Angie Gittus, a nurse from Murwillumbah in northern NSW, joined hundreds of other local protestors – or protectors – in a recent bid to stop drilling for coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers. Their Bentley Blockade developed into a genuine ‘people’s movement’. Here Angie tells the story of the blockade and the ‘health carers for a healthy environment’ day she organised.
In the tiny rural community of Bentley in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, a David and Goliath battle between mining interests and community has occurred.
The mining company Metgasco planned to drill a tight sands gas well on a property in Bentley against the wishes of the majority of the surrounding community.
To this date the community has held them out…
Health workers for a healthy environment at the Bentley Blockade. Angie is centre rear in blue scrubs and stethoscope.
As the issue of unconventional gas mining, most commonly known as Coal Seam Gas or CSG, began to develop in the Northern Rivers, people set about educating themselves on the risks versus benefits – particularly the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. As more information was obtained, mostly from the experiences of southwest Queensland and the US, it became apparent that there were serious risks to health and environment from this industry. The ABC does a great website with loads of simple animations and graphics that explain the process of fracking and the associated damage to water, air and soil.
So the people of the Northern Rivers mobilised. With the help of the Lock the Gate Alliance , CSG Free Northern Rivers and the Northern Rivers Guardians, they surveyed every house, on every road, in every community, town and village. Gas Field Free signs were erected at each road and at the entrances to towns and villages.
A rally was held in Lismore and over 7000 people marched to show their opposition. An AEC poll was conducted at a local election and 87% of people voted No to CSG.
Despite this very strong community opposition, mining company Metgasco continued in their bid to secure the region as a gas field.
In March 2014 the company was poised to commence drilling on their Rosella site at Bentley. A small group of passionate protectors set up a vigil camp at the proposed drill site to monitor the company’s actions and alert the community when numbers were needed to prevent the drill rig from gaining access.
As it got closer to Metgasco’s arrival, there was a large social media campaign to alert people to the seriousness of what was about to occur and to rally people to action. Youtube videos such as will you show up, calling people to be present, were circulated widely. The hashtag #BentleyBlockade went viral and social media was inundated with videos and photos of people at the blockade, all asking “will you show up?”
A Red Alert text line was set up, with people texting their number to the red alert hotline to be informed when things got critical.
When information suggested the police and Metgasco would arrive in late March, a red alert went out.
At dawn on Monday 31March, more than 2000 people gathered at the gate of the property to protect the land from an invasive gas industry. The road to Bentley was bumper to bumper traffic before even the first blush of dawn and the procession along the path from the parking area to the gate was river of torch lit protectors, an almost religious pilgrimage of concerned citizens.
The police arrived, saw the congregation and left to reconsider. Metgasco did not attempt to gain access.
After that morning numbers at the protector’s camp swelled. A farmer with land adjoining the site of the proposed gas well offered his land for protectors to camp on. The camp grew to the size of a small village. Roads and streets were named. There were people doing traffic control, their first roster shift starting at 3am. There was an information tent, a ‘meet & greet’ welcome tent, a first aid tent, the Knitting Nannas Against Gas set up a ‘Nanna Hub’, there was a healing space for tired protectors, an elders space, a kids creative space, a meeting and workshop area affectionately known as Tarp Mahal, media tent, a kitchen churning out three healthy meals a day for the protectors, a washing up hub with dish steriliser, port-a-loos and even a café with its own Facebook page! All staffed by volunteers.
While those at camp and the increasing numbers of day visitors kept a constant presence at the site, there was always the persistent push for a political rather than policing solution. Delegations of local farmers, a local Anglican Minister and local environmentalists and business people travelled to Sydney to put their case to politicians. There was a campaign of phoning, emailing and writing to politicians and many media interviews to demonstrate the extent of local opposition.
As the days of waiting stretched into weeks novel ways of encouraging people to spend time at the blockade emerged.
Everyday workshops in Non Violent Direct Action were conducted. There were also regular workshops in Communication for Managing Conflict, Protectors under Pressure (legal info and conflict resolution). All with a focus on maintaining peaceful and non-violent protest. There were gigs with local and well known musicians.
Frocks on the frontline.
Other events included Frocks on the Frontline, Bentley High Tea, an ANZAC Day ceremony, Mother’s Day at Bentley, Bumps Against Gas, Farmers and Nannas Lock On, Franklin Ride and of course every morning at dawn was a dawn vigil – a meeting about the day’s expected events, about where the campaign was up to, and no doubt – singing!
Health carers for a healthy environment
At one of the dawn meetings organisers asked if anyone had any other ideas for bringing people to the blockade. I decided to hold a Health Carers for a Healthy Environment day.
I created an open invitation to health care professionals from all disciplines to come to Bentley and stand together against the risky gas industry and for a healthy environment.
I believe that part of our work in health promotion and disease prevention must acknowledge the impact of environment on health. Any industry that threatens to contaminate a community’s water supply is also a threat to their health. Any industry that requires the use of known carcinogens in their processes is a risk to health. Any industry that reduces the available land for food production can impact on the availability of healthy food for a community. And an industry that is forced upon an unwilling community will cause emotional and psychological harm.
I contacted the NSWNMA and asked whether it would be acceptable to wear my NSWNMA scrubs to the event. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Nola Scilinato, our area’s support person, was very supportive. Not only did she say it would be ok to wear the scrubs, she asked what else the NSWNMA could do to help. I ran the action by my local Murwillumbah Hospital branch and it was agreed that the branch would demonstrate support for the event with a visible physical presence.
Lismore Hospital Branch delivered a NSWNMA flag to fly at the blockade and lots of small flags and banners. On the day a large group of health care providers turned up to the frontline and made a statement about their concerns. Many weren’t able to make it due to work and for those I made “absent supporter” figurines which were displayed at the blockade.
Names of health workers who could not be there in person but were there in spirit.
It was a wonderful moment to stand with my colleagues and associates in solidarity with those fighting invasive gas fields. There was video footage captured and plenty of still photos taken and we were even interviewed by Prime News.
The story was set to run on the night of Thursday 14 May but due to the fantastic good news of the suspension of Metgasco’s mining license, we got bumped – couldn’t think of a better way not to be on TV!
The next morning at the dawn vigil we got the incredible news that the license to drill had been suspended and the company referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption! Although this isn’t a permanent solution and there’s still much work to be done for the region to be declared gas field free, it is a small win and was well celebrated.
At Nola’s suggestion the Murwillumbah Hospital Branch of the NSWNMA put forward a resolution that the NSWNMA support communities fighting unconventional gas in any way they can. The resolution was unanimously passed at NSWNMA Committee of Delegates on 20 May. It makes me enormously proud of my union to see the actions taken by the members and the support shown by delegates and officials.
Brett Holmes and Coral Levett of the NSWNMA wearing a t-shirt and a hat from the Knitting Nannas.
Unconventional gas mining and other environmental hazards are still putting communities at risk right across NSW and I encourage any of you who see it happening in your own communities to do what you can to stop it. If you can’t physically give your time, then write letters, email, phone politicians, toot in solidarity with protectors as you drive past, deliver food to protest camps, donate to the Lock the Gate Alliance, educate yourself and share your info with others. And if you are lucky enough to have the time, go and spend time with the protectors. As Mayor of Lismore Jenny Dowell said “If not now – when? If not you –who?”
If you want to know more about the Bentley Blockade I suggest checking out these great videos…
- Can You Hear Us – Bentley Blockade
- The Medium Is The Message – Bentley Blockade
- The Emperor Wears No Clothes – Bentley Blockade
- Fractured Country – fracking in Australia
(Special thanks to David Lowe for taking such great photos and the various others who’ve shared video and photos to social media – I’m not sure where some of the credit goes so if it’s yours – thank you! )