Helen Bender tragically lost her father, fifth generation farmer, George Bender, after a long, pitched battle with the invasive CSG industry. George took his own life on 14 October, 2015, aged 68 years. Helen has carried on his legacy fighting for the rights of farmers. Her story about CSG and two Queensland towns – Goondiwindi and Miles – was related on her Facebook page yesterday.  For Helen, it’s not just the farmers’ fight now. As she said, “It will take more than a regional community to lock the door to the coal seam gas industry and/or our corrupt governments — it will take a whole nation to hold that door shut.”

THIS IS a tale of two Queensland country towns and how one town has continued to prosper, while the other was blindsided by fabricated lies and broken promises … will your community be next?

The towns of Goondiwindi and Miles featured in separate news articles on the same weekend, while one town’s path took a blinding turn to crash and burn led by the Queensland government and the CSG companies at the wheel, the other town retained all their own natural fibers that holds their golden fabric together so well.

This FB page was contacted by a local business-person from surrounding the township of Miles, requesting that I review two news articles about two towns. I agreed to undertake some basic research and comparisons.

I felt the pain of their words as they wrote about how their business had traded viably for years prior to the CSG industry coming into their region, but as the CSG industry walked in and just as quickly walked back out, their business street address was “relocated” — the same premise, the same street number even, it is only the street name that has been changed to “Struggle Street”. This is what the business owners called their street.

This highlights another issue, there is no means for struggling business owners to have a voice, to speak out as they try to survive the aftermath of what the CSG companies have done to their communities. They fear what the repercussions will be from the industry and the community should they speak out on the real negative impacts that the CSG industry has had on many local businesses. This is only a part of the betrayal that thrives when an industry like the gas industry permanently fractures a community.

You could only assume that Trent Dalton had no idea that his feel-good story about Goondiwindi was going to be published on the same weekend as Gemma Clarke’s tragic story of the rural township of Miles. What an unfortunate inconvenience for Dalton, though what an opportunity for others such as myself.

Considering the two towns are 226km apart from each other on the Leichhardt Highway, how can there be such polarizing differences in these articles? Their differences are of one town being located in the now known region of the Surat Basin (not the Darling Downs), an energy hub where FIFO, man-camps, toxic gas wells, noisy gas infrastructure, nights sky turned to an eerie dangerous glow from the gas cleaning process called flaring. The other town is a humble farming community where residents respect and care for each other and more importantly, is a resource industry-free community!

Surat Basin Gasfields Map

So, let’s start with some basic statistics:

Miles: 340km from Brisbane, population in 2006 was 1,298 (Census) and 2016 was 1,746 (Census)

Goondiwindi: 358km from Brisbane, population in 2006 was 4,713 (Census) and 2016 was 6,355 (Census)

Due to the population difference, a third township was decided to be included in this analysis. Chinchilla was the best choice, in close proximity to Miles and has also undergone the “CSG-effect” at the same time as Miles, and also has a similar population to Goondiwindi.

Here are Chinchilla’s statistics:

Chinchilla: 293km from Brisbane, population in 2006 was 3,682 (Census) and 2016 was 6,612 (Census)

Aerial view of coal seam wells at Chinchilla, Qld. (image via http://www.abc.net.au/)

Taking just a few of the key points of each article, the picture starts to paint itself:

Trent Dalton’s article, ‘Goondiwindi: it’s in the water’, Weekend Australian Magazine, 24 March, 2018:

 “Across the border is the Moree Plains Shire, the wealthiest agricultural shire in Australia. We service half that community. We have good diversity in our agriculture.”

 “We haven’t had any mining, which probably hasn’t brought us the wealth of some other communities, but we also haven’t had that itinerant workforce either, which has probably kept our community quite connected. And we’ve had less people moving away for retirement so it’s grown a lot. If you get the right balance, it works.”

 An unemployment rate of 3.7 per cent; a median house price of $335,500; a country town where more than a quarter of the population are aged under 18. “There are 1600 kids at school here,”. “Unemployment’s low because there’s good quality work. You want a job, you’ll find one here.”

 Gundy has its issues like any other town. The farmers have barneys over water resources. Chinese money’s coming to town in the form of a new abattoir. It’ll spark a small boom, create up to 380 jobs, but some locals are spooked because they don’t want their porridge spoiled. They like it how it is.

 “Law and order is the big worry,” Sam says. “The ice.” He doesn’t mean the stuff Wiggy loves so much. “These towns around us, it’s just gone right through,” he says. “We’ve got it here, too. But it hasn’t quite taken hold yet because we grab the kids when we can and we look after ’em. (you would have to wonder if the Ice comes from the Surat Basin? Though, it has been witnessed by one gas subcontractor that their drug of choice is cocaine)

 “You feel that?” asks Sam Coulton, stopping by a tower of hay on his cotton farm. He looks around on a silent afternoon landscape filled only with crops and sky. He looks north, south, east and west, eyes searching for something that can only be felt.

Meanwhile, 226km north, the local community has this to say…

Gemma Clarke’s article, ‘Miles: The Coal Seam Ghost Town‘, News.com.au, 26 March, 2018:

⚠️ Though it’s not a mining town, Miles was part of southwest Queensland’s coal seam gas construction boom. The explosion in exploration and mining activity in its surrounding areas saw a huge influx in workforce demand and fly-in-fly-out workers from around 2010.

⚠️ “They said they would need accommodation and infrastructure built, and feeding and entertaining. They said we will live locally and buy locally. So the town went wild. The banks lent us all money – the council spent $30 million in Miles alone on water sewerage and waste management,” Mr Sweetapple said, referring to the time around 2008 when the initial presentation from APLNG (Australia Pacific LNG, Origin Energy’s joint venture with ConocoPhillips and Sinopec) was made.

⚠️ Miles’s population was projected to increase to 5000 people, and a growth in the workforce was predicted to continue until 2034.

⚠️ “Imagine you’ve got a son who finishes school and wants to stay around. He gets a job at the local council…His wife works at the tuckshop; the kids are in the swimming club. Then the miners move in, and the agent knocks on his door and says, ‘Sorry mate, but we can get $800 for this place now.’ So your son and his family leave town.”

⚠️ At the peak of the boom, even a space at one of the local caravan parks crept up to nearly $1000 per week. Long-term residents who could no longer afford the rent moved out.

⚠️ “Origin walked into our real estate office one day at the end of 2013 and said, ‘We’re cancelling every lease of the houses we have. If anyone wants a job, they have to live in the camp,”

⚠️ “Virtually overnight, in December 2013, the town just drained out of people and they never came back.”

⚠️ “Having told us they (gas companies) were going to live local and buy local, they then said, ‘Local for us is camps out of town. We’re living in the area.’ As for buy local, they said, ‘We’re a multinational company. We’re APLNG and local for us is Australia and New Zealand, not Miles and Chinchilla.”

⚠️ After the last of the mining workers were shifted out to Condabri, the vacancy rate in Miles rose to 45 per cent, where it stayed at for several years.

⚠️ “Rents were down to $150 a week for those fortunate to have it, that was furnished apartments, furnished houses.”

⚠️ “We’re left with people whose businesses went bankrupt and who lost their homes because they took the punt and invested in building another one. Mortgages and repossessions are happening at least once a week”

⚠️ Today, Miles’ population stands at just 1800, a number that now has to front the cost for the $30 million worth of infrastructure they no longer actually need, the rates on the properties he owns in town have doubled in the last four years.

⚠️ “They (Origin Energy) were in breach already. [The Miles & Districts Chamber of Commerce] got more and more politically active, and we met with [Origin’s] CEO eight times. He basically said that if you make it difficult for us, we’ll make it doubly difficult for you.”

⚠️ “There are just too many empty houses. Who is going to live in them? There’s no work.”

⚠️ I don’t think there’ll be any change. [The coal seam gas industry] has been a complete and utter disaster for the town.”

⚠️ “The gas companies have damaged the very fabric of our town. We were all encouraged to gear up to provide for 40 years of partnership with the resource companies. But they only use tier-1 and tier-2 contractors – they don’t use the locals.”

⚠️ “What’s happened in the town is the most devastating thing,” “If any community was considering it, I’d seriously say don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t believe a word they say. Don’t believe anything Treasury says. It’s all a gross misrepresentation.”

The real estate statistics

If the above articles weren’t convincing enough, the comparison charts on land and house sales over the last 15 years indicates the significant differences in volatility when the resource industry and government make fractured promises. The two charts indicate the trends over 15 years, the impacts and the consequences when a community opens their door to the resource industry.

Real estate house sales & growth (Miles, Chinchilla, Goondiwindi)

Real estate land sales & growth (Miles, Chinchilla, Goondiwindi)

Goondiwindi has maintained positive stability that has kept their community close and prosperous, while Miles and Chinchilla have been put through a turbulent and trying period that has undergone a significant boom and bust of which both towns will struggle to return to “normal”. Their “normal” will never be the old “normal”, it will only be a shadow of a ghost “normal”.

In 2004, the charts indicate that the towns weren’t that different from each other, in fact, they are as you would expect, if like me, you remember the towns before the CSG industry raised its ugly head. A family could have been happy living in any of the towns. The 2017 data however indicates that there would only be one clear winner, and that is the town that has never been fractured by the gas industry.

“The 2017 data however indicates that there would only be

one clear winner, and that is the town that has

never been fractured by the gas industry”

The moral behind this tale is what happens to a community when they open the door to the putrid greed, lies, betrayal and gross misrepresentation of a corrupt and colluding government or industry? This is the outcome when your community signs access agreements and opens the door for the resource industry to walk through.

As a Queenslander who has had her family, home and community destroyed by the CSG industry, this is my personal warning … no community can keep their door closed without the force of the nation holding it closed with you!

It is time to embrace the nation to keep the bastards out for good!

Will you help to close the door on the onshore gas industry in Australia?

(Note: CSG construction completion was probably more around 2014 … but January 2015 was when the first LNG export shipment departed Gladstone)

Helen Bender came to the nation’s attention when she appeared on the ABC Q&A program and asked the panelists: “When will farmers be given the right to say “no” to the CSG companies coming on to their land?” The ALP Federal Shadow Agricultural Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and National Party Rural Health Minister Fiona Nash both palmed off the question by saying that coal seam gas was a “state-based issue”.
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Helen Bender

Helen Bender is a qualified engineer/project manager working in Queensland. Her family has lived in the district of Chinchilla for over a century.

In 2015, her father George Bender ended his decade-long battle against the CSG-industry by taking his own life. Helen has continued to keep her father’s legacy alive through the Helen Bender – George Bender facebook page.

You can follow Helen on her Facebook page here or on Twitter @GeorgeBender68.