agl-1In mid-December last year, after AGL had fracked the four wells at their Waukivory Pilot CSG project at Gloucester, the Protectors Camp that I was visiting went into recess, but not before one intrepid protector followed the tankers carrying the contaminated wastewater to find out what they were doing with it, as AGL had not replied to questions about this. She followed them to Newcastle, where Hunter Water had forbidden AGL to bring the stuff.

Of course it wasn’t AGL’s fault that it got dumped in the Hunter sewerage system; it was the contractor’s.

Although Hunter Water had directed AGL not to even use a Hunter contractor…

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So began a lovely series of revelations as to how AGL run their show and how low is the standard of what this industry calls ‘world class regulation’.

I have often repeated what the industry admitted in 2011, that ‘good management could minimise the risks of water contamination, but never eliminate them’.

Here’s the latest run of reasons why Groundswell Gloucester’s 2014 pre-fracking 79-page advice to government, ‘Exposing the Risks’, ought to have been heeded. ‘Good management’ is NOT what has happened at Gloucester.

During the fracking, it was discovered that AGL was using a radioactive element, Caesium-137, to measure the density of fracturing fluid. This had not been part of the approval process. Trust us, we’re a gas company??

Then two fracking chemicals, Tolcide and Monoethanolamine, indicators of likely other chemicals, were found in groundwater.

AGL’s licence requires zero presence of these chemicals. AGL knew that zero limit was exceeded in November, yet they kept fracking and didn’t tell the EPA until Jan 15.

Professor Philip Pells has said all along that at Gloucester there is a high risk of an environmental disaster. He considered it likely that fracking would connect the coal seam’s polluted water with the beneficial shallow aquifers. ‘Adaptive management’ is what AGL was approved to use, to ‘suck it and see'; which always meant it would be too late to do anything after the disaster occurs, as it has.

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Then AGL admitted large fluctuations of groundwater levels at its monitoring bores; they don’t admit fracking is the fault but levels at one bore varied as much as 7.8 metres during the fracking and 3.5 metres after it.

Next they found toxic BTEX chemicals in flowback water at two of the wells and an above-ground storage tank. AGL discovered the chemicals on January 15, but only reported them to the EPA almost two weeks later.

Associate Professor Stuart Khan, from the University of NSW, says while the four main BTEX chemicals — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and three forms of xylene — occur naturally in coal seams no one wants them turning up in drinking water. Benzene is a known carcinogen and Australian drinking water guidelines restrict it to one part per billion. 

AGL denies using BTEX in its fracking. ‘The reported concentration of 555 [parts per billion of BTEX for one AGL sample] is very high and probably the highest concentration I have heard of in environmental water,” Dr Khan said.

After this avalanche of bad PR, AGL suspended the Waukivory Pilot Project, then the government did so too. Division of Resources and Energy investigators will inspect the four CSG wells with their counterparts from the NSW Environment Protection Authority.

Just two months of world class management of four wells. Imagine 110, and then 330 wells?

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But don’t worry, there will be a ‘robust’ investigation and Minister Roberts has appointed Ms Lee Shearer to oversee it; Groundswell Gloucester doesn’t question her abilities, but her past role as a consultant to the mining industry, including ‘managing crisis situations’, does raise concerns about her total independence…

AGL’s new wastewater contractor was taking it to South Windsor; the Hawkesbury area was not too happy about it, and now that treatment plant will not accept AGL wastewater either. So what is their solution?

Local National Party candidate Stephen Bromhead has been saying that “If it is found that AGL cannot demonstrate that they can prevent BTEX escaping from the coal seam their license for the Gloucester Basin will be cancelled and no new applications will be approved.” 

Sadly people cannot hear such promises without looking for the post-election wriggle room. Who could forget O’Farrell’s ‘no ifs, no buts, a guarantee’ re mining in water catchments?

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I joined Gloucester folk on the first 2015 No Stopping Gloucester walk through town: we had about 100 there.

(These are held the second Saturday of each month to coincide with the local Growers’ Market; 9 am at Billabong Park.)

The next Tuesday I returned when Groundswell Gloucester publicly presented a new 600pp document, ‘Exposing the truth’, how AGL has failed to consult or report donations and has misled the community. It asks Minister Roberts to suspend AGL’s Licence and was delivered to him on 5th February.

AGL has now admitted what I was quoting BHP Petroleum as saying several years ago: there’s enough LPG in the Bass Strait reserves to avoid gas shortages in NSW. There goes the doomsday scenario justification for rushing to open up more risky unconventional gas fields for LNG. We don’t need to poison or dewater Gloucester and the Manning — or the Pilliga and the GAB, or anywhere.

AGL wants to start three test wells at Wards River south of Gloucester next. Gloucester Council has withdrawn from the dialogue with AGL and has asked the Minister to cancel its licence.

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Meanwhile, the new CEO of AGL has foreshadowed  a ‘comprehensive review’ of AGL’s upstream gas operations, and Citibank has warned that  ‘negative connotations’ around AGL’s Gloucester coal seam gas project risk harming the company’s brand, and says the company should consider ‘walking away’’ if public perception doesn’t improve.

Citibank said that while the introduction of a new CEO meant it was a ‘good time to try and change public’s perception’ of AGL and Gloucester, ‘given the strength of local opposition, this will be a very difficult task’.

Citibank is spot on there. Take a look at this latest in Groundswell Gloucester’s series of short films of Voices from Gloucester (by David Lowe).

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In the four months I have been here I had not seen a snake of any sort.

Given how many red-bellied blacks I shared my last mountain home with, and that here is equally wet and welcoming for such inhabitants, I have been on the alert, expecting to see their coastal cousins in the back garden or cruising across the grass.

Last week, I pulled up in the ute to see this handsome python digesting its lump of lunch in the sun. I was very pleased that this was my introduction to the local reptilia, and I am still on the lookout for that telltale flash of shiny black.

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There is a tall grandfather casuarina on the bank above the house, and from here the magpies have a fine view and a fine stage for projecting their glorious songs each morning.

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Now that the baby maggie’s most unmusical whinging has ceased, the adults’ carolling is uninterrupted, a joyful accompaniment to my breakfast.

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Before the current deluge began, the small birds appreciated my three-tier insulator bird bath.

Two yellow robins, so numerous here, were happily taking turns at dips in the penthouse pool when a bigger contender landed nearby.

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It was clearly a honeyeater, but which of the umpteen and only slightly varied choices? Typically, the one I thought it most resembled in the bird book turned out to be confined to somewhere impossibly far away, like Cape York. 

So my guess is a Lewin’s Honeyeater, even though it seems less olive than the book’s picture. It is apparently ’fiercely competitive’ and it certainly was very effective in breaking up the robins’ party.

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The little wren who had just landed will be at the bottom of the pecking order.

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The robins gave up hope of a second turn but the dainty wren kept her (or young his) distance to wait it out.

Washed and fluffed and cooled, the honeyeater was still in possession when the phone rang, I moved, and they both took off.

I aim to have several bird baths in more salubrious and safer positions, now that I know that this is such a rich birdland.

Here on the mid north coast hinterland of New South Wales it’s been feeling like the subtropics: storms, showers, searingly hot spells and perpetually high humidity. Not pleasant, unless you are plant life, for whom it’s boom time.

To beat the heat, I get up very early — and so often begin the day with beauty like this.

Apart from what I’ve planted here, birds have distributed seeds and amongst the most noticeable of their crops are the scattered tall sunflowers.

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This King Parrot spotted one whose flowerhead was nicely drying out to seed. It must have been too awkward to eat in situ so it yanked out a chunk as takeaway and found a more comfy perch.

I haven’t seen any parrots new to me, but I keep on seeing birds that are nothing like any I have ever struck before.

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This one literally ran into my view as I sat at my desk. It ran across the grass in the rain, halted, turned and ran back again out of sight.

I need help with this one; the closest I can find is a female Chestnut Quail-thrush, but the patterns and the body shape don’t quite match. Any ideas, birdwise readers?

As many of you know, my last place of 165 acres was a gazetted Wildlife Refuge and protected on my deeds (from all but mining!) under a Voluntary Conservation Agreement with the Office of Environment and Heritage. 

My new place is only 5 acres so not eligible for these. However, I was also a member of the Wildlife Land Trust (WLT), and I have now rejoined with this property. The main criterion is that the property be ‘wildlife friendly’ — and that mine sure is.

Once more the Trust’s Evan Quartermain sent me a great sign for the gate, to publicly declare my attitude — and maybe encourage others to join this network of private landowners who care about wildlife and habitat conservation.

Operating under the auspices of the Human Society International, the WLT now has 285 member properties in Australia. It’s free to join, they have a great newsletter and website and can offer advice and help and access to conservation grant applications (as I received at my Mountain for weed control).  

I must say my free listing on their property for sale website page created more enquiries about my Mountain than any other source.

Please take a look at their website or contact Evan on 1800 333 737 or email him.

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I have mentioned that I am seeing many new birds here. I prefer to see them alive.

This beautiful Green-winged Pigeon is the second bird to die by flying into one of the large glazed sliding doors. Obviously this can’t continue, if my WLT claim of ‘wildlife friendly’ means anything.

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I have resorted to a method I learnt from my friends Mike and Sue: feathers stuck in corks and hung outside the windows, to swing and imitate birds, hopefully to warn and divert any avian missiles who can’t see the glass – which they can’t. I know this works, and have passed it on to many. Sometimes I have used side feathers as well on the corks.

My webmaster Fred found this collection of solutions, some of which may suit your situation better.

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I do have another sign, but on my gatepost. Just in case any CSG or other extraction company thinks that not having an actual lock on my gate might mean it’s not locked to them.

Their sort of activity would certainly not be habitat or wildlife friendly.

In fact, almost every gate along this road bears this sign; a tribute to the great local awareness-raising work of Manning Clean Water Action Group (MCWAG), and more generally to Lock the Gate. I am a proud member of both.

January is always a time for sales and specials but I’ve been getting the best specials of all, as they’re free.

Plus they are self-generating — no batteries! —  and ever-changing, so I never tire of them.

Just as at my old Mountain, I arise early, rewarded by this sort of sunrise. Delivered in this first week of January 2015.

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By late afternoon on 1st January, the eastern sky was full of combed clouds, fanning out like floating seaweed. I assumed they were Cirrus of some sort, the highest of clouds, made of ice crystals.

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As if that wasn’t enough of a gift, I then spotted a tiny white moon amongst the more blurred fans. Look hard, centre, bottom third of the photo.

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It’s risky to go indoors; I might miss another special.

Like last night, twilight, there was the full moon, underlined by a tiny cloud in an almost cloudless sky.

Luckily I have lots of windows here, so can keep an eye out for sky reasons to grab the camera and leap out on to the lawn before the special ends.

The first feathered visitor of the New Year was an Azure Kingfisher, a beautiful little bird, a visitor that sadly will not be leaving.

I found it lying on the back verandah, presumedly killed when it flew into the glass doors.

If this is to be a problem I will have to hang feathers all round, but so far I hadn’t heard any ‘thunks’. I am hoping this is a one-off.

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Next newly sighted feathered visitor was this unspectacular little bird, that I think is a female Rufous Whistler.

I have been hearing a very melodious series of calls that I think it was making. I hope somebody more knowledgeable can confirm its identity for me.

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On the same day, fine after days of rain, I heard the unmistakable and extremely unmelodious calls of the Yellowtailed Black Cockatoos, perched in trees very close to the house.

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I thought there were two, but then an incessant rusty whining led me to see a smaller third one, which I expect is the young. The father seemed to feed it — do they? — the eye ring and bill colour of the young are like a female’s.  Or was this the female?

Black Cockies are old rainy weather friends, and the similar proximity of densely forested steep gullies and slopes below the escarpment would make good habitat for them. I’ll raise and plant more of the local she-oaks to tempt them back.

I knew I was blessed with many bird species here that are new to me, but I’d forgotten how exciting it is to meet them!

This pair were poking about amongst the palm litter.

They are Bar-shouldered Doves and they solve the mystery of the repetitive calls I keep hearing.

My book reckons they say ‘cook-a wook, cook-a-wook’, but Ive been hearing ‘potgorok potgorok’.

Don’t ask me why; local dialect?

My book says the Manning Valley, where I now am, is roughly their southern distribution limit, and they stretch north all round the top to the Kimberleys.

Now I truly feel like I’m in a different climatic zone.

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Then they moved into the sunlight, no doubt to show off those lairy pink legs.

Not turtle doves or partridges, but they’ll do me for a Christmas treat.

Stay safe, all.

New mountain moods

December 13, 2014
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Now I am living on the mid-north coast hinterland, virtually in the subtropics, I am becoming used to high humidity and rapid changes in cloud behaviour and weather results. Thunder and lightning and stupendous short cloudbursts of rain… The ephemeral always fascinates me and there’s nothing so fleeting as clouds. As in my previous home, […]

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Postcards from Gloucester

December 5, 2014
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I’ve been going to Gloucester twice a week lately, reaching the camp in time for the daily camp meeting and to catch grand sunsets like this one, joining whatever action is decided for the next early morning, helping ‘man’ the vigil info site.  Since the Halliburton fracking team snuck out at 4 am last week, […]

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Of birds… and an elephant

November 24, 2014
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I’m not allowed on my front verandah at present. Two sets of protective parents say so. The Welcome Swallows have hatched a second set of babies in the original nest. I have spotted three sets of panting baby beaks so far. Perhaps being second time parents on my verandah in one season has made them […]

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Melaleuca magic

November 17, 2014
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On my new place, in typical farm fashion, trees have mostly only been left around the edges, but in the middle of the bare creekflat there are three big trees. The kookaburras like them as good vantage points from which to spot their lunch. I like them because I can watch them from my verandah […]

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