A Beef Central article on Monday revealing that a report developed by Meat & Livestock Australia to provide advice on producer liability issues in the event of a Coal Seam Gas contamination incident was not released has sparked a strong reaction from landholder groups.
The Basin Sustainability Alliance (BSA), a group representing landholders and rural communities, is urging MLA to release the report that is believed to shed light on who is liable in the event that CSG and mining related activity causes contamination in cattle and other livestock.
BSA Chair David Hamilton said the group was shocked to read Beef Central's report on Monday – since widely reported by other print and electronic media – that the MLA funded report, initiated by the Cattle Council of Australia and the Australian Lot Feeders Association had been kept secret for more than 12 months.
“We can only assume, by the fact that the report has been withheld, that the news is not good for cattle producers or for that matter any other livestock producers who are required to sign a National Vendor Declaration (NVD) on the sale of their livestock,” Mr Hamilton said.
He said the background to the concern is the fine issued to Santos for contamination of an aquifer in NSW.
“While this event has not caused any contamination to livestock, it has highlighted that there is a risk of contamination from CSG operations. BSA is keen to understand the legal implications of this risk, should livestock be contaminated.
“At a time when government and industry are promoting coexistence, it is vital that landholders have a full understanding of what risks they are facing with CSG activity on their land or nearby properties.
“It would be outrageous to think that a livestock producer who does all the right things in his or her
own operation could be held liable for the actions of the CSG industry, especially when you consider
that landholders do not have any legal right to deny the CSG industry entry to their properties.”
Mr Hamilton said it was critical that landholders would not be left to assume the risk of the new industry if it was found to be contaminating their food products and affecting long term markets.
“Firstly the report needs to be made public and if it shows that livestock producers are legally
exposed, then it is critical that liability from CSG or mining activity does not attach to the livestock
producer. Somehow this liability needs to be shifted.
“This is another problem, not of the livestock producers’ making, that comes at a time when most are facing one of the worst droughts in history.
PRA: Negligence exposes beef producers to unnecessary risks
Property Rights Australia is also calling for the immediate release of the report.
PRA chair Joanne Rea said the question of liability weighed heavily on the minds of cattle producers in coal seam gas areas and was the reason why the research project was initiated.
“The non-release of this report raises so many questions starting with, “Did MLA and Cattle Council Australia (CCA) not question the validity of the law firm’s advice? Surely they have a greater responsibility to the levy paying cattle producers.”
“Instead of releasing the report CCA issued a communiqué which suggests that having signed a National Vendor Declaration producers are liable for any contamination. Beyond the essential advice that landowners should seek professional advice the information in the communiqué is not fully informed or helpful especially given the naivety of advising, “Find out about the CSG operator. It is important to be sure that you are dealing with a reputable company”
“It is unconscionable that MLA and CCA has left unchallenged the transfer of all the risks to the cattle producers and have not been diligent and proactive to find the means that producers may enjoy full indemnity from an often uninvited guest who shares the same business space,” said Mrs Rea; “Levy payers are not just PIC numbers; they are often farming families who would be devastated financially and emotionally if left exposed and subjected to quarantine because of contamination.”
Landowners who have had specialist legal advice and where precise provision has been allowed for in a Conduct and Compensation Agreement may or may not have some protection in an event of coal seam gas contamination but not so neighbouring properties.
PRA believes that landowners need to be guaranteed complete indemnity for all adverse impacts, both immediate and consequential, upon their business, land, water and assets. Landowners need the assurance that redress is not just available for the life of the resource project.
The funding and structure of MLA and CCA are subjected to the current Senate inquiry into Grass fed beef levies. At the March 10 Canberra hearing evidence was given that the majority of MLA project reports are not released. Senator Heffernan said. “Even if (those figures) are just 10pc right, if you get a research grant surely you have to account for it.”
Lock the Gate: Farmers to foot the bill for mining contaminants?
The Lock the Gate Alliance is calling for an inquiry to determine whether farmers are liable if their cattle are affected by water or food contaminated by coal seam gas.
Lock the Gate’s National Coordinator, Phil Laird said Beef Central’s media report raised serious questions about whether farmers would have to pay the price for contamination caused by mining companies.
Mr Laird, a New South Wales beef producer, said the government and the mining industry should clarify who was legally liable.
“It seems the poor old farmer might be liable if standard residue tests find their animals are affected by contaminants from CSG,” he said.
“The beef and dairy industry in Queensland and northern New South Wales are most at risk but this is potentially devastating for Australia’s entire cattle industry including the export trade.
“We’re talking billions of dollars and thousands of livelihoods at stake here and the Federal Government and the miners must give us straight answers.”
Lee McNicholl, a beef producer on Queensland’s Darling Downs also has concerns. “Farmers living in or near a gasfield often have little knowledge of, or control over contaminants so we face great financial uncertainty if we’re held liable,” he said.
Landholder services advocate: Risks as great from other mining activities
George Houen from Landholder Services Pty Ltd in Toowoomba, said he believed exploration for coal and minerals poses an even greater risk to producers in terms of potential meat residue issues than CSG.
“Tens of thousands of exploration drill holes have been left open and uncased so that bad water, which can naturally contain all sorts of heavy metals et, is mixing with the good; drilling sumps full of vile products of drilling including various chemicals, and spills of lubricants and hydraulic oils etc are open at drill sites for cattle to consume, and they will; machines equipment and vehicles when unattended present cattle with irresistible residues to lick or chew.
“All of that represents non-compliance under the landowner's LPA certification.
The Land Access Code doesn't address the issue but landowners need to ensure that agreements require every work area to be fenced with steel yard panels from first disturbance to rehabilitation, and as mentioned in your article, the resource operator must give a well-worded indemnity.
“And, the environmental conditions need to be updated and the so-called regulators made to do their jobs properly and enforce the conditions without fear or favour.”
- Readers will note that Beef Central's original article, accessible here, has since shot to the top of our website's "Most Popular" list, accessible via the home-page here.