As part of the Ditch Coal tour, Vladimir Slivyak and Anne Harris visited the Woodburn protest camp outside of Belfast. At the camp local people are fighting against Infrastrata’s exploratory drilling for oil in the Woodburn forest.
The Stop the Drill Campaign is raising awareness about the drilling in the Woodburn Forest, only 380m uphill from a major drinking water reservoir and within a drinking water catchment area, putting this water at risk of contamination. The campaign questions the role of Northern Ireland Water, the only provider and regulator of the local water supply, in leasing the site to an oil/gas company for up to 50 years.
Ecodefense are a Russian environmental group working on campaigns against the coal and nuclear power industries. Their co-chair Vladimir Slivyak is visiting the UK to raise awareness of the negative impacts the UK’s sourcing 31% of its coal from Russia. Talks organised with the Coal Action Network and London Mining Network focus on the damages caused to people living in the Kuzbass coal fields, in Siberia. Vladimir has been meeting with politicians, industry and local people to galvanise support for his goals, shared with the Coal Action Network, to ask difficult questions concerning coal extraction and to campaign to close the UK’s remaining 8 coal fired power stations without closure plans to reduce this harm.
Being at the site made it so clear that we are fighting the same issues. Not just the obvious shared battle against climate change, but also a common concern about water pollution. Local campaigners at Woodburn are concerned about the proximity of the drilling to the water supply for over 1800 streets, half of Belfast. In Russia official statistics say that in the Kuzbass region, where most of the coal produced for export is mined, 93% of the drinking water is contaminated. Given that Russian government statistics like to paint a favourable picture it is likely that in fact 100% are poisoned.
“My mummy told me water is more precious than oil,” says a placard at the Stop the Drill camp.
The issues of water pollution from the coal industry have been effecting this community since Kilroot power station was built. Local people at the Woodburn camp spoke of the impacts they witnessed on biodiversity caused when Kilroot power station was built in 1974. It polluted the waters killing off wildlife. Kilroot power station burns coal, predominantly imported from Russia and Colombia, as well as oil and biomass.
Given the sensitivity of the Woodburn forest, with regards to capacity to pollute the water supply, local farmers where forcibly cleared from their lands in 1899 by the Water Act. Since this time the remaining farmers have been restricted in the way they can manage their land, including the prevention of use of fertilisers and construction of buildings. By contrast an oil extraction company has been allowed to fell trees and construct a large compound. In the last two weeks they have begun exploratory drilling. The potential to pollute the watercourse is great.
As is the case with many communities at the front lines the people living near Woodburn have taken action against the work starting. This has included occupying the site on more than one occasion, slow walking the vehicles bringing in the drill rig and trespass (according to the police – local people see that it is really the company which is trespassing.)
In Northern Ireland there is a law which allows planning applicants to be given ‘Permitted Development’ status if the council does not respond to a planning application within three weeks. The Infastrata development has ended up with permitted development status as a result of a non-response from the council in the necessary time frame. This means that where a local resident may need a full planning hearing to build an extension this drilling does not.
The HGV movements, blocking of a public right of way without any diversions, noise pollution, lack of community consent, contribution to climate change and potential to pollute waterways on this site has not been subject to any real planning control. Local people suspect that this was not merely an omission on the behalf of the council.
Similarly in Russia there are planning controls but corruption and crony-ism mean that massive opencast mine sites are approved and then not restored on completion without any questions being asked. When there are issues raised companies are only subjected to symbolic fines and do not rectify the damage. One of the ways that this is clearest is that of the 6500 km2 of coal mines only 1.6 km2 has actually been restored.
A common theme running between various methods of fossil fuel extraction is a lack of community consent. Anyone who visits Woodburn can see that the local people do not want this work to be taking place. The camp is supported by local businesses such as taxi companies which refused to carry the workers for this site after they became aware of the issues. The people sat at the camp are used to walking their dogs through these woodlands, they drink the water from this catchment area, their children play here and they appreciate the wildlife living in the area.
In Russia indigenous people used to rely on their land for everything, not only clean air and water to drink, but also on the wildlife which they hunted and fished, trees which they used for building and for foraging from and of course soil to grow food. Now the indigenous Shor people are battling to stay in their villages. Communities are now surrounded by coal mines blasting rock into the air, preventing them from growing safe food, killing the wildlife and deforesting large areas of land.
Earlier in our tour Vladimir and Anne spoke at the Borras and Holt Community Protection camp near Wrexham in Wales. The issues near Wrexham are very similar to in Russia, Woodburn and the UK’s opencast mine sites. Local people have been occupying a field since October 2014 to prevent fracking taking place. Fracking poses well documented risks to water supply with the famous video Gasland showing tap water being set alight. Local people came to the camp to hear Vladimir speak and showed clear opposition to the proposal to drill, as does the farmer enabling protesters to live on the field. These people are clearly not going to let Igas away with drilling and their plans to destroy this environment.
The issues which lie at the centre of these campaigns are shared with communities resisting opencast coal mines within the UK. For info on these see other articles on our website coalaction.noflag.org.uk
Although it can sometimes feel daunting to see that there are so many issues to fight it feels reaffirming to see that there are so many courageous people across the UK and the world fighting for the most basic of rights – clean water, air and access to land. Coal Action Network sees that it is vital to our sustainability of our campaigns and movements that we learn from and support each other.
If you have never been to the local resistance camps visit them this week. For those on the front lines the world over, we are with you!