January 13, 2016
It could be you
It’s worth remembering that people always get involved with their community for a reason. Each may be very different but every community activist has a backstory, a tale of what led them to become involved. And more often than not, this involvement is unexpected and not necessarily invited. Like this retired couple who moved lock, stock and barrel to another part of the country to set up a small business and enjoy the natural beauty of their rural idyll. Little did they know what lay ahead.
Holding an umbrella upside down so its spike points towards the floor, Bill Frew runs a finger clockwise around the circumference of its handle, then slides his hand down to press a catch and open the red parasol.
“This is what happens with fracking,” he says as the canopy widens. “A small area is affected on the surface but the devastation unseen below can affect a much larger area.”
Frew is inside Pilrig St Paul’s Church, off Leith Walk in Edinburgh.
It’s shortly after lunchtime and in the quiet of the vestry we draw up chairs and talk.
Frew has been up since around 5am and to be frank he looks exhausted.
He has dark rings under his eyes and the 65 year old still has a long day ahead, hosting meetings with fellow environmental campaigners before embarking on a two hour drive to the Dumfriesshire home he shares with his wife, Loraine.
The Frews live in Canonbie, a sleepy Scots village straddling the River Esk, just south of Langholm and a couple of miles north of the border with England.ew
It’s a tranquil place of rustic charms that Sir Walter Scott immortalised in his poem, Marmion.
Bill and Loraine moved there in 2006 after he retired from a 35 year career with Perth and Kinross Council, both anticipating a secure and stress free retirement in an idyllic part of Scotland.
“We bought an old Victorian property with derelict outbuildings and created a small guest house and I built two holiday cottages,” Bill says in his soft Ayrshire brogue.
His property lies just outside Canonbie and business comes from tourism, mostly anglers from around the world who come to fish the River Esk in hope they’ll hook its prized salmon.
It’s a leisure spot with a glowing international reputation but running a guest house can be hard graft and it has taken Bill and Loraine the best part of a decade to build up their business.
Yet the peace of mind they’ve earned in Canonbie is endangered, an issue that first came to light in 2007 when Bill spotted a white piece of paper nailed to a tree about three hundred yards from his home.
The official council document was to notify locals of a mining proposal by Dart Energy, a company that wanted to extract coal bed methane on land owned locally by the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain’s largest private landowner.
The planning application was one of 20 proposals submitted by Dart at the time, and – after all were classed as minor, individual applications – they were approved by Dumfries and Galloway Council between 2007 and 2010.
Bill shakes his head wearily. Eight years on and he remains aghast that the council didn’t consider the plans as one large-scale development, arguing they should have been rejected outright as the consequences for Canonbie could be catastrophic.
“We were a local business and they’d given us planning permission to extend it for the cottages for tourism, and then a year or two later they approve 20 coal bed methane drilling sites around the village – all on the Duke’s estate. There were only two neighbourhood notifications,” he says.
After learning of Dart’s proposed project with the Duke’s company, Buccleuch Estates, the Frews started knocking on village doors and to their astonishment found that many locals knew nothing of what was planned.
It was then that Bill and Loraine’s campaign began in earnest.
They produced newsletters and held public meetings. When support grew among the 1500 or so people in the locality, they formed a group called the Canonbie and District Residents’ Association.
At the same time, they had to learn complex scientific material, a sharp learning curve that was aided by conversations with friends and environmental groups such as Friends of The Earth Scotland.
Indeed, eight years ago the Frews knew nothing about unconventional gas extraction but today both can claim to have a degree of expertise.
Bill cites a document submitted to the council when Dart first applied to drill, revealing there were 20 sites planned, each around one acre in size.
For Dart to drill on just one site would involve some 400 heavy good vehicle movements, Bill explains, adding that the industry calculation for each well was roughly 2000 to 4000 HGV vehicles moving in and out of the area.
Moreover, he points out that the 20 sites touted by Dart were just phase one of a masterplan although no further details have been released publicly because it’s deemed privileged commercial information.
There could 100 drilling sites in the offing, or even more. But no one will say.
In response, the council said that all the correct statutory procedures were followed and that the Frews’ formal complaints, submitted some time after permission was granted, were not upheld by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).
But Bill insists the system failed the people of Canonbie and the local community were kept in the dark.
He pauses and then continues in his measured tone. He says there could be serious implications for public health and cites some of the environmental problems caused by fracking in Australia and the USA.
One spillage, or a single burst pipe of contaminated water could, he claims, pollute the River Esk and destroy the reputation of a tourist attraction that brings thousands of people to Canonbie each year, tourists who eat in restaurants, spend money in shops and stay in B&Bs and hotels.
For her part, Loraine says the last few years have been a “constant strain” and that although some people in Canonbie are scared to speak out, she and her husband will not be cowed by Buccleuch’s power and influence.
She says that much of the property and land, in and around Canonbie, is owned by Buccleuch Estates while many residents are tenants of Buccleuch, or employees.
However, Buccleuch Estates is on record as saying: “You have to separate what are legitimate technical concerns about safety and the technology from those vociferous voices who don’t want to see any economic development in the area.”
“I have little sympathy for that because it behoves us all to try to create economic development.”
“There is a vociferous minority who aren’t elected by anyone and they purport to speak for a community when they have no democratic mandate”
The Frews’ life is now consumed with the struggle against Buccleuch and now the Scottish Government, who will make the final decision on whether fracking and coal bed methane extraction can take place in Scotland when its current moratorium is lifted.
“If these proposals go ahead our business is knackered and we’ve invested three quarters of a million plus. In terms of the local tourism industry, we could be facing decades of fossil fuel activity,” Bill says.