Telling his story

"IMPACT is everything," said United States farmer John Fenton, speaking in Wingham last week. 

He was referring to his previous willingness to overlook the problems associated with coal seam gas mining until 24 gas wells were placed on his own property. 

The quality of life for John, his family and his neighbours deteriorated rapidly and the industrialisation of their beautiful part of the world made many question the legacy that would be left for future generations.

John was in Wingham last Friday to talk at the town hall.

His intention was to simply tell his story and let "folks" make up their own minds about the coal seam gas industry. 

More than 300 people came to listen as he told his tale in his soft American drawl.

He has been touring the east coast of NSW and spoke in Gloucester only hours before arriving in Wingham. More than a thousand people across NSW coal seam gas hot spots have now heard his simple message: "If this comes to your backyard it will change your life forever."

John hails from the small town of Pavilion, Wyoming with a population of just 230. The first gas well came in 1964 but the ground was so tight it was difficult to get the gas out. But with advances in technology in the late 90s making the job easier, suddenly 25 wells turned into more than 200 in a five year period. 

"This gets a toe-hold so fast you can barely keep up," he said. "And it reaches a point that there's no going back." 

The state now has the difficult job of dealing with 3000 dead wells, abandoned by the gas companies once their productivity was no longer financially viable.

Like the gold rush, people chasing the mighty dollar descended on towns like John's in Wyoming and brought with them the promise of a greater life for all. Locals had little choice in the matter. As landowners who didn't own the mineral rights, they watched in shock as gas companies set up their ugly industry on productive farms. 

John said the PR hype of the gas companies at first sucked many locals in – the promise of employment, cheaper gas prices, the assurances of a clean and safe industry and some of the toughest regulations in the country. The gas companies started sponsoring local events such as the rodeo and John said it was like the rest of the community ceased to exist.

But experience is everything and John and his entire community had a rude awakening.

Workers, sometimes totalling 150 were on John's land 24 hours a day during the drilling phase. 

The gas workers damaged the soil and introduced many noxious weeds by using equipment that had been all over the country. Property prices plummeted and many homeowners are now unable to sell or borrow against their properties. 

The promised employment opportunities were few for inexperienced locals and what work there was didn't last long as the process itself is short lived. 

And as for gas prices, did they go down? "God no," said John. They have steadily increased from 30 cents a gallon to $3 a gallon.

John has been told many times over that what is taking place on his land is safe. He has also been assured that the gas company would help if he had any problems at all. 

But black ooze coming from his neighbour's washing machine; water that smells like diesel and has been declared by the EPA as unsafe to drink; health issues in his own family and that of his neighbours that can be linked to chemical exposure and mysterious clouds of dust that engulf the house have all been brushed off. "There's no way we did this, what we do is safe," John said he is constantly told by the gas companies.

Through sheer frustration and great concern for other families living with the threat of coal seam gas mining, John brought his message to town. He said the gas companies and the US government have flatly refused to acknowledge anything is wrong with the industry.

"The myth this is a clean product is easily dispelled when you have to live in the middle of it," John said.

The talk was hosted by the Manning Alliance represented on the evening by chairman Peter Epov and patron Di Morrissey. The hon. Jeremy Buckingham MLC was touring with John Fenton and he also addressed the crowd. There was a question and answer session in which members of the audience posed questions to the speakers and despite Peter Epov's attempt to pass three pre-prepared motions, the audience had other ideas and instead a more blanket motion (to be confirmed) was passed. Greater Taree City Mayor Paul Hogan was in attendance as was president of Manning Clean Water Action Group Chris Sheed. The formalities of the session finished at 9.45pm.

AGL has defended its CSG mining activities in the wake of John Fenton's talks in the region. 

Manning Alliance chairman Peter Epov and author Di Morrissey with John Fenton.

Manning Alliance chairman Peter Epov and author Di Morrissey with John Fenton.

John Fenton talks on stage at the Wingham Town Hall

John Fenton talks on stage at the Wingham Town Hall

More than 300 people attended John Fenton's talk in Wingham

More than 300 people attended John Fenton's talk in Wingham

"Gloucester residents can be absolutely assured that AGL adheres to and abides by the tightest regulations and best practice controls in Australia when conducting its exploration and operational activities, including Codes of Practice for Well Integrity and Fracture Stimulation," said Julie Delvecchio, head of community relations AGL.

"AGL has safely hydraulically fractured four wells in Gloucester and 117 in Camden. There have been no reports to date of any of the issues Mr Fenton has mentioned."

However Manning Alliance chairman Peter Epov has said that John Fenton's talk was a rare opportunity to look into the future "we must remain vigilant," he said.

AGL said there is little by way of comparison between the Gloucester and Wyoming projects. "The Gloucester Gas Project is very small when compared to the coal bed methane industry in Wyoming. The Gloucester Gas Project has approval for 110 wells and additional wells will need to be the subject of a detailed environmental assessment," Julie Delvecchio said.