Last Thursday activists won a battle in their years-long war against a new coal mine in the Leard State Forest.
The Maules Creek Community Council successfully sought an injunction in the NSW Land and Environment Court to stop clearing, which began on May 27.
The proponent, Whitehaven Coal, has agreed to delay clearing until September.
The injunction comes as the climax to building protests, after a ‘red alert’ was declared by Front Line Action on Coal, which has been coordinating a blockade against the mine.
Whitehaven’s initial Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) did not allow for clearing during the winter months, as some endangered species go into a ‘torpor’. This hibernation-like state renders animals which shelter inside trees especially vulnerable to bulldozing.
However, 12 days before clearing began, Whitehaven published a new BMP under which the Department of Planning had approved winter clearing. The new BMP requires the capture and relocation of animals where possible, but activists and NSW Labor and Greens, condemned the revision.
The winter clearing had intensified protests, disrupting work continuously while clearing was underway. In total, over 220 people have been arrested over non-violent, direct protests, including locking on to machinery, staging sit-ins in the forest canopy and replanting in cleared areas.
Mass protests have also been staged in Sydney.
However the recent development is only the latest battle in a long conflict over the forest’s future.
Whitehaven is slated to resume clearing in September, but protesters are determined to stop the mine altogether.
Since before its approval the project has been dogged by protests, law suits, allegations of corruption and even a spy scandal.
The mine, which was approved in July 2013, will be a 2000ha open cut coal mine. Together with expansions to the nearby Boggabri and Tarawonga mines, the $746 million dollar project represents the largest expansion of coal mines in NSW.
A diverse coalition of farmers, residents, and environmentalists are blockading the mine. Their concerns range from the proposed mine’s environmental impact to the potential effects on farming, resident’s health and Aboriginal culture.
The forest, on the Liverpool planes, is situated between Narrabri and Boggabri, 180km inland of Newcastle.
Whitehaven Coal refused the opportunity to be interviewed, but information provided on their website is at stark odds with critics’ claims about both environmental and community impacts.
Consider the environment
The Leard State Forest is the largest remnant fragment of nationally listed, critically endangered Box-Gum woodland. Only 0.1% of Box-Gum woodland remains in Australia. It provides a habitat for 34 endangered species, and together they form a critically endangered ecological community (CEEC).
Cumulatively, the new Maules Creek mine, and expansions to the Boggabri and Tarrawonga mines, will destroy more than 5000ha of the Leard State Forest, including 1,082ha of the forest’s total 3, 421ha Box- Gum woodland.
The Maules Creek mine was approved by the government on the condition that Whitehaven would ‘offset’ the destruction of the CEEC by purchasing like environments and protecting them.
However, Dr John Hunter says that 95 per cent of the offsets declared in the original Environmental Impact Assessment are not of the same ecological community.
Dr Hunter is a Senior Lecturer at Armidale University and the lead signatory of an open letter to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt which was signed by 30 scientists.
He says that the Leard is so unique that like environments “kind of don’t exist any more.”
“An additional report was done through the mines, which says [Whitehaven’s] first report was incorrect, and that they needed to buy at least an additional five properties.
“Subsequently an Office of Environment and Heritage [OEH] report said the second report by the mines still overestimates the amount of critically endangered Box Gum woodland,” he said.
Uncertainty remains over whether the offsets are now accurate. ‘Offsetting’ always results in a net loss, and its application as part of environmental approvals processes is the subject of a Senate inquiry, due to report on June 16.
The mine’s Co2 emissions “really are of global significance,” according to Dr Ian Lowe. Dr Lowe has studied the likely emissions of the mine’s estimated annual extraction of 13 million tonnes over its 21 year span.
Dr Lowe’s paper concludes that “if the Maules Creek mine were a nation, it would rank 75th in the world for total emissions, ahead of the greenhouse gas emissions of 140 entire countries.” He adds that “NSW would need to double its [most ambitious reduction target] to undo the damage that would be done to the global atmosphere if this mine were allowed.”
The local community responds
Locals have also raised concerns over the impact the mine will have on the Maules Creek Community.
Stephen Laird, whose family have lived in the area since the 1850s and are the namesake of the forest, says the community is being “poisoned” by the mine.
Helen War, Media Spokesperson for Front Line Action on Coal, tells of “locals who tear up every time they talk about it because their own family members have turned against them because they share business with the mines.”
Stephen’s brother, Phil Laird, is the National Coordinator for the Lock the Gate Alliance and a Councillor on the Maules Creek Community Council (MCCC). He says the mines “take away the social fabric of the district”.
“We’re losing our fire brigade Captain, our Country Women’s Association members and our school teachers. We’re ending up with a community that just won’t have the critical mass to continue on,” he says.
Many farmers have sold their properties as mining has developed in the area. According to Stephen, the three mines have bought around 50 000ha of land.
“For every hectare that’s being cleared, six hectares of farmland has been bought,” Phil says.
The community “fully support the actions of the people that are doing the blockade”, according to Stephen Laird who is circumspect of some locals who do support the mine. He says that he has heard stories of coal mines “kind of blackmailing” land owners.
He was told by one farmer that a mining company would be obliged to buy his farm, because dust levels were just 0.1% below levels deemed safe by the OEH, and they would be required to buy it when that level was exceeded. Effectively, the farmer was told that the price was only going to deflate.
“He was essentially asked to hand over his title deed for 10 per cent of the value, and told that he would be paid 90 per cent once the mine reached a production goal, so there’s a real incentive there for the farmer to make sure the mine reaches its goal,” Stephen says.
Those opposed to the mine doubt it will provide economic benefits to the region.
“The mine itself is 80 per cent foreign owned, most of the construction is being outsourced and most of the shareholders reside in Sydney or Melbourne so really it’s just the scraps that are going to be left for the local community,” says Phil Laird.
Opponents of the mines say that most of those working in the mines are ‘fly-in, fly-out’ workers. However, Whitehaven claims that the mine will employ around 470 workers during its operation, and that the company endeavours to employ locals.
Whitehaven says that around 75 per cent of their employees reside in North Western NSW. The mine offers “more than 230 times the benefits of continued agricultural production,” according to Whitehaven. However, Stephen Laird says he only knows of two people from Maules Creek working on the mine.
Phil Laird is concerned the mine will make it very difficult for farmers in the important agricultural district. He says the water table will drop by five to ten metres.
According to Whitehaven, and the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) review, there will be no impact on farmers’ bore water. However, the MCCC notes the PAC review was concluded before the completion of the Namoi Water Study.
Residents have also expressed concern that the pit will not be filled in.
“The community will be left with a gigantic hole; 400 metres deep, 1500 long by 600 wide […] It’s going to be 350 metres or so beneath the water table and it’s going to be just adjacent to Maules Creek. It’s going to act as an evaporation pump where underground water from the creek will essentially just be forever concentrating heavy metals,” says Stephen Laird.
There is also contention over what impact dust from the mine will have. Critics of the mine say it will release 18,000 tonnes of dust into the locality annually, and that the mountains surrounding the forest will prevent the dust from dissipating.
The PAC review found that the mine would likely result in some properties and residences being exposed to excessive dust levels. Despite this, the Commission did not considered these infringements significant enough to prevent the mine’s approval, instead recommending dust monitoring, minimisation strategies and shut down procedures if safe levels are exceeded.
However Stephen Laird claims dust levels are already above the guidelines the OEH has set and fears ongoing depopulation due to associated health risks.
Opponents of the mine say the approvals process is deeply flawed. “This is an important project for a very small number of people and those people happen to have a lot of money,” said Helen War.
One protestor says that “the process that’s been in place is not really a legitimate one and that has forced locals and environmental activists to, some people would say, more extreme forms of protest”.
Nathan Tinkler, who lodged the initial applications under Aston Coal 2, was interviewed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), and two company directors were fined for not disclosing political donations. Tinkler’s company merged with Whitehaven in 2012.
Activists also say there was a lack of community consultation.
Andy Mason, a protestor who was arrested after ‘locking on’ to mining machinery, says the Gomeroi people were not properly consulted. He says that the Elders, who have condemned the mine, were not involved, and the consultation occurred with “a younger group of people from one or a couple of family groups”.
There are Aboriginal burial sites on the land earmarked for the mine.
“If you went in and bulldozed a white man’s tombstone – it’d be all over the headlines, but when it happens to Indigenous people, nobody says a word,” says Helen War.
Protesters vow to maintain the rage
According to Stephen Laird the “predominate emotion in the community is rage”. He says “the community feel completely let down, and victimised by the police”.
The security presence in the area is heavy. Road blockages are frequent and cars are often stopped and searched.
Idemitsu, the proponent on nearby Boggabri mine, recently admitted to sending spies to infiltrate the blockade. The company says it is spending $40 000 per week on “added security measures”.
Whitehaven has not offered such a figure, but activists are convinced they’re impeding the mine’s progress.
Andy Mason says, “the piece of machinery I locked on to was actually rented from a sub-contractor. They only have one of those machines and without it the construction of the mine can’t really go ahead. I prevented it being used for the vast majority of the day.”
Ms War says Whitehaven’s consistently declining share price is a sign the protests are deterring investors.
These assertions come a week after a new report that found delays caused by conflict with communities can incur costs of roughly US$20 million per week for mining projects of between US$3 and US$5 billion.
Phil Laird says that to stop the mine, a combination of “political pressure, on the ground pressure and legal pressure” is needed.
The recent injunction follows a series of unsuccessful legal challenges, but has stalled Whitehaven’s progress towards its goal of extracting coal from the site by March 2015.
It appears political opposition is also building.
Greens MP Mahreen Faruqi and Labor MP Penny Sharpe spoke at a Sydney rally that called for a stop to winter clearing on June 4.
After the rally a Greenpeace petition which garnered 30 000 signatures in 48 hours was presented to Rob Stokes the NSW Environment Minister and the Minister for Planning and Development, Pru Goward.
Ministers Stokes and Goward, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, and the local member Mark Coulton, have refused to comment or be interviewed.
While protesters are by no means sure they’ll be successful, Ms War says those at the blockade “will be there until the job is done”.