The Mouse that Roared

Elizabeth Blakeman (1999)

 

From notes on the Nowa Nowa Gorge and the Gas Pipeline intervention

On the 2nd Dec 1999 a fax from an employee in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment told us that the international company Duke Energy Corporation were planning to blast their way through Boggy Creek in the heart of our town to make a passage for a gas pipeline.

Surprised and concerned, I contacted Duke Energy and arranged to meet with their Land Agent. At 10am on the Creek banks near the kindergarten, he told us that we could not have access to the engineering plans nor to the Environmental Impact Statement.

Furthermore, he could not tell us how wide the cut would be, or how deep, or how far into each bank it would be cut. There was no assurance that there was any mechanism or protocol by which any concerns we had could be conveyed to management.

We appeared to be irrelevant and were being dismissed.

We did not take that lightly. We began to gather information.

Botanically, we found that one unique Grevillea and 2 as yet undescribed species of Callistemon had been discovered in the gorge and that the Pittosporum there was an important marker of the past extent of the temperate rainforest.

Geologically we discovered the rock in the gorge was early Devonian volcanic rock, 400,000,000 years old, and that it was jutting out in an usual peninsular into surrounding gravels and sands.

We felt we had established that the gorge was unique scenically, botanically and geologically so we decided to ask for the pipeline to be moved.

I was referred to The Environment Defenders Office, a voluntary organization of lawyers who will work for nothing if they believe the cause is worthwhile, who told us that to set up a legal challenge we needed information in the Environment Impact Statement and the Draft Enquiry Report number E15, both of which were a massive 10 volumes long. We eventually found them, and my husband read and photocopied all the material we needed at the DNRE and Shire offices. It took many hours.

……………………………………………………………

By the December 16th Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai Kurnai woman on the committee, told me she too had been busy! She’d been to the Aboriginal Lands Rights Council, The National Heritage Council and had consulted our local member of parliament.  As a result of her consultations, we became aware that we might end up in the Supreme Court, no small undertaking.

However, nothing daunted, we contacted Duke Energy with all of the research we had collected and asked them to stop work until they met with us and planned an alternate route for their pipeline.

In retrospect, we were, in reality, a mouse that roared.

We braced ourselves to fight against the idea of

lost land,

lost heritage,

lost natural asset

and the rape of the Gorge by a huge multi national company whose profits go to America.”

We organized a community meeting 2 days before Christmas which 25 people from a population of 200 attended, and we subsequently took up a petition which was signed by 111 people, 58 of whom were locals. We felt supported. The petition was tabled in both state and federal parliaments. We made national news.

On 13th Jan 2000 seven representatives from Duke Energy flew down from Wollongong by helicopters. There were about 20 people from NN there. It was a hot day. Amongst other things I said “This is a gorge that has taken 400,000,000 years to form . There is no way that mankind can replace that. It is a special, unique and powerful piece of elemental sculpture moulded by the forces that formed the earth itself. It is not a Disney land construction set that can be re-modelled by the back room boys. Phrases like “Ensuring a smooth transition to the undisturbed bed” ….. are trite.”

Then they spoke and simply presented their unchanged plan to blast through the gorge as though we had had no correspondence and no discussion at all. We appeared to have been completely ignored.

……………………………………………………………

To my great surprise however I received a call the next day in which they offered to move the pipeline 9m further south.

This was however still within the rock and would still need blasting.

Lidia, in particular, held out, and fought for more.

Duke’s next meeting was in Melbourne with the Aboriginal Community and Lidia described it to me as nasty. Duke made unsubstantiated claims concerning aboriginal maps and community consultation and even appeared to offer a bribe with the idea of a new kindergarten.

The Aboriginal Community took direct action and organised stop work Court Orders, and set up blockades.  There was a degree of intimidation from both sides. It was not an easy time but it was effective.

During this period I was reading a book in which the Great Spirit in the Northern Hemisphere was seen to be in the heavens and in contrast, here in the southern hemisphere, “down under” the Great Spirit was in the Land. In discussing this with the Kooris I was told, in return, that they believed the Rainbow Serpent had gathered up all the bad things on earth and buried them in the gorge, set in this hard rock forever, so they would never haunt or trouble the land again. Blasting or drilling would release the evil and was totally unacceptable.   It was good to know what spiritual beliefs were involved, and to realise how they melded with the geological picture we now knew about.

The final meeting was held in neutral territory…..the office of the local parliamentarian. . It was so low keyed that I almost failed to appreciate the moment when Duke said they would move the pipeline 20m south.  I had expected to be jubilant and smiling with delight. In fact we were pretty quiet. The Duke executives left immediately.   The rest of us had sandwiches, a cuppa and went home.

After 5 long months the fight was over. We had finally been engaged in a meaningful dialogue …and consultation, negotiation and reconciliation had won the day.

July 13, 2019
Poems