Falkirk Community Charter is a UK first

A press release by Concerned Communities of Falkirk

Concerned residents of Falkirk District, Stirlingshire made history on Wednesday 3rd July 2013 as they handed over their Community Charter to Angus MacDonald, local MSP. Mr MacDonald’s constituency is one of those affected by the UK’s first commercial Unconventional Gas (UG) development.

Photo of Falkirk residents handing their Charter to Angus MacDonald

Mr MacDonald said, “I am delighted to support the empowerment of local communities and receive this document which I will formally pass on to the Scottish Cabinet. I believe it is the first Community Charter of its kind in this country…I have and will continue to work with constituents and Scottish Government agencies to ensure that if further development goes ahead it is done safely and responsibly with due regard to local residents and the environment.”

The Community Council and people of Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood have produced the Charter as a response to Australian firm Dart Energy’s application to pursue UG development in the Forth Valley between Falkirk and Stirling. The community wants protection from what they consider a destructive, risky development close to their homes (boreholes even run under some houses), on prime farmland, and in green-belt and wildlife conservation areas. The Charter sets out a clear vision of what the community values and wants to safeguard.

Falkirk area residents, click here to sign our Charter!

Larbert resident Dr Fiona Williams said: ‘Evidence from other countries shows that UG drilling can cause significant health problems, and many of the impacts are not yet fully understood. I’m concerned about the health of my children and don’t want my family exposed to these risks. Our Charter emphasises children’s health and well-being.’

Both Dart’s application – and the community response – could set a precedent for elsewhere. As up to 60% of British countryside (notably swathes of Scotland’s Central Belt), is being considered for UG in forms of Coal Bed methane and Shale Gas extraction, there are far-reaching implications.

Created through public meetings, with pro-bono support from lawyers and consultants, the Charter maps tangible and intangible ‘assets’, including public and environmental health, which local people consider essential to their present and future well-being. It also sets out community rights and responsibilities to protect these ‘assets’ from harm, such as meaningful participation by residents in planning processes.

Convenor of Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council, Eric Appelbe, said: ‘The Charter lends further weight to the Community Council’s representations given the background of concern from the community, as well as the identified potential impact on environmental and public health assets. We are pleased to have had some input and wish to be associated with its terms.’

The Charter is not a legal document, but the intention is to give it legal effect through the planning process. Drawing inspiration from Community Bills of Rights in the USA – often a community response to unwelcome UG developments – the Charter also refers to the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, which recognises the importance of ‘cultural heritage’ in a broad sense. This ground-breaking document is a direct expression of community opposition to Dart Energy and any future unwanted, risky developments. ‘Our democratic and legal systems should be protecting our communities from harmful vested interests, not the other way around. That’s why it was felt a Charter was needed,’ said Jamie McKenzie Hamilton, who has been involved in its creation.

On June 25th, Falkirk Council’s Planning Committee passed a motion asking for a Public Inquiry, and recommending refusal of Dart’s recent appeal to Scottish Government for non-determination of their application. Larbert, Stenhousemuir and Torwood Community Council and local residents join that call for a Public Inquiry in a letter submitted with the Charter, which itself declares the community’s rights to have its voice heard. Seven Community Councils officially oppose Dart’s application. A Biomass Plant at nearby Grangemouth recently got the go-ahead despite fierce local opposition. On UG, however, Falkirk Communities appear to be drawing the line.

Further information for editors

Major concern escalated in the Falkirk area from late 2012, when hundreds of people – including many owners of new homes – received notification of their proximity (20 metres) to Dart’s proposed site. Some families had just moved in, only to learn they would be living near to gas-wells, and that Dart proposed drilling boreholes close to, or actually under, their homes. While the UK government granted a license for exploratory drilling locally some years ago, Dart Energy’s plans for a commercial gas-field worries residents and farmers, faced with the prospect of potentially hundreds of wells and associated infrastructure across the region.

Dr Fiona Williams, who lives in Larbert, says: ‘Who is going to be monitoring, how often, and what chemicals will be monitored? My strongest fears relate to air quality. There is very little in Dart’s Environmental Statement about the impact of fugitive emissions (leaks), despite the fact that in other countries wells have shown to leak significant amounts of methane into the air.’

SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) is under pressure over its proposed regulation, while international toxics expert and adviser to Australian Government, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, has called the unconventional gas industry ‘unregulatable’. Australian state of New South Wales has banned all CBM activity (CSG) within 2 km of residential areas and rural businesses in response to scientific evidence and community pressure. As many people in Forth Valley live within 2km of Dart’s site, they are asking why they are not being afforded similar protection.

The Community Charter follows on from the Falkirk Community Mandate, a detailed objection letter co-developed by local residents, calling for an overhaul in policy given the risks found to be posed by UG elsewhere. Over 2000 Mandates were signed within a few weeks and delivered to Falkirk Council, with numbers still rising.

Against this background of public opposition, Falkirk Council commissioned a report from AMEC Consultancy on various aspects of Dart Energy’s potential activities, requesting further time to consider Dart’s application. AMEC’s report concluded there was a need for further information from Dart. At the beginning of June, Dart appealed to the Scottish Government on the basis of Falkirk Council’s non-determination of their application.

Dart Energy’s current application is to extract Coal Bed Methane (CBM) from 22 wells at 14 locations. CBM extraction, an industry relatively new to the UK, involves drilling deep into coal-seams vertically and horizontally for a kilometre or more to remove methane gas. In the CBM process, huge quantities of salty waste-water are pumped out containing naturally-occurring toxic chemicals (some are known carcinogens), and issued, partially-treated, into the River Forth, a RAMSAR site and SSSI. Possible risks include underground migration of toxic gases and water, air pollution linked to fugitive emissions, flares and venting, soil-contamination and problems with heavy traffic.

Although Dart Energy says they do not employ the controversial process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing of underground rocks to release gas), fracking has been used by previous licence-holders – unknown to most local residents – and evidence from elsewhere shows that up to 40% of CBM wells are eventually fracked. There is shale below the coal in Central Scotland, and fracking is inevitable for shale-gas extraction. Dart Energy have a half-share in the licence to extract shale-gas locally.

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Publication date: 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013