MICHAEL Quinn admits he threatened to shoot gas workers but he says the threat was, like the devil masks strung up in trees along his driveway, a bit of a joke.
April 8 2010
I just got angry because they laughed at me when I told them about leaking wells. They didn’t treat me seriously.
“I wanted them to feel the way they made me feel,” said the 43-year-old father of two, who has been charged as a result.
Mr Quinn and his family are so-called blockies – some of the several thousand residents living on cheap rural residential allotments on top of one of the richest coal-seam gas deposits in Queensland, about 250km northwest of Brisbane.
They are part of a growing grassroots backlash across the state. Tensions are rising among people who have no right to the riches buried beneath their land – the state holds that – but are enduring the increasingly invasive side effects of mining companies’ efforts to extract the gas.
The blockies’ scrubby, wattle-infested 12ha allotments are scattered in an arc about 10-15km north and east of the tiny town of Tara, where huge mining concerns like Queensland Gas Company are ramping up production to feed billion-dollar energy deals.
QGC is now part of Britain’s BG Group, one of several foreign and local energy giants crawling all over central Queensland in the recently ignited race to access buried reserves of coal-seam gas. ConocoPhillips of the US, Anglo-Dutch giant Shell, PetroChina, Malaysia’s Petronas and Australia’s Santos have all been attracted to the industry.
The blockies, or lifestylers as the council has renamed them to avoid negative connotations, moved there earlier, attracted by the cheap land and the opportunity to live a life away from the pressures of modern society. Many of the blocks have no town water or electricity.
But now the gas boom has brought mine workers and trucks close to their remote bush blocks, trenches have been dug for pipes and gas wells are being drilled throughout the area, sending some residents’ stress rates up to levels on par with the pressurised gas underground.
Since last year there have been protests, threats to shoot gasworkers and secret missions to video wells alleged to be leaking.
A child was pulled out of the local school and there have been confrontations in the main street and even claims of a boycott of the town by miners.
People who live in the small rural lots have been falsely labelled everything from ferals to nutty blockies who don’t bathe and who don’t want any gas company people around because it would interfere with their marijuana crops.
“We thought things had died down,” says councillor Ray Jamieson, of the Western Downs Regional Council, ” but now it seems to have escalated.”
Mr Jamieson believes gas companies saw the rural residential blocks on the maps and didn’t realise they were occupied by people who had moved to the area for the lifestyle.
QGC, which has a large lease area in and around the blocks, has drawn most of the ire despite what a company spokesman calls its efforts to minimise impact on landowners and to make a positive contribution to communities.
The message has not been received well by a number of those on the blocks, perhaps in part due to the efforts of former anti-uranium mine protester and trade unionist Michael Bretherick.
Mr Bretherick, 64, and fellow local Rod Matthews last year set up a website, Tarablockies.com, which represents the Western Downs Alliance, a group of residents living in the rural residential estates. The site raises concerns about potential impacts of coal-seam gas mining – pointing to negative scenarios in the US and publishing diagrams predicting the concentration of potential gas wells in the area.
Mr Matthews said he was moved to do something after having trucks thundering past his place at 2am and applying air brakes. “It started out chasing trucks with dust and noise, and snowballed and we looked into the health issues and there was the situation where they could come in and grab a couple of acres whether we liked it or not.”
The website has brought people out for local meetings and a protest last year at a Surat Basin meeting in Dalby.
Concerns include the health impacts of the gas and the disposal of waste water from the wells, the danger of explosions, low frequency noise, the impact of hydraulic fracturing which involves pumping water into the coal seams to improve gas flow and potential damage to aquifers.
Some residents claim their dams have been polluted, others report animals getting sick and pollution from the dust contaminating drinking-water tanks.
Mr Bretherick admits his website and campaign have prompted residents to agitate, but he says much of it has been blown out of proportion – like the incident last year when gas workers in the main street were confronted by a local resident.
The fallout had different results, depending on who you ask.
Mr Jamieson says it led to QGC telling workers to stay out of town for safety reasons.
But QGC denies the claim and any allegations about its operations affecting the health of residents.
Mr Jamieson says things have calmed down and that workers go into town now.
Another problem arose last September when a schoolteacher allegedly made comments about the Tarablockies website.
The daughter of Mr Matthews, who founded the site, was in the class and she used her mobile phone to video the comments.
“It was a bagging session on the website and the blockies,” said the girl’s mother, who asked not to be named.
Mr Matthews says his children now go to school elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mr Quinn and others were convinced the wells were such a danger they were hissing. He invested in a gas meter and went on clandestine monitoring missions, testing more than 50. He says dozens were leaking methane at dangerous levels. He videotaped his findings and showed them to the state government.
QGC vigorously denies such problems still exist and the Queensland government has not found any leaking.
But Mr Quinn still believes there is a problem and last month confronted some QGC workers.
He says he told the workers to check the leaks but believes they laughed at him.
He says that later in the day he saw two more workers and this time told them to pass the message on that if the leaks were not fixed he would shoot.
Mr Quinn says the threat was not real and he went to the police to report what he had done.
Last week he appeared in the local magistrates court on two charges relating to his threats to kill. He is to appear in court again in about two weeks.
“I don’t have any guns. I just said it because they were making a joke about it,” he says.
Mr Quinn, who has worked in the goldmining industry, says he is not “anti-gas” but does not believe the wells should be near houses, in case of an explosion.
How much support the Tarablockies/Western Downs Alliance has is difficult to gauge.
Western Downs Mayor Ray Brown says not all the small lot dwellers are against the gas, and some of them work for the gas companies.
QGC admits there have been issues with some landowners complaining about dust, water, noise and environmental impact.
But the company denies there is any unacceptable health and safety risk from their facilities to staff or residents.
A spokesman says the company has “instigated several additional work streams to reassure itself and the regulator of the safety an integrity of its facilities”.
He says the company’s code of conduct means wells will not be located on properties with an area of less than 12ha without agreement of the property owner.
The company confirms hydraulic fracturing near Tara in May last year, but says it had minimal impact.
It also says it is developing beneficial use for the salty water which is produced by the process and the water itself is only one-tenth as salty as sea water.
Queensland Mines and Energy Minister Stephen Robertson has directed QGC to inspect its wells for leaks, and fix them if necessary.
Last week BG, which owns QGC, announced it had struck a deal to supply Tokyo Gas 1.2 million tonnes of LNG each year for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, Mr Bretherick, Mr Matthews and Mr Quinn are not giving up.
Mr Bretherick says this week he had the 60 Minutes current affairs program calling him up to investigate his case.
“Don’t get angry, get organised,” says Mr Bretherick.
“That’s what I like to think.”
Lots of information on the pollution of Gas Wells.
Be sure to check it out.
No doubt this type of gas can create many problems, health wise and to the environment.
Can’t say I blame the people living there for being angry.
Seems big companies just move in and take over.
What do the residents get. Ignored.
I have heard this story from other places as well. This is not new and more times then not, the companies are irresponsible.