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Coal Seam Gas


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GENERAL PURPOSE STANDING
COMMITTEE No. 5 27 MONDAY 31 OCTOBER 2011

STEVEN ROBINSON, Psychiatrist and resident of Gloucester, affirmed and examined:

CHAIR: Are you representing an organisation or appearing as an individual?

Dr ROBINSON: I am appearing as an individual.

CHAIR: Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr ROBINSON: Yes. I am a retired psychiatrist. I have been retired for about three years. For the last 10 years of my working life I had a practice in Gloucester.

The adverse health impacts of mining enterprises are a great public concern. Coal seam gas mining is in its infancy and it is acknowledged that its precise adverse health impacts are poorly worked out.

Doctors for the Environment Australia have stated that a health impact assessment is essential. Surveys of affected coalmining communities show mental health impacts feature highly, though this is not reflected in legislation, consent conditions, monitoring and harm minimisation activities.

The community anger and stress about coal seam gas exploration reflected in the formation of Lock the Gate et cetera, leads me to expect an increase in mental disorders in the affected communities.

The recent community survey in Gloucester, where coal seam gas mining has been approved, by Gloucester Council of Exploration and Mining showed 85 per cent of respondents thought mining should not occur in scenic areas such as Gloucester and 70 per cent believed the health impact to be very high with stress rating the highest.

The Government is acting contrary to the wishes of the people; hence, I believe, much of the anger.

My hope is that since coal seam gas mining is a new industry the opportunity will be taken to include mental health specialists amongst those designing a new framework for legislation, consent conditions, monitoring and harm minimisation.

It will be essential to screen the affected community prior to commencing any mining so that any noise and fine diesel particle-induced decline in cognitive skills and emotional abnormalities will be detected.

The failure to match the health screening that is mandatory from miners prior to working with a health screening of the potentially affected community has made it very difficult to prove health damage in individuals in the community.

Consequently, extreme anger exists in the community at the failure to recognise and compensate for their suffering. This anger further exacerbates adverse health effects.

The cumulative effect with coalmining-related health damage and the difficulty in determining what amount came from which source may mean any compensation should come from a fund contributed to by every mining company and an independent tribunal should be set up to manage compensation for health and property damage.

 CHAIR: Very erudite. In budget estimates hearings in Sydney last week we were examining the Minister for Resources and Energy. Under the Mining Act an amount is hypothecated into a fund to account for restoration works should a mining company go broke. Currently it is about $1.2 billion we are told.

Mental health is equally important, if not more important, from a restorative point of view.

What sort of resources do you believe should be made available for the types of studies you would like to see done?

Bear in mind that this process could be repeated over and over again in different parts of the State and different localities over the next 10 or 15 years.

Dr ROBINSON: There is a need to do basic studies, as you say and, at a guess, it would cost a few hundred.

CHAIR: Probably a million, would it not?

Dr ROBINSON: Maybe a million, I do not know.

CHAIR: And in your view, would those studies be done by an independent organisation such as a university? Who would conduct those sorts of studies?

Dr ROBINSON: Yes. I know at Newcastle University there is a department that is interested in just such a thing and they have written various papers about the effect of mining on communities.

CHAIR: Are you aware of other jurisdictions anywhere in the world where that sort of thing has been done before?

Dr ROBINSON: No.

CHAIR: No reason why we should not be first?

Dr ROBINSON: Well, that is right. I think the mental health impact is substantial and it does need a lot more work put into it. I am aware that there are a few suicide epidemics and certainly when I was in practice I saw lots of individual cases where the stress of mining appeared to be a substantial stressor.

But one person's private practice is not enough to prove it. It certainly made one suspect that mining is a major stressor and I believe people should be compensated for that.

CHAIR: We had a hearing in Casino where again it might have been a retired practitioner who made similar comments to yours. Even though you are no longer in practice, have you been able to ascertain any trends in your own community or have you seen aberrations? How do you see this as being expressed in your own community?

Dr ROBINSON: I retired three years ago and, as far as coal seam gas in Gloucester Valley is concerned, it was still in the exploration phase. But as I think several people have already described to you, probably the exploration phase is maybe the most stressful.

I did see some people where there was coal seam gas mining on their property but it was mainly coalmining—there are two open cut coal mines in the Gloucester Valley.

I saw lots of people who got depressed because their life plans were ruined. People live near coalmines where there is regular blasting and I saw people who used to have panic attacks every time there was a blast.

Some people come to the bush to escape, so it is not unusual to see the occasional paranoid person and when they have coalminers or gas miners constantly knocking on their doors wanting to buy their land off them, they get a bit more paranoid.

Usually the stress of mining reactivated mental problems in people who had had such problems in the past but in some cases there were people who talked about the stress who had had no previous mental illness. So, as I say, it is mainly a stressor that reactivates old problems.

CHAIR: This General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5 and various select committees have conducted inquiries into things like wind farming and seen similar sorts of things said in those communities.

I have spent a bit of time in the Riverina, looking at the devastating effect on a timber cutting community when its forests are turned into national parks. So it does not seem to be just mines, it appears to be all sorts of things that create sudden change in a community that seem to create these sorts of problems.

Dr ROBINSON: Yes, I agree.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Dr Robinson, following on from what the Chair was saying about the similar effect of wind farms, I was also on that Committee and we took a lot of evidence about the issue of infrasound, which you refer to in your submission. Could I ask you if that is a physical condition or is it purely a mental health condition that affects people, or is it both?

Dr ROBINSON: Well, it is both. As the frequency gets lower, it changes from an acoustic, a sound problem, into a vibration problem. So we cannot hear the very lowest frequencies of less than 20 cycles per second but the vibrations still cause problems and the body reacts.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: So that is more a physical condition, is it?

Dr ROBINSON: It is disrupting and affecting your nervous system as well as your body. That science is still in its comparative infancy. I think the best examples that they give are of it affecting the cardiovascular system. The vibration causes thickening of the walls of blood vessels, which reduces the flow of blood through those vessels.

Similarly, it will cause abnormal activity in the nervous system which could result in anxiety, depression and so on.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: You also raised the issue before of solastalgia.

Dr ROBINSON: That is a word which had not been in the language before, so most people take a step back when they hear it. My take on solastalgia is that it is a grief for a landscape that has been loved and is now lost.

If you travel from Singleton to Muswellbrook, you can understand why anyone living in that devastated landscape would be feeling grief stricken.

That is what the people of Gloucester fear—that our loved landscape will become like that landscape.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: You commented a few moments ago that in many cases the exploration phase is the most stressful, probably more stressful than the production phase. Is that what you mean?

Dr ROBINSON: It is the start. We have not had the production phases, but I anticipate that in the production phase, if you had a gas well 200 metres from your home, the noise would be a significant problem. It is not just infrasound—infrasound is interesting—but people are having their sleep disrupted regularly.

Each well would need some power source and I think that diesel generators will probably be the most common one, according to discussions that I have heard. So if there are diesel exhaust fumes, the fine particles of diesel can cause damage to the nervous system.

In New York, where they have investigated it, it has lowered the IQ of five-year-old children by five points.

I do not know whether the emissions from a gas well will get to a level that  it will cause that degree of damage although I think it is already happening in the Muswellbrook area. It needs to be investigated and I have asked AGL to do so but it has not done it.

AGL is allowed to do flaring with virtually no monitoring being done in the exploration phase. The consent conditions are very lax indeed. So they have done all that flaring and they flare for about six months or more and they have flared 200 metres from people's homes.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: That is certainly an inconsistency in the regulations because as soon as they start collecting the gas, it is classified as a production well and they are not allowed to produce from it, so that will need sorting out.

Dr ROBINSON: I have talked to people from Camden and they told me that, although the well must not be closer than 200 metres, that once the well exists, they can then build a house 20 metres from a well.

Those people will not be entitled to any compensation but those houses will probably be rented and just because the land is valuable, there will be obviously a far greater danger for anyone living that close to a well.

The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Going back to the discussion we were having a moment ago about the exploration phase being probably the most stressful, is that largely because it is the unknown approaching, if I can use that expression? They do not know what they are facing and therefore it is stressful for them?

Dr ROBINSON: Yes, I think it is adjusting to a sudden, new, unexpected situation and because the company is usually very big and their attempts to say, "No, I do not want it. Go away" fail, they feel hopeless and helpless and that is what causes depression, which would be the most common result.

The Hon. GREG DONNELLY: Thank you for coming along and providing some additional evidence this afternoon. In your submission, on page number 3, you have the heading, "What are the effects on the individual of this general stress on residents of a town and valley?"

Can you explain to us your thoughts or your firsthand knowledge about the impact of tensions created in the community, the general social fabric, when you have a scenario whereby you have some members of the community being pulled in one direction and others being pulled in another direction?

How does that play out in the community in the short, medium and long term?

I do not know whether you have the expertise to answer that, but if you do, I would appreciate your thoughts about what is the impact on communities when you have these competing demands on a position?

Dr ROBINSON: Well, I think it makes social situations often very difficult, to discuss things like mining.

If you have, let us say, one person in the household who is not employed by a mining company and is on a low wage or is unemployed and another member who is on an above-average wage and one member who is keen on the environment and another one who is aware that their employment is destructive of the environment, that it is just a situation that generates ill feeling and family disharmony.

We see it played out in our local newspaper or if someone stands up and gives a talk about something, it generally leads on to a bit of aggro. That is not a helpful environment for a community in the long term.

We can have differences of opinion but when it goes on for months and years, that is when stress conditions would usually eventuate.

The Hon. GREG DONNELLY: Would you distinguish that from a community that has traditionally been a mining community? For example, a community that historically has been a mining community, where people have generally coalesced around that industry in their employment or related employment, is a different scenario from a mining industry entering into a community that has not traditionally been a mining community.

Dr ROBINSON: I agree that is a good way of illustrating it. I have not lived in a community that is entirely mining, but I would not expect that family discord to be occurring there.

The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: The Committee visited Chinchilla and I was affected by what a woman said to me during that visit. She said she was sick of talking about it. In a literal sense she was sick of talking about it but I also think she was becoming sick from talking about it.

What is the affect on communities and individuals? You said before that time is a factor in anxiety and fatigue, which then leads to other stress and anger. Will you elaborate on what affect the time factor has on people in dealing with these issues over months and years? Does that exacerbate the level of stress and anger?

Dr ROBINSON: You saying, "sick of talking about it" made me immediately think of my own situation. We purchased a property outside of Gloucester 18 years ago and I rapidly joined the local environment group.

The activities of the environment group used to be going on nice walks and community projects such as gardening and clearing up. Increasingly the environment group has been called on to do mining submissions, so much so that now I spend four or five days a week being angry and I am not an angry person. I can very much relate to that lady.

CHAIR: I am not laughing at you. I suddenly thought that is what happened to the people I represent in about 1992: we started not enjoying ourselves anymore hunting and fishing and became angry young men.

Dr ROBINSON: If I did not have breaks from it from time to time I am sure I would suffer from depression or whatever.

The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: I cover the Mining portfolio for The Greens and I have talked to a lot of people. I found it hard to comprehend the issue of noise, disturbance of sleep and those sorts of things.

Noise can be a significant contributor to mental health issues, can it not?

Dr ROBINSON: Yes.

The Hon. JEREMY BUCKINGHAM: The noise from the mines was something that was commented on by a lot of people in the coal mining communities I have dealt with. Sometimes I would say, "What noise?"

People would say, "Can't you hear it?" I would say, "No". They would say, "Wait". The wind would blow and I would say, "I can just hear it." It was just there. I did not even notice it but to them it was an irritant that was driving them barmy.

Dr ROBINSON: If you move to an area for peace and quiet you become used to a lower background level. So the mining regulations assume that the quietest that it becomes at night-time is a background reading of 30 decibels.

In a town that probably is the background level on a quiet street, but in the bush it is probably more like 20 decibels. This is relevant because if you have about a 15 decibel increase in background noise it is likely to wake you from sleep. All the legislation is written under the assumption that 30 decibels is as low as it goes.

If you have a coal train passing by half a dozen times during the night the absolute sound level may not be a noxious one from the regulations point of view but, if it is waking you up, it is disturbing your sleep.

Your sleep is the time when you are going over the activities of the day, your memories are being laid down and your emotions are being sorted through—that is the sort of thing that happens in rapid eye movement [REM] sleep.

If you are constantly being woken then this is being disrupted and it is likely to lead to mental disorders.

The Hon. SCOT MacDONALD: How do we address the generational equity that you touched on in an earlier answer? As I look around here the older generation have established their assets and have done well; some have moved here from Sydney for a life-style change. How do we say to the younger people, "Sorry, you are going to have to move away because the opportunities are elsewhere"?

Dr ROBINSON: I think we need to be making opportunities for them so that if we take away mining from the Gloucester Valley it should be replaced. I would love to see solar energy or wind energy in Gloucester Valley. Coal mining has not been a boon to us.

We have had coal mining for 15 years and the average wage in the Gloucester Shire is $32,000 per annum. They employ 125 people. It has not been a boon to Gloucester Shire.

The coal seam gas industry is only employing about 20 or 30 people at the moment. It is not going to be an economic boon.

These other industries will employ more people. We need to phase down coal but introduce something to replace it, which will provide those opportunities for young people.

CHAIR: Thank you for taking the time to come along today. It is sometimes difficult to get the type ofexpertise that you bring to the table into these equations. We are very grateful that you have been able to share with us the benefit of your experience.

(The witness withdrew).

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