direct and forceful action.

‘I remind you that the premier is speaking on this subject in this very hall tomorrow fortnight, and this will provide us with an opportunity to demonstrate peacefully in front of the cameras,’ Carmody said, and the catcalls were more numerous and louder. It wasn’t only Billy McGregor and his gang who were looking for a violent solution.

Harry O’Brien had been in Australia for twenty years but still spoke in a rich Irish brogue. He owned a small boutique winery in the valley and to look at him you would think that he spent most days sampling his wares. ‘What if we get rid of this Labor government and replace them with the conservatives?’

‘It won’t work, Harry,’ Tom Morgan responded. ‘This state is stuffed, services are terrible and the government’s been running budget deficits for years. They’ve had to offer the gas companies five royalty-free years so they can steal an advantage over Queensland, but they’re gonna get hundreds of millions in the future. And when you put a heap of cash on one side and an environmental issue on the other and ask a politician to make a decision, no matter which party he represents, the heap of cash is always gonna win. And don’t forget the federal government will reap even more in taxes.’

‘What about the Greens then?’ O’Brien persisted.

‘Yeah, they can help,’ Morgan said. ‘But they’re not in a position to alter government policy. They can help with the media and maybe get us some coverage but, Harry, do you want to support a party that’s into euthanasia, legalising gay marriage and taxing you out of existence?’

‘Euthanasia’s a good thing and I can think of a Porsche-driving gas exec I’d willingly inject,’ O’Brien said, to cacophonous applause.

Dennis Fulton rose to defend the Greens but the firm hand of Jack Thomas on his arm caused him to sit down again. Thomas knew that this was a crowd that didn’t need to be side-tracked or incited.

‘Should those of us with unencumbered properties take our business away from the FBA as a show of protest?’ A farmer sitting in the front row asked.

‘According to Andrew Brown the other big banks will soon be taking the same action as the FBA,’ Breckenridge said. ‘So you’d need to give your business to one of the smaller regional banks. If it makes you feel good, then do it, but it won’t have any impact on the FBA.’

‘We need to get more press coverage, more documentaries on television; and more stories about the damage the gas miners are doing to rural communities and we need to get the city folk on our side. There’s a brilliant documentary,
Gasland
, showing at the Majestic, that sets out the American experience and you should all get along and watch it,’ Len Forrest said, before his gravelly voice was drowned out by groans.

‘Did it help the Americans get rid of the gas companies?’ someone asked. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘If we wait that long, it’ll be too late for most of us,’ someone else said.

‘You can groan all you like,’ Len said. ‘But when I was young, people power brought our country’s participation in a war to an end. One hundred thousand people massed in Melbourne to oppose our involvement in Vietnam and the government brought our troops home. If
they
could stop our participation in a war, then surely
we
can garner enough support to stop the gas companies.’

‘Charles. Charles Paxton,’ someone asked. ‘What do you think we should do?’

There was an excited buzz and someone else said, ‘Let’s blow up a few more gas wells.’

‘I can’t think of anything that will make the FBA withdraw their demands but I think we should form a group along the lines that our friend Dennis Fulton suggested, which can act at short notice to blockade the gas companies at the gates to any property they’re trying to enter. If we stop the gas wells, hopefully we stop the bank from making any fresh demands.’

‘I’ll be in that,’ Billy McGregor yelled, thrusting his fist into the air. ‘We’ll call it
Smash the bastards!
’’

There were numerous calls of ‘Good onya Charles,’ as if he, rather than Dennis Fulton, had come up with the idea.

‘We’ll call it
Lock ’em out
and that’s what we’ll be doing,’ Paxton responded.

‘Yeah, but if they resist, we might have to do a bit of persuading,’ Billy persisted, punching his fist into his palm.

‘Order, order!’ Thomas yelled, seizing the microphone. ‘We can barricade the gates with our cars and trucks, but in the end the gas companies will go to the courts and get orders requiring the police to remove us. We mustn’t attack or assault their employees or the police, because that will set our cause back years. I implore you to act within the law.’

This brought a wave of booing and one of Billy’s gang said, ‘Let’s go to the pub,’ and twenty young men pushed towards the entrance, taking many others with them.

‘Does anyone have anything else they wish to raise?’ Thomas shouted over the din of moving chairs and shuffling feet. When there was no response he declared the meeting adjourned and this was greeted by faint, uninspired applause.

‘So what do you think of the gas companies now?’ Len Forrest asked, grabbing his son’s arm as they left the hall. ‘It’s their bloody gas wells that have destroyed property values and forced the bank to act.’

‘Dad, I’m not sure that you’re right. There’s a massive glut of wine nationwide, too many grape vines and the competition from the French and Americans on world markets is intense. There’d be lucky to be ten percent of the wineries in the valley turning a profit. I’m sorry for those who’ve had their loans called up but the bank has to protect itself and you can’t expect it to carry loss-making businesses.’

‘Is that what they taught you at Harvard? Didn’t they teach you anything about people, families, their lives and their hopes, or couldn’t they translate that into the almighty dollar? Are you going to tell me that the gas companies didn’t destroy Bill Morrisey’s dairy farm?’

‘And how did they do that?’

‘His yields are way down and his cows are sick. Two years ago he was getting an average of twenty litres per cow per day and then CEGL conned him into letting them sink two gas wells on his property and the yields plunged. Bill said that two of his dams were bubbling after they installed the wells and his cows must’ve drunk from them. What do you think of that?’

‘Dad, it’s common knowledge around town that he lost his major contract to supply Murray Valley Dairies and that’s the reason his farm failed.’

‘Yes, because the quality of the milk he was producing deteriorated. How can you be so blind to what’s going on around you?’

‘It’s progress, and you can’t stand in the way of progress.’

‘What about the Orrs, Mr Smarty Pants? Andrew Brown told them that their loan was being called in because the bank bosses didn’t think they could maintain their licence to produce organic foods, because of the close proximity of gas wells. Don’t tell me that wasn’t the gas company’s fault.’

As they walked past the car park, Steve caught sight of Jenny Orr with her arms around Tom Morgan’s neck and tears rolling down her cheeks. Craig had a hand on Morgan’s shoulder, his expression a cross between disbelief and relief. Steve paused, looked over and pondered what might be going on.

‘Dad, that’s disturbing and I’m not sure that the bank didn’t over-react. You’ve gotta admit that some of the rumours about the destruction coal seam gas will unleash on the community have been exaggerated and maybe the bank was spooked.’

‘You’re living in a fool’s paradise, Son. You need to see
Gasland,
and then you’ll find out about the misery that the big oil and gas companies in America unleashed in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Poison in the water, poison in the air, people lighting their drinking water, sickness, cancer and animals th..’

‘I went to see it last night,’ Steve interrupted. ‘It’s so biased and one-sided, I’m not sure it’s believable. The oil and gas companies weren’t given a chance to put their side.’

‘Yes they were. Were you asleep when that guy, Josh Fox, phoned the gas companies, trying to get an interview, and they knocked him back or wouldn’t take his calls?’

‘And you actually believed that?’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘Because it’s a fix-up. Michael Moore does it in his docos and Al Gore did something similar in
An
Inconvenient Truth.
They make it look like they’re trying to get the other side’s opinion but it’s the last thing they want. It’s far more effective to create the smokescreen of a cover-up and the illusion of evil.’

‘Unbelievable. What’s it going to take to convince you?’

‘Dad, look; I agree with you that the mining companies shouldn’t be able to force their way onto properties and I’ve written articles expressing that view
,
but until the legislation changes they’re not breaking any laws.’ Steve put his arm around his father’s shoulders. ‘One of the guys I did that management course with at Harvard lives in Denver and I’m going to Skype him tonight and find out what’s fact and what’s make-believe in Colorado.’

‘At last some good news. I’m guessing by the morning you’ll have changed your mind.’

‘Perhaps.’ Steve smiled, not having told his father that his friend in Colorado was an investment banker. ‘Oh, and by the way, I’m going to accept CEGL’s offer to buy advertising space.’

Len Forrest clenched and unclenched his hands. ‘I never thought you’d do that to me, Son.’

‘It’s a business decision, Dad, pure and simple. The
Chronicle
can’t afford to knock back that type of revenue and, besides, it’ll speed up getting rid of your debts.’

‘With the blood and sweat of those folks that the gas companies are running out of the valley,’ his father snarled, wiping a tear from his cheek. ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

‘Wait until you see how I handle it, before judging me.’

Chapter 10

Dean Prezky woke from a broken sleep to the sounds of birds tweeting and the humming of the bush but he could still hear the
whirr, whirr, whirr,
even though it wasn’t as noticeable as it had been in the silence of the night. He climbed into his rusty Toyota four-wheel-drive and headed to the CEGL site office, where the noise was loudest. He pulled up and looked out of his window at a heap of neatly configured steel pipes and four compressors surrounded by a chain-mesh fence and instantly knew the compressor station had been commissioned. The eight gas wells on CEGL’s property had been converted from exploration to production and methane was being piped to the compressor station. Filled-in trenches, where pipes had been laid, extended to the property’s boundaries and methane was most probably being received from wells on surrounding properties. Dean knew that, had he agreed to have pipes laid under his property, gas from the two wells sunk on Joanna’s property would be pumping to the compressor station, and he guessed that pipes would eventually be laid under the dirt road. He had no idea where the compressed gas was being pumped to, or whether it was for domestic use or export, nor did he really care; his only concern was the noise. He climbed out of the four-wheel-drive and knelt down, closing his eyes, as he listened to the
whirr, whirr, whirr,
shocked by its intensity.
Surely this breached whatever laws determined the noise level?
Perhaps the noise would abate after the compressor station had been running for a few days.

At the rear of the property he could see bulldozers and excavators clearing a massive area. He didn’t know what they were doing but would later find they had been constructing a huge, hundred-acre, lined pond, where CEGL would store the toxic, saline-laden wastewater from the wells in the area.

That night, Dean tried to block his ears with his fingers, but the drone of the
whirr, whirr, whirr
continued to deprive him of sleep. Vicki, who was a heavy sleeper, tried to bury her head under the blankets and the kids were up all night going to the fridge or the pantry, or getting glasses of water. At nine o’clock the following morning, Dean, cranky and tired, was on the phone to a CEGL environment officer who told him that they had measured the noise levels of the compressor station after it had been commissioned and that it complied with environmental guidelines. After Dean complained more vociferously, he was informed that there was nothing that could be done. When he told the officer he was going to lodge a complaint with the council, he heard a distinct chuckle, followed by ‘Good luck’ and the sound of dial tone.

The lady he spoke to at the Tura Council was sympathetic but advised that the planning department was rarely even notified about exploration and development licences for coal seam gas. These were issued directly by the Department of Industry and Investment. Yes, he could lodge a complaint with Council, but it would have to be in writing and it was unlikely that CEGL would have breached the conditions of their licence or the mandated noise levels, so was it worth it? Dean was fuming at the injustice and snapped at her, ‘Well, if you won’t help, I’ll go to the environment authorities.’

‘Sir, I never said this, but you’re not going to find anyone in any government department willing to take on
big gas.
There’s far too much money involved to rock the coal seam gas boat.’

‘How can that be?’

She lowered her voice. ‘I can’t help you, but you should talk to someone at the Fisher Valley Protective Alliance.’

‘I don’t have anything in common with a bunch of rich farmers and vineyard owners.’

‘I have to go, Sir. Think about what I said.’

Dean did not move from his chair as he pondered the two conversations; the arrogance of the CEGL employee, the helplessness of the council officer and her use of the two words he hadn’t heard before,
big gas,
in a tone that suggested she might just as well have been talking about the
Mafia.

His thoughts were interrupted by Vicki. ‘Honey,’ she yelled, from the kitchen, an edge to her voice. ‘We’re a thousand dollars short in our cheque account. Do you know anything about it?’

The last thing he needed was a fight with Vicki. ‘No,’ he lied. ‘I have to go into Tura to pick up the mail and fill the Toyota. I’ll go through the cheque butts when I get back.’

‘I’ve already been through them and the butt is blank. I’ll have to phone the bank. Aren’t you going to work today?’

‘It’s too late; half the day’s already gone.’

‘Another day off,’ Vicki whined. ‘We’ve got no money and you’re not working.’

‘We’ll be fine.’ He kissed her on the cheek, anxious to get out of the house.

Tura was a typical small country town with about twenty-five shops, a service station, hotel, two motels and a third nearing completion. As Dean pulled the Toyota up to the diesel pump, he saw a Filliburton truck parked at the adjoining pump. Frank Beck and a few of his workers were at the door to the service station shop, arguing heatedly with a group of men. One, a solidly built young man with a mop of unruly, ginger hair, was red-faced and gesticulating angrily. It was a hot day and he was wearing overalls over a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and heavy work boots. Standing next to him was an older man – unshaven, with grey straggly hair and a roll-your-own cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. He was more appropriately dressed for the weather, in a flimsy white T-shirt and jeans, and he was clearly supporting the younger man.

As Dean watched, he realised that the others were all on Beck’s side. It wasn’t Beck who was surrounded, but the odd couple. He didn’t know who the two men were but he sauntered over, intending to talk to Beck - whom he had always found reasonable - about the compressor noise.

The younger man was rolling his eyes and shouting and, when he started to unbutton his shirtsleeves, Dean, convinced it was a prelude to fisticuffs, moved quickly to intervene. As he reached the group, he saw the man pointing at his bare arms, which were covered with ugly red welts. ‘You poisoned our water, you bastard,’ he roared. ‘I’m covered with these things and so are my kids. And to think you made yourself out a big man when you watered our roads and tracks to get rid of the dust, when all you were doing was saving the cost of getting rid of your contaminated wastewater. Bastard!’

‘You poisoned all the dams in the area,’ the older man added, spitting in the gap between Beck’s feet, while rolling another cigarette.

Beck lolled up against the door sneering, his well-muscled body barely contained by his tight, short-sleeved shirt. The man next to him looked over at the younger man and said, ‘Jeez Shawn, Filliburton and Frank are good for the town. Look at all the business they’ve brought to it and you don’t know what you’re talking about. God, as if a respected American company like Filliburton would poison your dam. Why don’t you apologise to Frank and get back to the
estate
?’

‘You must be selling an awful lot of newspapers these days, Jason,’ the older man said.

‘Keep out of it, Mick,’ another man said.

‘Ah, Bill, I hear you’ve doubled the rents on your motels since the gas companies came to town, and business is so good that you’re building another one.’

‘Shut up, Mick. You’re nothing but a trouble-maker.’

‘Have a look at this,’ the younger man bellowed, slipping his overalls down to his waist and removing his shirt to reveal a body covered in red, weeping welts. ‘My kids are covered in ’em as well. They scratch all day and can’t sleep at night and we only got ’em after Filliburton’s tankers watered the tracks with that toxic wastewater.’

‘You don’t know that, Shawn,’ the newsagent scoffed.

‘Yes he does,’ Dean said, pulling his T-shirt over his head to show the scars on his well-developed chest. ‘I don’t swim in my dam anymore and me and my kids have been on tablets and creams for weeks. And to think I thought you were doing me a favour with that water, Frank, you slimy piece of shit!’

‘Well,’ Beck drawled, ‘it seems we’re no longer welcome in Tura, so I’ll have to relocate my men to Paisley. If this town’s not prepared to support Filliburton, we’re not prepared to support the town.’

‘No, no, Frank,’ the motel owner pleaded. ‘They don’t represent the town; you don’t need to go to Paisley.’

‘That’s right,’ the proprietor of the hardware store said. ‘Apologise to Frank for making those ridiculous claims, Shawn. You probably got those bloody things on your body because you don’t wash properly?’

‘Well that applies to me too,’ Dean snarled. ‘Are you saying me and my kids don’t wash ourselves?’

‘He didn’t mean anything,’ the newsagent interrupted. ‘Look, Shawn, just say you’re sorry and we can get things back to normal again. Frank’s a big enough man to accept your apology and let bygones be bygones, aren’t you Frank?’

‘I ain’t ever apologising to that bastard.’

‘And nor should you.’ Dean struggled to stop himself from crashing his fist into Beck’s sneering face.

‘That’s right,’ Mick chipped in, firing off a squirt of saliva that landed next to the hardware man’s shiny shoes.

‘Come on boys, let’s get packed and out of here,’ Beck said, striding off towards the motel, with the townspeople following close behind, begging him to change his mind. He smiled.
Divide and conquer
-
it always worked. No matter what part of the world you were in.

‘How come I haven’t seen you before?’ the older man asked Dean. ‘I’m Mick Petheridge. I’ve gotta place out in the west
estates
and this is one of me neighbours, Shawn Rosen. Shawn’s kids’ bodies are covered with welts, their noses bleed at night and they’ve been vomiting uncontrollably. Poor little mites.’

‘Good to meet you. I’m Dean Prezky. Me and my kids got welts all over our bodies too, but I never knew how until now. Jeez, I came to the
estates
looking for privacy. I just wanted to be left alone with my family.’

‘Mate, we all came here for that reason. I’ve got thirty acres and young Shawn’s got seventy just down the track from me. We’ve been here for years, but we’ve only got to know each other in the last year because of those bloody gas companies,’ Mick said. ‘We formed the
Tura Defence Association
eighteen months ago, created our own website and we’ve built up to nearly 200 members.’

‘From the
estates?’

‘Hardly. Our members include farmers, graziers, millionaire vineyard owners, conservatives and greenies from the valley; all with one thing in common, a passion to stop
big gas
in its tracks.’

‘Mick’s our tactician and General.’

‘General? You make it sound like a war.’

‘That’s what it is, Dean, and while you mightn’t know it yet, you’re in the middle of the warzone. Have a look at our website and see what you think. We’re always looking for new members and it don’t cost nothin’ to join.’

‘It was nice meeting you guys. I’m sorry, I have to get to the post office, but I’ll have a look at your website.’ Dean climbed into the Toyota. He was seething but had no intention of joining any group that might seek to control his actions, no matter how good its intentions.

The heat haze rose from the bitumen as the Toyota rolled down the road towards the post office. It was a small timber building with a flat corrugated iron roof that extended over the footpath to protect the mail boxes from the elements. Dean opened his box and removed a dozen or so envelopes that he flicked through, knowing that they were bills, but the last one bore the name ‘Pitcher Laboratories’ and he hastily tore it open. The words benzene and toluene meant little to him but they sounded nasty, and he was even more suspicious when the report stated that their levels significantly exceeded the norm. As he looked up, he saw the hardware man, newsagent and the motel owner staring at him from across the road, their faces drawn and glum. Clearly they weren’t happy with him.

Nor was Vicki and, as he drove up the driveway, she came out the front door, crossed her arms and glared. She had phoned the bank seeking details of the thousand-dollar cheque and, when they’d told her that the payee was Pitcher Laboratories, she knew exactly what had occurred.

‘How could you do it? I thought we agreed that we couldn’t afford to have that damn dam water analysed.’

‘No, Vicki, we didn’t agree. You told me, and you know how much I hate being told I can’t do something.’

She was about to ask him where she was going to get the money to meet the mortgage, but his face was black, his bottom lip was quivering and his arms were at his sides, hands formed into tight fists. They had been together for fifteen years and, while he had always been stubborn, he had also been docile and easy-going. Vicki had only ever seen him lose his temper twice and it had been like Vesuvius erupting. Somehow he had managed to physically control himself on both occasions, but the vitriol that had poured from his mouth had been destructive and terrifying and the recipients of his attacks had cowered. For the third time in her life, she watched him fighting for self-control and knew this was not the time to chide him.

‘Have you eaten?’ she asked.

‘I’m not hungry; I’m going on the Net. Make sure the kids don’t disturb me.’ He strode past her and tromped down the hallway to the tiny room they called ‘solitary confinement’. It had been a storeroom that Dean had converted into an office. It housed a small trestle table, an old laptop computer and a canvas chair; nothing else. He crawled under the table and pulled himself up onto the chair on the other side. There was less than ten centimetres wiggle room between the back of the chair and the wall behind it.

Vicki did not know that Dean had received the chemical analysis of the dam water and she wondered what had happened in town to upset him. He would tell her in his own good time - he always did - and, in the meantime, she would make sure that not a peep was heard from the kids.

Dean started the computer, pulled out the chemical analysis, and googled ‘benzene’ and saw that it was found in gasoline, insecticides, pesticides, paints, other gasoline derivatives and cigarette smoke. Next he googled ‘toluene’, discovering that it was a component of many petroleum products and used as a solvent for paints, coatings, gums and resins. He scratched his head, wondering why these chemicals had been highlighted in the report. He’d assumed that they had to be toxic but his research indicated that they were used in everyday products that could be bought from the service station or supermarket. When he searched for ‘Filliburton +benzene’, nothing came up on the Filliburton website, but many other sites referred to BTEX, a group of chemical compounds made up of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

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