Call for frack-free Mid West

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

In a David and Goliath battle between rural communities and the oil and gas industry, the community of Irwin is now the fifth Western Australia region to declare itself "frack-free".

At a rally at the weekend, more than 100 people opposed the non-conventional gas fracturing practice, or fracking, with locals calling on the State Government to give farmers the right of veto over gas companies.

The move follows in the footsteps of the communities of central Greenough, Greenhead, Carnamah and Cervantes, with farmers and residents throughout the regions locking their gates to gas fracking companies.

Rod Copeland, a horticulturalist from the Irwin region, said millions of dollars of crops were at risk from possible chemical contamination as a result of fracking practices.

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But he said with no power of veto over an oil or gas exploration claim, farmers had limited rights when it came to refusing fracking on their properties.

"We believe that this is the next biggest health issue facing Australia since asbestos," he said.

"Contamination does not recognise property boundaries."

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of rupturing rock at depth using high-pressure chemicals to release the methane gas contained in the rock.

Mr Copeland said residue from chemicals used in the process could seep into the bore water used for irrigating intensive crops in the region, such as mangoes and melons.

He said under an industry code of practice, all new crops were randomly tested for residue chemicals, and a clean water supply was critical in producing first-class produce.

He said any contamination could cost him millions of dollars.

"My 600,000-kilolitre water licence is the most valuable part of my business and I don't want anyone to put that at risk," he said.

But chief operating officer for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Stedman Ellis, said the oil and gas industry had been operating in the region since the 1960s with more than 200 wells drilled safely and successfully.

"Mid West communities should look beyond the misinformation spread by anti-development activists and consider the facts," he said.

"Shale and tight gas has the potential to become a new industry for the Mid West, creating jobs and economic opportunities for local communities, providing revenues for government and generating a safe, clean and abundant new energy source for all West Australians.

"Mid West residents can be confident that WA's onshore gas industry is strictly regulated, technically advanced and strongly committed to the highest possible environmental and safety standards.

"People who say no to natural gas are saying no to jobs and economic opportunities for local businesses, reduced carbon emissions and increased energy security."

Mr Copeland cited a leak in a fracking well in 2012 only one kilometre from his property that could have caused irreversible damage to his aquifer.

He said in a survey completed in October last year, 97.7 per cent of nearby residents supported his call for gas fracking to cease in the Irwin community.

The Shire of Irwin has said it will remain neutral on the issue but would act as an advocate and information conduit. Shire president Stuart Chandler said the Shire was mindful that many in the community were employed in the oil and gas industry.

"While we acknowledge that there is a section of the community against fracking, we know there are a lot supportive of it also," he said.

He said the Shire would hold a gas industry information expo at the end of August.

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