The victory of the Bentley blockade champions is a signal moment in the efforts of Australian communities to keep their homes, land and water safe from the effects of fracking.
Metagasco, the company the blockaders had been fighting, has had its licence revoked after community anger over the approval process. Metagasco has now been referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Bentley is only one of many similar stories.
Around the country, communities are banding together in shared outrage at the threat to their water supplies posed by coal mining and gas drilling. Previously unthinkable alliances have formed between radical environmentalists, farmers, traditional owners, even Alan Jones.
These alliances form not only because the rivers and aquifers the community relies on are threatened, but also because the state governments they elected have failed in their duty of care to the towns, farms and businesses that depend on fresh, reliable, safe water.
That really is the point. People power is one of the most stirring, inspiring drivers of social change and protecting the things we value most.
But to make sure we have safe drinking water, surely we shouldn’t have to spend weeks on end camped out at mine sites. Surely we should be able to rely on our elected representatives to make decisions that, at the very least, take our health and clean drinking water into account.
The Bentley blockade was successful, but many other destructive resource extraction projects proceed despite fierce community resistance. Think Leard Forest, Maules Creek and the new, Queensland Government-approved Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin, the biggest coal mine ever to disrupt Australian soil.
Just last year a law was amended to fix this problem. Its esoteric name may serve to obscure its importance, but the ‘water trigger’ in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act is supposed to protect communities like those at Maules Creek.
The ‘water trigger’ simply means that when a community’s water could be impacted by a mining proposal, then the decision about whether or not the mine goes ahead must go to the Federal Government.
Why is the national government better placed to do this that states? Let me count the ways.
One, the federal tax base is broad and deep and nowhere near as dependent on mining royalties as the state. When State Governments are as strapped for cash, as they are right now (and when the federal government decides to pull a further $80 billion from health and education), the temptation to bow to the revenue that mines create is too great for state governments to resist.
Two, water doesn’t respect state boundaries, so why should the laws that govern them? The classic example of this is the Murray-Darling Basin. States handed out water licences like candy, hoping to reap the dividends. But so much water was being extracted upstream that the river wasn’t making it all the way to the ocean anymore, causing devastation to farmers, communities and the environment in parts of South Australia, particularly around the Lower Lakes and the Coorong.
Three, the Federal Government has an ability to bring together genuine scientific clout and fund it to get genuine, useful data to aid in making decisions.
The man whose finger currently rests on the water trigger, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, doesn’t want the responsibility. He wants to hand the power to approve mines back to his state counterparts. But state governments have a history of disregarding the health risks of unchecked mining.
Minister Hunt tossed this legislation to parliament just days after the Carmichael mine was approved, despite experts from the Independent Scientific Expert Committee saying it posed serious risks to the Great Artesian Basin.
This is about more than which Minister has the right to say yea or nay to new industrialisation.
It’s even about more than the rights of those at Bentley, Carmichael, Leard Forest and Maules Creek who are fighting to keep their communities safe and healthy.
This is about the water we drink. It’s about the natural life support systems we all depend on. It’s about a world where the power of money, and the big polluters who toss it around, can only be countered by passionate residents who are unable to rely on the governments that claim to represent them.
It’s about the water. The water you drink. The water that feeds the crops of the food you eat. The water your kids swim in on holidays.
If the Minister is allowed to pass the buck on this, there’s every chance one day it will be you on a picket line defending the stuff you used to think just came out of the tap.
Jonathan La Nauze is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s healthy ecosystems program manager.