Angus Energy started work in Balcombe in early September, and although the flow test has finished, they are still monitoring the pressure in the well until after Christmas.

A group of 30 from the village established a round-the-clock traffic watch. Traffic organisation was described as ‘farcical’ by traffic watch organiser and teacher Helen Savage:

‘Considering that at planning stage traffic was considered such a major issue, you would think they’d take more care. Signage to the site did not appear for the first weeks when heavy traffic was going in, even after members of the Community Liaison Group highlighted the problem. It then took another 11 days for works signage to go up.’ 

In that time many HGVs overshot the site and had to go to Whitemans Green in Cuckfield to turn round. They were frequently sent through Balcombe village again, only to turn around at the roundabout to the M23. Many HGVs went through the village four times, and one went through six times. Apart from drivers getting lost, this problem arose either because traffic was obliged to enter from the north to comply with planning conditions, or because at the moment a lorry arrived there was no space on the site for it to enter.

Photo of equipment entering site, so tall that tree branches have got caught in it.

These huge HGVs took up both sides of the road in their attempt to turn in to the site. This was dangerous, with traffic backing up on the fast B2036 or overtaking the protruding tails of the vehicles as they waited to go in. Vehicles that could not fit into the site were seen reversing back into the road, with no officially organised assistance, or parking in risky places such as blind bends.

Managing director of Angus Energy Paul Vonk informed the Community Liaison Group (CLG) that:

‘Our core objective, other than doing a well test, was not to have any protest, so the last thing we wanted to do was to put up signage… we wanted to stay out of the radar – so we know we are going to be in breach of the traffic management plan.’

It would seem, therefore, that the whole operation was deliberately set up without signs – ignoring the traffic management plan that had been submitted to WSCC, and without telling residents exact start times of work for this reason. At the CLG meeting, employees admitted the signs weren’t ordered until after complaints had been made by residents. Gary Marsh spoke for Mid Sussex District Council:

‘I’ve been talking to the officers doing the risk assessment. We feel that was wrong – everyone is entitled to legitimate peaceful protest, so in the future that doesn’t happen, the signs go in as per the traffic management plan, because you are potentially compromising public safety, we’re not very happy about this.’

Those watching the site from the village observed a number of public order offences involving workers leaving the site who swore or used offensive gestures towards the watchers at the side of the road. Some workers also compromised safety by filming those on the roadside while making a right hand turn onto the B2036.

‘We had every right to be there,’ said Kathryn McWhirter, a resident who lives further along the same road. ‘We were village residents watching these unwanted invaders and the traffic they were forcing through our village. The injunction on the road does not prevent people standing or parking on the side of the road and lawfully protesting. It aims to stop us from impeding work by jumping on or blocking the path of lorries!’

An ex-police officer involved in the traffic watch has listed the offences he observed.  ‘It is important that having gained permission to carry out commercial enterprise in our village, companies display appropriate standards of integrity and professionalism. Unfortunately, Angus Energy have failed to do this and we have recorded numerous breaches of both civil and criminal law. This is unacceptable in light of the type of operation they are entrusted to carry out and only serves to highlight the mistake in granting permission to them in the first place. These offences will be followed up with the appropriate authorities in due course.’

Well uncertain

Parish Councillor Sue Taylor, a member of the community liaison group, explained that Angus attempted three flow tests. ‘They treated the 1,700 ft horizontal well bore at Lower Stumble with acid and then nitrogen to lift the oil to the surface, which reportedly produced a flow of about 850bpd; they repeated this and produced a flow of about 1,500 bpd; the third time the well flooded with ‘high pressure water’. Angus said they were not able to determine the source of this water because the horizontal steel pipe is perforated along its whole length and not cemented in the borehole. They were not able to isolate zones to test and the water ‘went everywhere’.

From a review of previous well reports we have learnt the cementing of the section of the vertical borehole through the aquifer was ‘poor to moderate’. To complicate matters, ten meters away there is a 32-year-old abandoned well, whose casing was also perforated and flow tested with acid in 1986. The recent horizontal well has passed through faults which may have connected to the aquifer, salt beds or even the old well. The 2013 well reports tell of loss of drilling fluids to the geological formation. Angus had promised that members of the CLG could visit the site at any time. However, throughout and after the flow testing, Angus would not allow CLG members to visit the site until November 7th. We have not been informed what operations Angus had performed immediately prior to the well flooding or why it took so long to clear the site.’

This has prompted some discussion by residents who remember the appearance of vast quantities of bright green fluid coming up from a culvert in the ground near the site in 2013. This was found to be a tracer dye, although the Environment Agency were unable to confirm where this came from and then-operators Cuadrilla denied the use of fluorescein.

Size is everything

Parents have raised concerns about the size of the HGVs passing the school.

‘At the planning meeting stages WSCC stated that ‘at most there would be an 8% increase in HGV movements, which would occur during the seven day mobilisation period’ said Helen Savage, ‘yet when residents compared what came past with weekly averages for that road, they found that some weeks represented a 14% cent increase in HGVs. Many of the vehicles coming into the site were among the biggest you’ll see on any roads – six or seven axle vehicles which spanned the whole length of the school. The average count for that size of vehicle coming through our village is not even one a day across a seven-day average and yet on some days we saw as many as 32; the daily average for six axle vehicles across the week we counted was 15! The statistics the highways agency provided WSCC were misleading and a completely different picture to what actually happened.’

Residents at a subsequent village meeting were shown slides illustrating the considerable length and height of the lorries, including shots of a lorry driver walking along the top of his lorry to ensure that it did not catch power cables as it went through the village – London Road has low-slung power cables. Traffic watch members pointed out that there are always numerous cars parked along this residential road, so that both large and small vehicles stand and idle – emitting toxic diesel fumes – as they wait to pass through. Many of the watchers commented that the village and the site itself are clearly too small for an operation such as this.

Photo of a 6 axel vehicle obscuring the entire length of the school

Residents never saw an emergency action plan and were concerned about the vehicles with hazardous chemical symbols leaving the site. Mr Vonk of Angus Energy told the CLG that once the lorries leave it would be out of their hands, any incident would be up to the haulage company to deal with. Councillors had to press to get any explanation of what might be appropriate action should there be an accident near the school; Mr Vonk initially suggested to his colleagues they didn’t need to answer that question.

Disturbing the peace

Noise also disturbed the peace. ‘Residents complained about noise from the site on the one day during the flow test when the wind blew towards the village. ‘Throughout most of the flow test, the wind was blowing in a different direction from the normal south-westerly. This led to complaints from our neighbours in Staplefield on the other side,’ said Louisa Delpy an operations director from Balcombe and member of the CLG. ‘Residents also reported acrid, tar or bitumen-like smells at the site as well as the diesel fumes from a generator placed so close to the fence that it would have to effect any protestors the other side. We did make the point that this was unpleasant but they showed no signs of moving it. Some described a smell in addition to this that caught in the back of the throat.’

Tory policy is ‘immensely unpopular’

‘I’ve written to my MP about our concerns and am disgusted with his reply,’ said Alice Pack. ‘The Government has consulted on how to continue supporting its own plan to push shale gas exploration onto the unsuspecting locals, as much as it sees fit, regardless of what any members of the public may say against it and to deliberately subvert the normal planning process. They cannot possibly claim that any legitimate “consultation” with the general public has taken place. You don’t have to search hard to discover how immensely unpopular this policy is. How can they say that it benefits ANYONE other than the people involved in the energy companies concerned or their lobbyists at the Houses of Parliament?’

Parents at the school have also raised concerns that given the severity of climate change warnings for the future, this kind of work should not be happening.

There was a general discussion at the post-test meeting in the village about the fact that the Conservatives are the only party pushing unconventional oil and gas production.

Residents of Balcombe wait to hear what Angus’s next move at the site will be.

Residents breathe easy after the flare stack (that burns off unwanted gases) leaves.

Categories: Angus