Co-op sponsors two farmers on US mission

TWO Karoo farmers have flown out of PE on a ground-breaking mission to the US, to get the low-down on fracking, in the country where it all began. The agricultural co-operative BKB is sponsoring the full cost of the 17-day fact-finding trip to the tune of R76000 – but it is well worth it, BKB managing-director Wolf Edmayr told The Herald on Friday (June 17 2011).

“Farmers have probably the biggest footprint in the Karoo, and they are a major part of our business. We would be virtually destroyed if they went under.

“But this is not just about the farmers and us. It is about all the Karoo towns and communities that rely on the farmers for their business and, independent of that, on the security of their groundwater. 

“It is about the fibre and meat products that are supplied by the farms and which are enjoyed even far away by people in the cities.”

The last SA wool shearing season ended last month with sales of R2-billion and the Eastern Cape and in particular the Karoo is the leading contributor to this sector, Edmayr said.

Mohair is even stronger with SA being the major  mohair producing country in the world, generating sales of just under R1-billion this past season, and almost all of it coming from the Karoo. And while the EC is the major red meat supplier in South Africa – the Karoo supplies the lion’s share of that.

BKB’s concern is that fracking at present in South Africa is “a total unknown”, as it has not yet been tried in SA at all, Edmayr said.

“We need to think about future generations as well, and ask the question, ‘if fracking comes and goes, and leaves a wasteland – what then?’

“We as a nation need to be totally informed. These two guys have a huge responsibility on their shoulders.”

Four multi-national gas exploration companies led by Shell have applied to frack 400000ha of the Karoo. The government has declared a moratorium on the applications while fracking is investigated. Mineral Resources’ Minister Susan Shabangu is in the process of establishing a task team to probe the technique. but it is not clear how this team will be constituted.

Graaff-Reinet lawyer Derek Light has written on behalf of Strydom and Stern to Shabangu to organise a meeting where they can present their findings to her, on their return. The hope is that this input will inform the work of her task team.

Strydom emphasised that he and Stern are undertaking the trip not just for the farmers but for “the people of the Karoo”.

“As part of our preparations, we met the  new mayors of Camdeboo in Graaff-Reinet and Nxuba Yethemba in Cradock, to explain the trip and its aim,  and they have given it their blessing.

“The aim is that on our return we will present our findings to not only BKB but also the councils of these municipalities. The aim thereafter is to undertake a road show to get the information out even wider to all communities.”

In seeking to get to the truth, the team will be approaching things objectively, Strydom stressed. Working through a facilitator in the US, they will be trying to visit  a successful non-polluting fracking site, if one can be found, and they will also be trying to speak to a fracking company.

Fracking involves sinking a shaft down as far as 5km below surface into shale rock beds, and then pumping water laced with chemicals, at great velocity, down the shaft. The shale is fractured, and gas trapped in fissures in the rock is released to travel back up a separate shaft, where it is harvested as a source of electricity.

The technique was pioneered in the US in the 1940s and states like Pennsylvania are now covered in extraction rigs.  But, with the gas, these wells have brought increasing reports of rogue fumes and contaminated waste water migrating into aquifers and rivers, of people and livestock getting sick, of noise and dust pollution and habitat damage as thousands of trucks criss-cross the countryside, of the disintegration of other economies like tourism and the jobs that go with them, of plunging land prices and destruction of quality of life in rural towns.

With the Karoo, there is  just one chance to get it right, Strydom said.

“No-one knows exactly how our groundwater links up but we do know that many connections exist. So if we contaminate in just one area – it could be the end.”

The two farmers, neither of whom have ever been to the US before, will fly into JFK Airport and, after spending their first night in the Big Apple, they will travel out to the town of Ithaca, where they will be based for a few days, at Cornell University.

The aim is to link up there with several key scientists, doctors and veterinarians including Weston Wilson, who was a senior official in the US Environmental Protection Agency before he blew the whistle on the harm being caused by leaked gas from frack wells.

They will also meet environmental health specialist Dr Theo Colborn, who has been honoured by Time magazine for her work, and who has pinpointed a link between pollution from fracking and DNA disruption and cancer.

They are billed to join 46 speakers from all over the world at the June 25 Epic No Fracking event, where it is expected up to 10000 people could attend. And from there they will be travelling out to Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Ohio where the frack industry is most active. Along the way the aim is to talk to a range of landowners who have come into contact with the fracking industry.

Stern said that while it was not easy for he and Strydom to leave their farms and their families for three weeks, they had no alternative. 

“Like most of us out there, I have put my life savings into land. I have nothing else. If fracking goes ahead, the way the evidence looks at the moment, it will be the end of me, my family and my workers.

“That’s why we need to establish the facts so we – our government and our  people – can make an informed decision on this thing.”


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