Farmer's Curtis Island LNG pipeline battle turns sour

A FARMER'S love for the land has resulted in a long and bitter dispute with an international mining giant.

As Gladstone prepared for a gas boom in 2010, Santos was constructing a pipeline through 114 properties to connect its Curtis Island LNG plant to gas fields in the Surat Basin.

Santos GLNG aerial February 2015. Photo Contributed
Santos GLNG aerial February 2015. Photo Contributed Contributed

Two of those south-west Queensland properties - in Inala and Mulawa - belonged to cattle grazier Stephen Swan.

Mr Swan, an experienced farmer and grazier, accused the mining giant of breaching the "environmental authorities" and damaging his land.

But last week Swan's pleas for Santos to "organically certify" his land were denied when Judge John Robertson dismissed the case in the Planning and Environment Court in Maroochydore.

Mr Swan alleged that during and after construction of the pipeline Santos caused "irreversible damage to his property" by removing good red soils, damaging the soil profiles and creating safety risks for his cattle.

"He impressed me as a passionate man with a real and abiding love for his property; a grazier who has always operated his business to the highest standards of land management and animal husbandry," Judge Robertson said in court.

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But in a case that questioned the toll of Queensland's growing gas industry on farming communities, Mr Swan turned "stubborn" toward Santos and its workers.

At its peak there were up to 300 contractors on his property, most were employees of gas contractor Saipem.

Two independent investigators, one chosen by Mr Swan and another by Santos, reviewed Mr Swan's properties for damages and provided recommendations for rehabilitation.

Court documents reveal both Santos' agronomist Neil Sutherland and Mr Swan's chosen expert Steve Dudgeon agreed the land surface had not been "returned to a condition pre-construction use".

The court chose to go ahead with Santos' expert's recommendations, from Mr Sutherland, which included a land and waste management plan.

Santos paid Mr Swan $856,924.29 for 16 invoices including option fees, compensation, fencing and dam repair work.

Contractors have attended to and rehabilitated more than 60% of properties...

The sum paid included $187,350 for the easement and $147,042 in "further compensation".

Former Santos employee who gave evidence for the case Andrew Brier said similar issues were raised in other parcels of land during the construction of the pipeline.

"Since July 2015 (Santos') contractors had been progressing along the (pipeline) and attending the subsidence, erosion, land stability and vegetation issues where they have arose," Mr Brier said.

"Contractors have attended to and rehabilitated more than 60% of properties (with the work being monitored by third party Ausecology) that the pipeline passes through."

A second rehabilitation program, believed to be still ongoing, was rolled out after the two experts found the soil issues weren't resolved.

The dispute turned sour in June 2015 when Mr Swan refused to allow Santos workers onto his property, when they were planning to remove a stockpile of soil so they could continue their work.

After more than two weeks of disagreements, including a phone call to the police, a court order allowed the workers to move it and return it when the work was finished.

"These events give considerable insight into how difficult Swan was to deal with at this stage," Judge Robertson said.

Mr Robertson dismissed the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence for the offences and he believed Santos had remedied the damages in "good faith".

Both Santos and Swan were approached for comment. Santos declined and Swan did not respond.

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