In NSW’s North West Slopes, communities are fighting the expansion of open-cut coalmines into farms and forests. By Samantha Trenoweth.

Leard coalmine protest brings out young and old

Protesters blockade Whitehaven’s open-cut Maules Creek coalmine.
Protesters blockade Whitehaven’s open-cut Maules Creek coalmine.

In this story

Ros Druce is a wool classer by trade. She grew up on a farm four kilometres up the road at Maules Creek. Today she will trespass on a mine site and be arrested for the first time in her life.

The hamlet of Maules Creek sits in the Gunnedah basin in mid-western New South Wales, east of Boggabri, on the edge of the Leard State Forest. Traditionally, this was mixed farming country – sheep, cattle, wheat, canola, lucerne, some dryland cotton. Now it’s coal country.

There are already two immense open-cut coalmines in and around the forest. Now Whitehaven has approval for a third. Every year, for more than 30 years, the new Maules Creek mine is projected to churn out 12 million tonnes of coal, emitting 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the entire yearly energy output of New Zealand.

Ros peers through the steamy windscreen as cars pull up at the mine site. The crew scrambles over a gate, flashlights scanning the clearing for machinery to which the hardiest members will be chained.

A couple of earnest lads stop at the gate to help Bill Ryan, who is 92 and a veteran of the Kokoda Track. He, too, will be arrested today. Bill and Ros and these 20-something city kids are typical of the alliances being formed these days in the environment movement.

Driving north-west to Boggabri from Sydney, it’s easy to see what’s driven this new breed of mixed-bag greenies to put their bodies on the line. The Hunter is no longer the Dionysian paradise of the popular imagination. There are vineyards, to be sure, but these are not the most evident feature. Satellite pictures show a landscape pockmarked by open-cut mines.

And these mines are creeping out to the north-west. Near Boggabri, they cluster in and around state forests. East of the Kamilaroi Highway, they appear as great, grey-brown moonscape-mountains, dwarfing to Tonka-size the trucks and earthmovers that ply their steep roads.

The farmland around these mines is eerie. It’s shamrock-green after a downpour, with rich alluvial black soil, but it’s deserted. The mining companies have bought farms as offsets – to provide, they claim, equivalent habitat to that which they’re digging up. Some of the farmers have stayed and leased their land back. Many, however, have moved on, leaving prime farmland vacant. Ghost country.

No one has offered to buy the Druce family property but Ros says a lot of farms have been bought nearer the forest, where trees are already being felled in preparation for the proposed commencement of mining next year.

Mining, she says, has split the community. When Ros was growing up, Maules Creek was like an extended family. Even a few years ago, Boggabri “was a sleepy, laidback town, where you could go in to do your shopping and not bother locking your car. Where you could stop and have a yarn to almost anyone you passed on the street.”

No longer. Now the community is split between those who have sold up and done well out of mining and those who have been left to deal with projected impacts, like coal dust in the air and rainwater tanks, a diminishing water table, noise and, very probably, plummeting property values. “Because,” says Ros, “who wants to buy a farm up the road from a coalmine?”

Town rents, conversely, have soared. “Older people who have lived in town all their lives have been pushed out of the rental market. Owners do up these houses and charge twice the rent to the miners. We don’t really know each other anymore. Mining has changed the character of the place.”

For Ros, though, that’s not the worst of it. What concerns her most is the loss of the forest. The Leard State Forest includes the most extensive and intact stands of critically endangered box gum woodland on the Australian continent. It’s a mature forest with big, old habitat trees and it’s home to 396 species of plants and animals – 34 of them threatened. The three mines are set to devastate about 5000 hectares, more than half of the forest. As for the rest: “There will be roads, railway lines, pipelines running through it,” says Ros. “It’s a bit like the farms. But there’s nowhere else for those threatened species to go.”

Whitehaven maintains that wildlife will migrate to offsets that have been bought outside the forest. Ros is not so sure.

“These offsets are supposed to represent like for like,” she says, “but they don’t. The farming properties that Whitehaven has bought are not equivalent to the Leard forest. If there’s any grassy white box habitat on those farms, it’s only in scattered patches.

“The groups who oppose the mine have had four independent surveys done and they have all said that Whitehaven’s offsets are not like for like. They will not have the right mix of trees and grasses to replace the habitat that will be lost.”

This is the crux of the argument being made by the Maules Creek Community Council, together with the Front Line Action on Coal, Greenpeace, 350, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservation Council, the Northern Inland Council for the Environment,
and others.

“To be blunt,” Ros says, “we believe that the approval for the mine has got past the post by giving false and misleading information. And we’re trying to stop them from knocking down the forest until Greg Hunt comes to his senses and does his job as the environment minister by checking those offsets. At the moment, he is not being the minister for the environment, he is being the minister for the mines.”

1 . Government approval

Whitehaven, for its part, acknowledges the people’s right to protest but wishes they’d accept that defeat is inevitable, pack up and go home.

“At some point,” a Whitehaven spokesperson explains, “this group has to accept that the project has already successfully navigated one of the most comprehensive major planning approval processes in existence today. This is a fully approved project.”

But government approval will not persuade Bill Ryan that this, or any other new coalmine, should go ahead. At 92, Bill is legally blind but he keeps abreast of the news and reads extensively on climate change. He is up to speed on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and aware of the Climate Council’s advice that, in order to avoid “catastrophic consequences”, 80 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.

“I was willing to put my life on the line in the Second World War, so putting my body on the line here is just a small inconvenience,” he says. “It became clear to me, after Copenhagen, that governments were only paying lip service to action on climate change. So I became involved in non-violent protest. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure there’s a habitable world for my grandchildren and my great-grandchild. I feel compelled to play some small part.”

Bill is not alone. Australians have in recent months been taking to the streets, paddocks and forests in increasing numbers. Helen War, a spokeswoman for the Leard Forest Alliance, sees the swing back to direct action as an inevitable consequence of public frustration in the face of governments and corporations that seem not to hear them.

“When people know they’re being lied to and cheated,” she says, “when they have signed petitions and written submissions and explored the other avenues available to them, then this is what they do. Aussies stick together. They help each other. They stand up for what they believe in.”

By day’s end, extra police have been bussed in from neighbouring districts and roadblocks have been set up around the site. Bill, Ros, Helen and about 80 others have been arrested. Farmers, scientists, lawyers, clergy, ecologists and environmentalists have joined local Gomeroi people, who have now been denied access to traditional sites in the forest, and hundreds of others in demonstrating against the Maules Creek Mine. Their aim is to slow Whitehaven’s operations until the government reconsiders its approval.

If they win, some of these people will go home. Others will move on to the next new coalmine. Even Whitehaven sees that, in light of the most recent IPCC report and mounting dire climate predictions, demonstrations like this will be an unavoidable feature of coalmining for the foreseeable future.

As we go to press, a 41-year-old father, Ken Aberdeen, has locked himself to a Whitehaven water pump on the Namoi River. The protests roll on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "The new faces of protest".

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Samantha Trenoweth is a writer and editor. Her most recent book was Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years.

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