“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





25 November 2015


Labor stops making wood but insists fracking can still be safe in SA's famous Limestone Coast 

For a moment Dirty Harry was in my bedroom. That edge of slumber thing where dreams dance in and out of wakefulness. There stood Clint, lightin' up a Lucky and blowin' the smoke off his .44.

In his best 'make my day' voice, he half-whispered:

"We believe that fracking can be safely carried out, provided there are strict environmental safeguards."

It was the South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill (above) coming outa the morning wireless. He was in Mount Gambier, the biggest town in South Australia's famous Limestone Coast wine region, for a Country Cabinet community forum. Turned out that maybe 40 of the 300 citizens who rocked up were outside the hall demonstrating against the petrochem exploration and drilling that's been going down in their countryside. I understand there were more questions along the same lines inside. Many of the Limestone Coast winery people are very worried.

Their district contains the wine regions of Bordertown, Padthaway, Wrattonbully, Robe and Coonawarra.

There are lots of different sorts of subterranean water beneath the Limestone Coast. The caldera of the dormant Mount Gambier volcano contained four lakes until the region's greedy irrigators dried two of them out through their bores, lowering the region's water table over the last 40 years. These two, the Blue Lake and Valley Lake, remain.
The intricacies of soft or shallower rock fracking and deep stratigraphic exploratory drill holes are complex and disparate, but this took me back to the early 'seventies, when as young Department of Mines and Energy missionaries, my boss and I took a display caravan to the south-east - now called Limestone Coast - to explain to the grape farmers that the days of haphazard, relatively shallow water-bore drilling through the Coonawarra aquifers were over: bad water aquifers were leaking into good water aquifers and things were in a mess.

Very tight regulation was the new thing: permits were now required, and rigid guidelines set for drillers.

Penalties were imposed on law-breakers. Extant bores, and their water, would be closely monitored; old broken ones sealed and capped.

Under the enlightened leadership of Premier Don Dunstan and equally astute Mines and Energy Minister Hugh Hudson, South Australia suddenly led the world in underground water conservation.

I'll never forget the haughty disbelief, even disdain those wine blokes showed us. They were 100 per cent blokes then; blazers, moleskins and striped shirt type blokes. Some of them are still there. We were merely pesky gubmint interferists. But the message gradually sank in over the many years, and now some of the winery folks, and others, are experts at the local subterranean realities.

Today, government people are adamant that fracking is not on the cards. Yet.

They correctly point out that not even the energy explorers with approval to drill have applied to frack anything, but it seems that while the cabinet has at some recent time been told such things are more than possibly safe, the folks in the Limestone Coast Protection Alliance have been doing their groundwork. They're certainly not all merely half-informed and feverish. Some appear to know a lot more than many key government figures about the dangers, short-term and long, of drilling holes into the Earth's crust.

Not to mention fracking in naturally saline environments, like the ancient seabed limestones of their region.

Typical Coonawarra soil profile: thin Terra rossa over calcrete and old seabed limestone, which is highly porous ... while the Coonawarra stuff is younger, the limestone of the Mallee and Limestone Coast is up to 35 million years of age and can retain much ancient marine salt, much of it many times more salty than today's ocean  ... photo Milton Wordley
"We only support the safe mining and exploitation of natural resources," the Premier had continued, "so we would never let there be approvals for any processes that would damage our precious natural resources - including our water resources - which are such a crucial part of the South East economy.

"We'd insist on that if ever there were to be an application to do such a thing here.

"But all there is at the moment are propositions. There are no current applications which are live, but when they are they'll be getting the strictest possible evaluation."

The Premier's timing wasn't the best. Only the day before the Australian Greens had confidently announced their Renew Australia policy, their detailed plan to limit Australia's energy use to at least 90 per cent renewables within fifteen years.

If fracking were permitted in the region, fifteen years should be enough time to show clearly the validity of this government's stance.

Strange things happen down in that crust. The Premier's measured optimism brought to mind one of the region's first deep stratigraphic bores, Caroline No. 1, which was drilled in 1966-67 in the hope of finding oil or gas. Alliance Oil had been granted a permit to drill into the promising Otway Basin, on a dead-end road in an out-of-sight spot in the forest 12 kilometres south-east of Mount Gambier.

At 2,500 metres, they hit paydirt. Or gas. There was whoopin' and hollerin' until they discovered the stuff gushing up their hole wouldn't burn. Instead, it extinguished flame, along with the drillers' eureka glee. It was CO2: carbon dioxide. Since then, the well has produced an average of 65 tonnes of CO2 per day. Sometimes she gushes more than 100 tonnes.

While it's all sold profitably by Air Liquide Australia, which is listed on the Paris stock exchange, that's just one hole releasing all that CO2, eventually to the atmosphere, without even having to burn petrochem of any sort. So far, that hole drilled by hopeful oilers has given us 1,000,000 tonnes of CO2.

Lots of surprises can be encountered down there in the crust.

But winemakers, and not just the Limestone Coast crew, have similarly pressing issues to address, and as far as we know, these are much closer to the surface.

Take the government's contentious sale of the pine forests of the Limestone Coast. While Premier Weatherill pointed out that the "forestry and forest products sector is now employing more people than it was four years ago when people were predicting dire consequences as a consquence of the sale," those forests are a major source of the countless millions of trellis posts we see in vineyards all over Australia.

These posts are sometimes treated with creosote, which is downright poisonous, but most often with copper chromated arsenate (CCA), which is worse.

'Minimal' pruning in Coonawarra ... mainly done mechanically, and much cheaper than hand pruning, it leaves all that messy wood in the foliage crown ... this hosts many bugs and moulds, making more fungicides and pesticides necessary ... these vines are trellised on copper chromated arsenate posts from the local forests which Labor recently sold.

In the region in which I live, McLaren Vale, there were about 7,500 hectares of vines last year. At an average of 600 posts per hectare, we have somewhere around 4.5 million posts. These wear out, harvesting machines break them, new ones are required for new plantings, old ones pulled out and stacked.  Apart from a few new vineyards using stinking creosote, like Treasury Wine Estates seems to prefer in some locations, as in their newer Coonawarra and McLaren Vale vineyards, these posts are largely CCA treated.

There are about 140,000 hectares of vineyards in Australia.That makes something like 84 million of these bloody posts. In the ground. Only the Devil knows how many old uprooted ones are stacked to rot, and where.

In its Environment Protection Agency Guidelines (2004), the same government which grew many of these posts in the Limestone Coast forests clearly states "an economically and environmentally sound disposal technology for large quantities of CCA waste timber is not available in South Australia at this time."

Pine forest on the Limestone Coast: a field group examining rehabilitation trials after harvesting ... photo PIRSA

As far as my research reveals this is till the case. You're not permitted to burn them or bury them. You're not supposed to let them get wet. But they're stockpiled in vineyards all over Australia. Piled up out the back somewhere: behind the shed or where the old fridges and washing machines go to die. They're given away for folks to use in their veggie gardens, even used for playground construction. They get chipped and used to stop the growth of plants. They go into landfill.

So there's an important environmental issue that the Limestone Coast, as a prime source of the stuff, must address the same as every other wine region in Australia, as consumers of these things.

So far, it seems to be largely an above-ground problem. Nobody that I know of has properly researched what happens when this poison goes undergound, into the water the concerned citizens of the Limestone Coast are increasingly keen to protect and preserve.

"This is one of the great food and wine districts," Premier Weatherill said in Mount Gambier. "Not only of the nation, but of the world. And of course the traditional strengths of the pastoral industry.  And the forestry and forest products sector ... there's a rosy future for the South East and we want to find ways in whch we can continue to assist this community to grow."

Dirty Harry might have to get a lot damn tougher.

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