Burning a distress flare on the level crossing south of Kyogle. This was a dramatic rehearsal. Later in the evening when the cyanide freighter came through we used a distress flare up the line to warn the loco driver of our presence.
Up against a police line on a level crossing south of Kyogle, we stood by the track holding up strings of lanterns on bamboo poles. The freight train came slowly up to us, its head lamp off but marked in the darkness by side lights, a surprisingly quiet, but shadowy and threatening hulk.
It paused before the level crossing and, seeing it was held clear by police, came slowly on.
Using the Peacebus.com PA, I hailed the loco driver and he responded by sounding his horn.
"What are you carrying?" I asked.
"Cy-a-nide" replied the horn in an imitation of speech.
And so on. It was like talking to a kindly monster which had suffered a layrnectomy.
There were about 15 protesters and about 25 cops and for most, it their first close up view of the enormity of a modern freight train - 3 huge locos towing a line of containers on wagons, all up maybe 1 kilometre long.
As the vast bulk of the train rumbled by we identified the cyanide containers by their blue bulk and their 2Y HAZMAT identification and counted them as they passed. I filled in by telling the story of the '92 Condobolin derailment and cyanide spill.
The Pacific National freight train passes with its toxic cargo. Eight 20 tonne of cyanide was our count. Apologies for quality of the pics but this is what digital cameras do at night.
Great spectacle! Great drama!
Here is one eye-witness report:
"I was cured of protests after being bashed by Qld cops in Brisbane as a 19 year old.
I haven't been to a protest since. I did not want to be there, but I went for the birds.
When the cops arrived, I wanted to leave with all my being.
Now unable to maintain idle chit-chat, I sought refuge in the zen of Jennifer the Maremma.
I was anxious, but when you spoke - as the train was passing - I was overcome with a huge wave of grief for the birds and for the waterways.Ê
Your powerful eloquence, combined with the horror of watching the equivalent of an Auschwitz train passing before me, released my anguish and tears. Still I was constrained although I really wanted to openly howl for all the offences against the earth and its innocent wild citizens.
The police officer before me was definitely hearing you, as he tried not to notice my tears.Ê I was very sad for him too."
Marny Bonner, founder of Australian Seabird Rescue, in the Zen of Jennifer.
I could be wrong about this because the cyanide containers are not clearly marked but we counted eight 20 tonne cyanide containers. Twenty tonnes equals 20 million grams and a gram of cyanide is more than enough to be a lethal dose for an adult human.
160 tonnes of cyanide on just one freight train on just one night of the week adds up to a lot secret cyanide going through our waterways.
From the outset I had been open in regard to my blockade intentions and sought advice at every turn. On the way north on Monday 5 July, I stopped off in Newcastle and met with Steve Wright, the organiser of the freight loco drivers for the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. He was most cooperative and gave me good advice about how to safely stop a freight train. He also offered to give me mobile phone contacts for drivers.
But as we got closer to the blockade Steve got sat upon from above. It seems the freight company, Pacific National, had got wind of it and threatened legal action against the Union. maybe the NSW Labor Council was putting on the heavies too. On 16 March, I got an email saying: "I am to advise you that, I have been instructed that the RTBU or its members cannot assist you in any way in your endeavours. "
On arriving in Lismore on Friday 9 March, I met with the Richmond Area Police Commander, Superintendent "Bluey" Lyons. "Bluey" offered me 30 minutes but ended up interviewing me for nearly two hours. He warned against the blockade telling me prefunctorily it would be unsafe and illegal. I told him how safe and easy it would be with the cooperative attitude of the RTBU and maybe it was he who leaked it to Paciic National. So it goes.
With Nimbin Mardi Grass approaching and hard policing decisions to be made, Bluey was more interested in Nimbin and its street scene. Ephemeral to Nimbin now, I could tell him little of the present conditions but I did fill him in on some local history of popular resistance to the US imposed Drug War. Police commanders, their dreams and their schemes come and go, but Nimbin's cannabis culture is rooted in the Earth and the cash economy, renewing itself with every season.
On the afternoon of the intended blockade, as promised, I rang Bluey and informed him of the location: the level crossing in Runymede Road South Kyogle, between the Cemetery and the Council landfill. Between the dead and the dump we took our stand against bulk cyanide transport.
All in the name of safety and in return for a commitment that we wouldn't go feral and lock on elsewhere on the track that night, the Richmond Local Area Command Duty Officer, Inspector Scott Bingham, offered to negotiate directly with Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and Pacific National and stop the freight for us.
The idea was that we would ask our questions in the witness of the local TV news cameras and then we would step back, allow the freight train to pass and be of no further hinderance on that line that night. Fair enough.
Bruce Paterson, Pacific National's acting Terminal Manager at its marshaling yard in Acacia Ridge, Brisbane, was likewise interested to cooperate for safety and promised to inform the driver of the blockade and supply a mobile telephone for direct contact.
In the event no call came from Pacific National, and the cops changed their agreements at the last minute.
Inspector Bingham who had three times so earnestly pledged his word, was sat upon from above it would seem. At the crucial time he was no longer taking calls, no longer liaising.
Instead of the Duty Officer; another Inspector, the one in charge of the local Operations Special Group (OSG) detachment, was in command.
As I understand it, the OSG is a creation of the law and order policies of former NSW Premier Bob Carr and they are an evolution and expansion of what was once known the Tactical Response Group and before that 21st Division. They are the NSW quick response anti-terror police and the riot busters and there is now a detachment in every police area command
OSG do not do general station duties. Rather they are a paramilitia and they march about, do foot drill, inculcate instant obedience to command, train in weapons and martial arts, jump out of helicopters and practice crowd suppression techniques. Other police tend to be cynical of the OSG and reckon them knuckleheads.
Distinguished by their navy blue coveralls, black combat boots, peak caps with blue and white checkered bands, their strut and their tight black leather gloves, they are trained to hit and subdue. When they are marched into a protest, they are usually keyed up and eager to do just that. I have had my troubles with them in the past.
This night the platoon of OSG police officers wore yellow fluoro vests and they were backed up by Police Search and Rescue officers in white coveralls.
Without warning or negotiation, the OSG closed the road cutting the crowd in two, separating us from the media people and friends. The distress flares we had on hand we also confiscated. The OSG commander told us the freight train would not be stopping and anyone moving closer to the track than 15 meters would be arrested.
"We do this for your safety," he proclaimed.
Just why we should feel a platoon of armed men trained in instant obedience to command and taking their orders from Sydney or maybe Washington or the board rooms of Orica, the cyanide maker, or Pacific National, the cyanide carrier, or Barrick Gold, a major cyanide user, was a safer configuration I do not know.
There's that police liaison story again. One learns that one must trust the NSW Police Service to be untrustworthy; it's a big and complex organisation, with many masters and many arses and retirement packages to be covered.
"Next time by stealth," I told them.
But the spookiest spooks of the night were three ARTC security in orange fluoro vests who checked the track for "devices", photographed with telephoto lens participants and the registration plates of vehicles and it would seem at the end of the night were giving police directions.
We protesters were a motley group of 15 or so friends, mainly baby boomers who had rallied from Lismore and Nimbin. There were a couple of Kyogle locals amongst us and students from Southern Cross University.
Blockade set up, Runymede Road, south Kyogle. Between the dead and the dump we stopped the cyanide.
Michael Balderstone of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy was present and he stood by the rail holding the Goddess of the Church of the Holy Smoke trussed in rope. The Goddess it seems had a strong desire to be tied to the railway track and neither the police nor protesters were ever sure whether that rope was meant to restrain or bind her.
John Peace of Peacebus.net was there with Max Stone webcamming. Max Stone recalled that the last time Australian citizens set out to stop a train, Ned Kelly was in the lead and the outcomes had not all been good.
Long time activist and videot Omega was there with camera to her eye. Auntie Ellie Gilbert was there too and she had came all the way from Canberra to video the action and record it as part of the story of ongoing resistance to Barrick's Lake Cowal gold mine.
Jessica Wood and Sue Higginson from he Environmental Defender's Office (NSW) Ltd in Lismore attended the blockade as legal observers. Sue expressed her concerns at the gruff and excess policing.
Johnny Chai, veteran of the campaign to close the Timbarra gold mine, turned up wearing his Cyanide Watch cap and served chai. We were all most gratified by the conviviality created by his kindness.
Alas and alack, conspicuous by their absence was anyone from the Nimbin Environment Centre, once the source of so much material support for North Coast environmental activism. The NEC folk it seems had been terrorised by the idea that stopping a freight train would be regarded as an act of terrorism and everyone associated with it would be abducted, tortured and incarcerated in secret jails like David Hicks. Sigh!
For the participants it was a most memorable and congenial event. Not knowing when the freight train would come through, we assembled at 4 pm for a vigil and when night came we lit lanterns and sat about chatting, smokers and tokers passing the odd joint.
Lanterns at sunset
It was 7.45 pm before the freight train arrived. From Inspector Bingham I understood that freight services that night had been rejigged so that a south bound Pacific National cyanide carrier would come through first. Thus we might have our protest early and go home early. Basically the whole Brisbane-Sydney line was on hold that night waiting for the resolution of our blockade.
Modern freight trains carry thousands of tonnes of freight and stopping is not achieved suddenly. For this reason I had let the Rail, Tram and Bus Union and the carrier, Pacific National, know that we would warn the drivers of our presence on the line with distress flares at least 1 kilometer north of the blockade.
To this end a bunch of red and orange distress had been secured and tied to bamboo poles. Inspector Bingham kept his word on this agreement, the last before he handed over command to the OSG, and Tim Carlyle, a train buff from of Lismore, together with his partner Bev, walked through the police lines with a couple of flares.
From the Summerland Highway overpass in Kyogle, they hailed the driver with the luminous smoky flares and saw him wave an acknowledgment.
Meanwhile at the police lines on the level crossing, the initial shock of the betrayal and the march in of the OSG subsided into a lantern lit wait for the cautiously moving freight train. Full of camaraderie and good humour, we held a comedy competition to win smiles from the po-faced OSG.
Belinda the Scarecrow (traumatised and her body mass shrunken to 25 kg from receiving a dousing of RoundUp from a Council sprayer she was harassing two years previous) proved to be our secret weapon, dispensing jokes of such bad taste that groans became laughter.
The dignified and sober, Jennifer the Maremma had watched the set up from a distance happy to be petted and offer comfort. Aged and ailing now she walks less and sleeps more. But when the PA cranked up and the train appeared, she struggled to her legs and came walking by my side.
Independent by breed, she might have been intent on stopping the train. Marny Bonner, who was with her at the time, thought so and so did the OSG commander who shouted that the dog be restrained.
When I saw her I wondered if she was intending to go behind police lines, which she has done before at protests, either for her own safety (feckless traitor!) or maybe with the intent of pacifying the police with her peaceful demeanour (canine bodhisattva!).
Respectful of her intelligence and my hands full anyway, I did not move to restrain her but the nearest OSG copper did, grabbing her collar and shoving her back so that she fell awkwardly on her arthritic rear end. Shocked by the aggression and somewhat crestfallen, she retired from the fray.
The lanterns were beautiful by night and the flag and banner display beautiful by day. Peacebus.com unveiled new signage painted by Elspeth Jones of Nimbin - a scene of a Pacific National N29 loco hauling an infinite line of cyanide containers over a vast river.
We kept our word about only doing one blockade though the police, preferring to believe ARTC security, re-established their lines again for a second southbound Pacific National freight, which tooted to our lanterns as it came slowly by. We looked on sipping chai.
Without any protester opposition in their faces the OSG officers had time to admire the art and after the passing of the freight were observed gathered around Elspeth's painting admiring the brush work by torch light.
The local TV news cameras, Prime and NBN, waited into the evening for shots of the train and Australian Associated Press carried the story nationally and internationally.
Andy Gough, the NSW Greens candidate for the seat of Lismore in the NSW State elections which followed on Saturday 24 March, was not just present but actively engaged in promoting the blockade and fielding the media. In this he had the support of the NSW Greens, the Honourable Lee Rhiannon MLC, in particular. Thanks Andy. Thanks Lee.
Graeme with NBN and Prime TV news cameras
The protest action attracted national and international media attention because it represented a new tactic in challenging the toxic practices of the North American gold miners who are presently permanently poisoning Australian water on huge scale and who, greed-enflamed by the record price of gold, aim to poison much more in the near future.
The action showed how vulnerable rail transport is to blockades.
I envision other blockades all along the toxic trail from Gladstone where Orica makes the poison down the line to Brisbane and Sydney, across Sydney and across the Blue Mountains and on the western line too.
I would like to see cyanide freight blockades become a sporting pastime for eco-warriors young and old, and prizes offered for the most picturesque blockades. For example, imagine a cyanide freight train stalled on the Grafton Bridge or over the Hawkesbury or in the middle of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park, source of most of Sydney's water: something utterly alarming and appalling to behold.
Our aim is to alert people to the cyanide hazard and mobilise local grass roots resistance. We are determined to drag Australian governments into accountability and forever ban the transport of bulk cyanide and the practice of cyanide leach gold mining. Just too, too toxic to the water of future generations.
Stop the Cyanide. Indict the cyanide criminals.
26 March 2007
The mural lettering completed in the backyard of Bev and Tim Carlyle's house. Lanterns were also made there.
Happy Wheels with newly mounted mural by Elspeth Jones, Ostrom Street, South Lismore 22 March 2007
ABC News Online Last Update: Thursday, March 22, 2007. 12:22pm (AEDT)
Cyanide fears to prompt train block protest
Protesters are planning to block a Pacific National freight train they believe could be transporting cyanide through the Richmond Valley, in northern New South Wales, today.
Nimbin-based Cyanide Watch activist Graeme Dunstan says the protest aims to bring attention to the dangers of transporting cyanide, which is used in the gold mining industry.
Mr Dunstan says distress flares will be used to try to stop the train at Kyogle, which he says is on the Brisbane-Sydney cyanide transport route.
He says permission has not been granted for the protest, but notification has been made.
"We've notified the police of our intentions, but this is a citizen action to find out directly," he said.
"We're going to stop the freight train and ask for the driver. You have to carry a dangerous goods manifest, he has to know exactly what's on the train, and any safety concern he has to tell you. So we're eager to find out what he's carrying."
The Australian, March 22, 2007
GREEN groups plan to stop a goods train that they say is carrying cyanide in northern New South Wales.
Protest organiser Graeme Dunstan, from a group called Cyanide Watch, said protesters had information that a Pacific National train used by the Orica mining company would be carrying cyanide near Lismore later today.
About 50 people would block train tracks near the Kyogle cemetery, northwest of Lismore, from 4pm (AEDT), Mr Dunstan said.
He said unions and the rail company would be told about the protest.
Distress flares would be set off about 1km ahead of the protest vigil to warn the driver to stop.
Greens Party candidate for the northern NSW seat of Lismore, Andy Gough, said protesters had been bused from Lismore and local police had been told about the protest.
He said the blockade was intended to highlight the dangers of transporting dangerous goods in the Northern Rivers region.
"If a train were to come off a bridge, or a carriage were to come loose and fall off a bridge and into a water supply it would be absolutely disastrous for this region," he said.
Mr Dunstan said locals did not benefit from bearing a risk to their water supplies.
"Orica makes a profit out of it, Pacific National makes a profit out of it, the goldminers make a profit out of it, what do we gain?".
A Kyogle police spokesman said police had been briefed about the protest.
Cyanide Watch campaigned against the Lake Cowal mine near West Wyalong in southern NSW last year.