By Gav Ross
ANXIOUS landowners flooded a State Government-run community consultation session on onshore gas mining last week.
One of two ‘open days’ held in South Gippsland during the week (the other was at Mirboo North), the six-hour session, held at the Inverloch Hub allowed locals to have their say on the potential impacts coal seam gas (CSG) mining and exploration could have on the region.
Many early attendees were anti-CSG campaigners, with representatives from Lock the Gate Gippsland setting up an information stand at the hub’s entrance.
Independent facilitator Mick Maguire from Primary Agency – the company appointed by the State Government to assist at the open days – said issues raised by people at similar sessions throughout Gippsland revolved around environmental and health concerns.
“Regular issues raised include potential contamination of the aquifer and surface water, impacts on property prices, insurances, biosecurity and public health,” he said.
Mr Maguire said stress was an issue also frequently raised.
“Some people are very upset and apprehensive about this,” he said.
“I’ve had several people expressing views with tears in their eyes; it’s a highly passionate thing.”
Up until last Tuesday, Mr Maguire estimated that over 60 per cent of the hundreds of people who had attended the other sessions came to the meetings with an anti-CSG stance.
“There are a lot of people in the middle who just want more information, and there would be five or 10 per cent who are supporters (of the industry).
“Some of these people have got geological backgrounds and some are farmers,” he added.
Supporters, Mr Maguire said, are understandably “reluctant to stick their heads up” at the sessions.
“I’ve had people call who wished to talk to me, but not in a public forum,” he said.
“It’s a real challenge for rural communities – issues like this potentially create a polarisation.”
Those walking into The Hub last Tuesday sat down with one of seven independent facilitators.
Three government representatives were also on hand to answer technical questions, mostly relating to geology.
Attendees were invited to take a seat and express their views on gas mining after being asked several questions.
Bena beef farmer Libby Lambert, who plays a major role in the Kongwak and surrounds’ Lock the Gate group, said she was worried the government may be collecting information at the sessions to build its own case in favour of onshore gas mining.
“We need to convince the government that this land is worth much more to the people of Victoria and Australia when it’s producing food, rather than the short-term return they would get from coal seam gas mining,” Ms Lambert said.
Kilcunda resident Sarah Myhill, who has extensive knowledge on the history of mining applications throughout South Gippsland, didn’t believe the sessions were a genuine attempt at community engagement.
“These sorts of processes are designed to allow the government to say they’ve consulted,” she said.
“If you don’t turn up, you’re said to be disinterested, and if you do show then your view doesn’t go much further anyway.”
Ms Myhill speculated the open days had been prepared as relaxed drop-in sessions for a reason.
“There was a public meeting in Wonthaggi which got quite confrontational, which the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DPI) didn’t like at all,” she said.
“These one-on-one consultations are a way of splitting up protest.
“I think it’s gutless.”
Cowes resident Michael Whelan was initially unimpressed when he first arrived to the Inverloch session.
“I thought there was going to be a presentation or briefing,” he said.
“You need a certain amount of information before you can ask sensible questions.”
Speaking later, though, Mr Whelan said he found the session worthwhile.
“It certainly did not reduce my concerns about onshore gas; in fact, it strengthened them,” he added.
“I remain appalled that productive uses of land on the surface for food production, and that a farmer’s lifetime work on a property, can be swept away because mineral rights pre-empt farming rights.
“It is happening in New England, the Hunter Valley and Queensland and communities are being destroyed.”
Following further consultation sessions scheduled for Victoria’s west, a series of community workshops will be organised.
Mr Maguire confirmed several of these will take place in South Gippsland, but not necessarily in the same towns as last week’s sessions.
He said two community panels are also being formed.
Stakeholder groups taking part include Friends of the Earth, Victorian Farmers’ Federation and both Bass Coast and South Gippsland shire councils.
The public consultation process is expected to conclude in July 2015.