March 30, 2015

We need to talk about syngas

A couple of weeks ago, the ABC's 7 o'clock television news lead with an environmental story, which is rare. An ABC reporter had seen a Department of Environment briefing document detailing the health problems of workers at Linc Energy's 'experimental' syngas plant at Chinchilla, on the western Darling Downs, between 2007 and 2013, when the plant ceased operations. The workers' symptoms were consistent with exposure to the chemical components of syngas, which include carbon monoxide, benzene, toluene and others, some of them potentially toxic or carcinogenic substances.

I find it extraordinary that this is only just making headlines. And that they were so short-lived.

Syngas (synthesis gas) is produced when coal is burnt at depth in a process known as Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). This is a controversial and 'unconventional' method of gas extraction from coal seams that are too deep to mine otherwise. The gas produced by burning is collected via wells. This is different from coal seam gas production, whereby water is extracted in order to release pressure underground and hence methane that occurs naturally in coal seams. 'Advantages' of UCG are that the landscape is relatively unharmed, emissions are low, and the gas can be used to generate power or be condensed to make liquid fuel such as diesel. On the down side, its extraction is expensive to set up, and the technology is 'highly specialised' and not necessarily familiar to regulators.

Linc Energy has also been investigated by the Department in connection with environmental damage at the Chinchilla operation. This allegedly involved the fracturing of the overburden above the coal seam cavity, with its implication for gas escape. And evidence, during monitoring by the Department, of toxic gas and hydrocarbons in soils below the surface has given rise to speculation about an underground fire.

The concerns of local residents, farmers and communities as a whole about the ill-effects on their health and environment of mining – conventional or otherwise – have intensified in the last few years as the extractive industries have expanded and the people affected have become more numerous, knowledgeable and organised. CSG exploration began in Queensland in 1976 in the Bowen Basin, but was not developed commercially until the early 1990s. By contrast, coal was first exported from Newcastle in New South Wales in 1799.

Last week's Q&A, a few days before Saturday's state election in New South Wales, was broadcast from the Sydney Showground following the Royal Easter Show, and the audience was predominantly rural. A question from a farmer, Sarah Ciesiolka, produced the most animated and heartfelt response from an audience that I've seen on the programme. She said:
I live and farm in the shadow of the largest proposed coal seam gas development in New South Wales. My family puts food on the tables of every Australian. Very little has been said about the large-scale costs and risks of CSG in terms of water, health, air quality, and contamination of the food chain. My question is this. What will it take for the major parties to prioritise the nation's food security and water resources for current and future generations of Australians, because CSG is risking the things that are priceless – clean air, clean water and land to grow clean, healthy food?
After a couple of the panellists' views had elicited even more passionate noises from the audience, presenter Tony Jones asked them to raise their hands if CSG was a vote-changing issue for them. He estimated that between a half and three-quarters put their hands up.

Such a degree of concern seemed to have been borne out in certain regions of New South Wales as results came in over the weekend. The Liberal and National shares of the vote were substantially reduced, especially in constituencies where CSG or coal mine expansion is contentious, such as Campbelltown and Upper Hunter. It looks likely, but is not yet confirmed, that the Nationals were booted out by the Greens in Ballina; and the outcome is similarly uncertain down the road in Lismore. This is the Northern Rivers region and beyond, where lush farm land is fiercely protected by objectors. We were there in June last year, and strong feeling was evident in many communities along our route (pictures top and bottom), much more so than in Queensland's Darling Downs, where existing CSG wells and exploration sites for proposals pepper the landscape like a serious rash. In the Queensland state election at the end of January, saving the Great Barrier Reef was the single big environmental issue rather than mining.

During the New South Wales campaign, the Greens called for a statewide ban on CSG, while Labor wants the industry to be kept away from the Northern Rivers, the Pilliga State Forest in the northwest plains of New England, and water catchments. The Baird government has said it will tighten up regulation and monitoring, but a lot of doubt remains about where CSG development will be permitted in the state. Plans for massive expansion of some Hunter Valley coal mines have come to light in the meantime.

Federal Senator Larissa Waters (Greens) has introduced the Landholders' Rights to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2015. Submissions close on 29 May – write to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications*.  Such rights were done away with by the previous government (LNP) in Queensland. They are vitally important and will hopefully be restored as soon as possible by the new Palaszczuk government.

Increasingly there are those people, however, who believe that fundamental change will ultimately not come about by means of political lobbying but by the people doing it for themselves.

March 16, 2015

Out and about with a visitor

The week before last we had a visitor to stay, for nine days. Most of that time he was working his wotnots off, but we did get out a bit. He escaped the usual first-time-visitor orientation, in which I produce maps of Brisbane and region; then Queensland; and finally the whole Australian continent. It's easy to underestimate distances here; some people only vaguely know where Brisbane is on the map, let alone the Sunshine and Gold coasts. Even getting to grips with the state capital is tricky since the mighty Brisbane River wiggles its way to the ocean in a most disorientating manner.

The best way to see Brisbane is from a CityCat. The first high-speed CityCats, four of them, were introduced in 1996. Two more were added the same year, and another two in 1998. From 2003, the CityCats really took off: in 2006, 5.9 million people travelled on the network; and by 2009 there were 14 vessels in operation. In October 2014, in time for the G20, the 20th CityCat was launched. The fleet has helped to put Brisbane on the tourist map.
Old and new at Bulimba ferry terminal
How many cranes?
I sometimes wish I had a job in the CBD. I can't think of a better way of travelling to work than on a ferry in year-round fabulous weather. If you've recently got off a long-haul flight, it's rather pleasant to sit in the breeze and mindlessly, if necessary, watch the city unfold before you.

We took our visitor, an engineer and inventor, downstream to Hamilton North Shore, which seemed apposite. There is a cafe from where you can observe a residential city transforming into a working port. But we stayed on the ferry and sailed upstream to South Bank for a long lazy lunch in the Queensland Art Gallery's delightful cafe, adjacent to the 'signature Watermall and sculpture gardens'.
I have never been to QAG and not found something interesting. On this day I thoroughly enjoyed Columns by Zilvinas Kempinas, which 'contrasts the sense of permanency created by its classical colonnade with the ephemeral and now almost obsolete material of VHS tape used to construct it'.
Patrick Thaiday's Zugub (Dance machines), featured objects used to animate narrative dance in Torres Strait Island performances featuring loud singing and drumming. And these pots were pleasing.
The following weekend we took our guest further afield – to the Glass House Mountains. Having missed his orientation, he followed our route on the iPad. We turned off the Bruce Highway at Caboolture and drove to Maleny via Woodford, where we had a coffee stop. The rookie navigator suggested a back-ways route off the Kilcoy-Beerwah Road a few kilometres west of Peachester. I was wary. My friend and I have tried on two or three previous occasions to find cross-country alternatives to main roads in this neck of the woods, but have always found that, since our map was produced, they have become no through roads. It's happened enough times now to arouse my curiosity, not to say suspicions. There were no 'private property' signs, so how come public access has been removed? We did come upon a wonderfully rickety-rackety bridge, however, before we had to turn back.
 We lunched in Maleny, in pineapple country.
It was a hot and sunny day, but the visibility wasn't good: the mountains were mistier than ever before from the best lookout on Mountain View Road. Further along, we visited the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve to observe rainforest preserved. It was quite late in the afternoon and the mosquitos were too numerous not to mention. In rapidly fading light, sunlight shafts permitted otherwise impossible photos, but it was difficult to identify either birds in the canopy or Pademelons (small rainforest wallabies) in the undergrowth.
500-600-year-old Rose Gums
Mary Caincross Reserve is a 55-acre remnant of rainforest that used to cover the Blackall Range. It is an ecological island, with no corridors to other remnants nearby. It is likely that other species once lived here before becoming extinct, and that animals currently inhabiting the forest may be threatened in future. It is one of few subtropical rainforest remnants surviving in optimum conditions; that is, flat, relatively deep basalt soils and plentiful rainfall.

We saw Brush Turkeys, Wompoo Fruit-doves and a Golden Whistler: we heard Eastern Whipbirds and a Green Catbird. We saw several Red-legged Pademelons, one of which had a juvenile suckling. The female Pademelon is extraordinary in that, if she becomes pregnant while she still has a joey in the pouch, the new embryo is put on hold until the pouch becomes available. This reproductive system is known as embryonic diapause. She can produce two types of milk at the same time, one suitable for a developing baby and one for a maturing joey. What a clever girl.
On our visitor's last day, we took him to look out over the city and surrounds from Mt Coot-tha. You could barely see the sand blows on Moreton Bay's islands or the Scenic Rim of mountains towards the New South Wales border, but the River's winding path and wide bends were clear enough. It was the weekend, and there were busloads of… how can I put it… eccentric tourists, who we soon wanted to put behind us. We drove down the hill to the Botanic Gardens for some lunch, before having a wander. I've decided I am a foliage person, not a flower person.
A cactus and a koala?
Dusky Moorhens and chicks, above and below
Our guest flew home that night. As ever, it had been a pleasure showing someone round our exceedingly small part of Australia.

March 13, 2015

One of those 'world's gone mad' weeks

The madness may have started with the leaking of the latest craziness in Mining World, aka the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. There are 16 proposals for new or expanded open-pit mines in the Upper Hunter. Seriously. They would cover an area 18 times the size of Sydney. Not the Harbour: we're not talking volumes of swimming pools here, but city limits. This would dwarf any existing mining development in the Hunter, which already scars a once-beautiful farming, wine-growing and horse-breeding region. The current LNP government of New South Wales had been hoping to progress these plans much further before the imminent state election (on 28 March), but there have been setbacks. Hopefully there will be more if the people wisely make this outrage an election issue.

Only a week or so previously, a report, Coal and Health in the Hunter Valley, produced some alarming figures about the coal industry, not least of which concerned its impact on the region's health budget. The ill-effects, both physical and mental, of living in the midst of open pit mines have long been documented, if not acted upon. Perhaps the addition of large numbers and dollar signs will force local government and state politicians to sit up and take better notice.

The expansion plans include a proposal to move an entire village, Bulga, and its 350 inhabitants, out of the way of the already-approved enlargement of the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine, southwest of Singleton. New South Wales's Planning Assessment Commission has suggested the move in order to address the issues of noise, air quality and landscape blight. Many of us know, however, that coal dust blowing in the wind is no respecter of boundaries.

In the space of about 12 hours on Tuesday I read a lengthy piece by Naomi Klein entitled Don't look away now, the climate crisis needs you, an extract from the introduction to her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate; and I watched Gasland 2, Academy Award-nominated Josh Fox's second exposé of the US gas industry's fracking practices and their risk to communities, water and land.

Ms Klein is a well-respected author (No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, among others) and advocate for social change. Her piece – part of The Guardian's major focus, just begun, on the climate crisis – is worth reading for the analogy in the first four paragraphs alone. But I encourage you to read the whole article because there is a positive at the end of a massive tunnel of gloom. There's also a clip from a work-in-progress doco that features the environmental footprint and human cost of tar sand extraction in Alberta, Canada. I can't begin to describe how wretched it made me feel: I needed that ray of hope by the end.

Gasland 2 is pretty desperate stuff, too: not only for the appallingly devastating effects on water resources and the health of those living near thousands and thousands of gas wells from Pennsylvania to Wyoming to Texas, but also the powerlessness of the people and governments in the pockets of large corporations.

Yes, on Tuesday I was challenged to find reasons to be cheerful.

However, one can often rely on Australian PM Tony Abbott for a laugh. 'The suppository of all wisdom' was a winner. Alternatively, his gaffs may be infuriating, staggering or perplexing. Was this guy really a Rhodes scholar? Just when you think he can't come up with anything more outrageous, he manages it, seemingly quite easily. This week he excelled himself. While defending the indefensible – the removal of funding for essential services to remote communities by the state government of Western Australia – he suggested that Indigenous people inhabiting distant outstations were making a 'lifestyle choice'.

For the self-styled 'Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs', who even spent a week in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory shortly after he was elected and yet still doesn't seem to have got to grips with custodianship of country, this was a mistake of monumental proportions. For 'the facts behind the outrage'…

That's probably enough madness – insanity or otherwise – for one post. Have a nice weekend. I might give the media a miss for a couple of days.

March 8, 2015

Leaving Marcia

It had always been our intention to leave Brisbane the day Tropical Cyclone Marcia crossed the Queensland coast north of Rockhampton, 700 kilometres north of the state capital. My friend had expressed a wish to spend his birthday in Byron. Who wouldn't?

We'd known for days that Marcia was on her way, but on Thursday the storm had intensified, from a category 1 to a category 4, surprisingly and alarmingly quickly. It was predicted to veer south after landfall – which occurred at 8 am on Friday 20 February – and Brisbane was in its path to New South Wales.

In the meantime, a trough was already bringing heavy rainfall to Southeast Queensland. I instinctively felt we should leave town sooner than originally planned, at 5 pm. There were already warnings not to travel unless it was essential. I was concerned there would be localised flooding and road closures; and once the wind strengthened, flying branches might be a hazard. Local Butcherbirds were putting the word about.
We left at about 1.30. The motorway wasn't much fun: truck drivers seemed intent on the maximum speed despite poor visibility. The worst of the rain had cleared by the bottom of the Gold Coast, however, and traffic was light for a Friday afternoon.
Byron was ominously grey, but beautifully wild, of course.
By evening, the wind was strong and the rain heavy. We had our own little cabin in town and, having brought food and wine supplies with us, we pulled up the drawbridge.

Marcia continued to confound weather forecasters. Within 150 kilometres south of Rockhampton she'd been downgraded to a tropical low, and by Saturday arvo she'd crossed back over the ocean, avoiding Brisbane, which was drenched but not battered. Our lazy Saturday in Byron was bright and showery. The ex-cyclone was travelling south off the northern New South Wales coast, so we had another wild night and a squally Sunday. 

We decided to walk up to Cape Byron Lighthouse to blow the cobwebs away. The surf was so big at Wategos there was no beach.
Julian Rocks are out there
Squalls at sea
Surf's up at Tallow Beach
The weather became more settled – warmer and sunnier – over the next three days. Marcia was long gone, but her effects were still being felt.

On our last full day in Byron, we drove to what we call Cockerel Beach. (We once saw there the finest rooster you ever did see: magnificent plumage he had.) It's at the northern end of Seven Mile Beach, which extends from Broken Head to Lennox Head. You get there by driving down the unsealed Seven Mile Beach Road, off Broken Head Reserve Road. 

My friend fancied a swim: I still had recent shark attacks in mind. Imagine our dismay when we saw the state of this beautiful shoreline.
View to Lennox Head from 'Cockerel Beach'
This unattractive sea foam occurred up and down the east coast under Marcia's influence. It forms from impurities in the ocean – bits of dead plants and decomposing fish, seaweed excretions, algae, and naturally occurring chemicals and salts – but also pollution and sewage from storm water runoff on land. These impurities are agitated in rough seas, and adhere to bubbles created by the action of powerful waves. We had seen footage of people, especially children, playing in the stuff, but it's not a good idea. The foam conceals rocks – and sea snakes, who are partial to it. 

We didn't linger, returning to Broken Head Beach, which had less foam but enough to deter me from going anywhere near the water.

Our route back to Brisbane on Wednesday was via the Richmond Range, inland from Lismore and Casino, off the Bruxner Highway. I had phoned the National Park's office the day before to check if the Cambridge Plateau Scenic Drive was open. I was told it was, for 4WDs only. 

I know from previous experience that disappointment is only a ranger's daily assessment away. And I had a feeling on this day that we would reach the turn-off to the Scenic Drive and our plan would be no more. Following heavy rain, national parks people and locals alike don't want off-roaders churning up their unsealed tracks. There is a safety issue, too, of course, but inconsiderate visitors who necessitate track work have to be discouraged. 

On seeing the 'road closed' sign, I rang the Park's office again and was put through to a ranger this time. I needed an alternative route.

And so we took the Clarence Way, through open valley rather than along forested plateau, via Bottle Creek. There were always going to be interesting distractions, and I tried to put out of my mind the far-ranging vistas we'd missed.
The National Park warden had advised us to stick to open country, which dries out much faster than dense forest. Before we reached Bonalbo, however, we turned off onto Peacock Creek Road which climbed the Richmond Range in fairly open woodland. This was Tink Tink (Bell Miner) country. Usually difficult to sight in the forest canopy, they were busying all around us when we stopped to listen to their extraordinary calling, and were easy to spot.
We entered the National Park and soon passed by the northern end of the Scenic Drive that was not meant to be.
As we descended the Range, there was a choice of routes to Kyogle. We chose to go via Toonumbar Dam. Unfortunately, important information that we could have done with at the point of decision-making was not made available until we had dawdled by the water and then tried to continue on our way.
We could return to the junction or risk crossing a spillway with swiftly moving, though not deep, water at its centre point. 'If it's flooded, forget it', broadcast hourly by the nation's emergency broadcaster (the ABC) as Marcia bore down on Yeppoon, came to mind. We went back; then via Ettrick, rather than Eden Creek, to Kyogle.

It was 67 kilometres to Murwillumbah, whence we followed the mighty Tweed to the Pacific Motorway. We stopped briefly and caught a lovely view back to Mount Warning.