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Hunter coal tour uncovers David v Goliath battle

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

The lunar landscape that is the immediate visual legacy of open cut coal mining in the Hunter is a stark reminder of the ongoing damage being inflicted on this fertile river valley.

I have just spent two days meeting with locals deeply troubled by coalmine expansion in this area. With my colleague Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham we’ll be stepping up our support for their campaigns in this David v Goliath style dispute.

We started our visit at Rosedale farmstead, home of beeffarmer Wendy Bowman. This stunning property nestled on the alluvial river flats of the Glennies Creek was the site of a significant win against the mining giant Yancoal owned by Yankuang Group Corporation Limited.

This Chinese government  owned company met its match when it came up against Wendy, who has been fighting to protect Hunter farms from mining companies for more than 20 years. The NSW Planning Assessment Commission after hearing solid evidence from locals on the health and water impacts of the mine knocked back the company’s application. But sadly the push to expand Ashton coalmine adjacent to this Hunter tributary has still had a detrimental impact. We drove past empty farmhouses on land bought up by the mine owner when we turned off the New England Highway on our way to Rosedale.

It is not just humans who are feeling the pressure from coal mining. Wendy described how her property has become a refuge for much wildlife. She said she now regularly sees goannas, echidnas, quolls and wallabies close to the homestead. We concluded that with so many mines operating habitat would be at a premium.

While I was not lucky enough to see any of these native animals I did enjoy the considerable bird activity in Wendy’s garden and I spotted one of my favourites, the diamond dove. This is one of the world’s smallest doves and it has the unique drinking habit of sucking water. It only stops when it has had enough water unlike most birds that drink one billful at a time.

But back to our tour. Deirdre Olofsson, another local who also can take much of the credit for this win, showed us around the Camberwell village where her family has lived for years, after previously running a dairy. Like many people I spoke to on this trip, Deirdre had a story about mining company representatives heavying locals. This story is particularly ugly. Employees of Felix, the previous owner of Ashton mine, came into the family home and pressured Deidre’s elderly parents about comments they had made on the mine.

I met Deirdre, an electrician  employed at Liddell Power Station, a few years back when she was campaigning to stop the Ashton coal mine expansion plan to move onto the Camberwell Common. In a dubious deal former NSW Labor minister Tony Kelly handed Felix Resources, former owner of Ashton mine, control over much of Camberwell Common.  I asked questions and spoke on this issue when I was in the NSW parliament. This win hopefully opens the door to having that bad decision over turned.

Warkworth and Ravensworth villages have also been decimated by mining. A sad sight is the decaying community halls. Wendy described how these places were once a hub of activity with birthday parties, children's christmas pageants and community meetings. At the Ravensworth Hall the windows are smashed and the corrugated tin is banging in the wind.

We also visited Bulga where residents are working hard to ensure that their delightful village, neighbouring Wollemi National Park, does not go the way of these other villages boxed in by bigger and noisier coalmines. We gathered in Bulga Memorial Park with about 20 locals deeply troubled by Rio Tinto’s plans to expand the Warkworth Mine.

They put a very clear case about why this mine should not go ahead. Locals are already subjected to unacceptable levels of noise and dust. Some described how the walls of their house have cracked, they can’t shut some doors properly and they are woken at night by mine operations.

Despite the company and the NSW government entering into a 2003 Deed of Agreement to retain Saddleback Ridge on the outskirts of Bulga, partly as a barrier to mining noise and as a biodiversity offset, the mine owner Rio Tinto is expecting to be allowed to mine and remove the ridge. The noise and dust impact will be extreme as the mine would come within 2.6 kilometres of the town. Some of the locals also spoke to me about the loss of more than 750 hectares of woodland and Aboriginal sites if the mine expansion goes ahead. Habitat of the swift parrot and the regent honeyeater, both recognised as nationally endangered, would be lost.

The area around Bulga is where you can see excellent examples of the Warkworth Sands Woodland endangered ecological community. The NSW Environment Department estimates that 80 per cent of this unique ecosystem is found in this area with some of the sand dunes reaching six metres in height.

A frequent comment Bulga residents made to me is about how frustrated they are with the NSW government. A common complaint was “compliance officers comply with what the mines want” and don’t represent the interests of locals.

The demands of the community are very reasonable. They want a ten kilometre buffer around all mines, a stop to coalmine expansion, no gas mining and a planning department that is fair and responsive to resident concerns.

A common theme that came out of our many discussions with these communities was the need for a Regional Water Study to assess the cumulative impacts of mining on above ground and ground water before any more mines are approved.

This message was strongly conveyed to us by Charlie Shearer, whose family have been on the land for 110 years. Charlie and his neighbour Bruce, a leading stock horse breeder, spoke to us about coalmine expansion. While emphasising they are not anti-mining they did spell out the negative impacts of the nearby coalmines. Charlie is always on the look out for eye cancers in his dairy cows. One long time local vet said he was convinced there was a link with the dust from open cut coal mining and the occurrence of these cancers. We don’t know if there is a connection but the number of cancers is increasing. Bruce said he had just found that one of his stock horses has eye cancer, something he had not come up against before.

Bruce and Charlie spoke to us about the water impacts and also the polluted air from the dust. Their fencing wire exposed to the air corrodes at a much faster rate than wire that is covered.

Our final big get together on this trip was at Jerrys Plains. Many locals turned up for a chat and it was excellent to catch up with colleagues I came to know when I was the mining spokesperson for the Greens in the NSW parliament. Much of the talk was about the involvement of the former Labor minister for primary industries, Ian Macdonald, in allocating the Doyles Creek exploration license. There are a lot of mining communities very interested in the outcome of the Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation of this matter.

I had a chance to have a good talk with Ian Moore who is fighting to stop drilling on his cattle farm. Ian is legally blind and it is an inspiration how he and his wife Robyn have taken on the mining industry.

Interestingly a number of locals who joined us work in the coal industry. We talked about the loss of local farms and the damage mining is causing to local water resources. Excessive dust and the danger of coal trucks on the road also came up. Their clear message is that they want a government that stands up for the health of locals and is committed to protecting farming land. They all emphasised that they are not against mining, they just want a fair deal and for these locals that means a government willing to say no to mine expansion.

A dairy farmer with five children described to me the plight of her family.  Her three youngest children suffer from asthma. The third was born in 1997 when the mines around her dairy farm started to expand. Her daughter has suffered with asthma all her life often missing many school days. Interestingly the family recently took a holiday on the South Australian coast and the children’s asthma cleared up while they were away.

Around Jerrys Plains are some stunning horse studs and this industry is also doing it tough. An additional problem to the local pollution problems they have to contend with is that the scarred landscape of open cut mining is a bad look when buyers arrive in the region.

Many people we met are keen to know if the federal government will put limits on the foreign buy up of land. The mining industry in the Hunter is now dominated by subsidiary operations owned by companies based in China, Thailand, Brazil, the USA and Switzerland. I said we will look into the foreign ownership issue.

The bulk of the coal coming out of the Hunter is now destined for the export market as part of a massive coal boom which will see a tripling in the quantity of coal sent overseas. Thirty per cent of that increase is earmarked for NSW with most of the new mines and mine expansions happening in the Hunter and the Gunnedah regions.

The burden on locals let alone the climate change impacts is unacceptable. Campaigning on coal expansion in NSW is shaping up as an important focus for our office and I will discuss with Senator Larissa Waters, the Greens federal spokesperson on mining, how we can support these communities.

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