Standing farm over Ashton Coal’s Camberwell mine
Wendy Bowman, an 81-year-old widowed grandmother, is the last woman standing between fertile farming land, the village of Camberwell and yet another massive mining expansion in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. She still works a 190-hectare farm by herself at Camberwell, near Singleton, in country that’s been in her family for generations and was part of the original settlement in the area.
Land and Environment Court judge Nicola Pain has permitted the Chinese-owned mining giant Yancoal to expand its Ashton open-cut coalmine and operate it for a further seven years, on the condition that it acquires all the neighbouring land in the coal lease area in that time.
Wendy is refusing to sell.
When we visited, she was hand-feeding her plump droughtmaster cattle with the abundant lucerne that grows on this rich alluvial soil.
“Yancoal’s lawyers told the court that this was not good farming land. Well, take a look around,” Wendy chortles, indicating lush green paddocks and a garden bursting with vegetables.
“I don’t believe that any food-growing soils should be dug up.”
Her farm is surrounded by massive open-cut coalmines, but here in this green valley you could be forgiven for thinking they were a million miles away. It is abundant with native wildlife, pushed from surrounding areas by mining.
“They can’t really do anything because they’ve got to buy me out and there’s the common up near the highway, which [registered claimant] Scott Franks has slapped a native title on. It’s a well-known fact that the Aboriginal people used to come down from Mount Royal to here, where they had fish, platypus and kangaroos in plenty.”
Sue Higginson of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), who fought the case in the Land and Environment Court, says Justice Pain’s decision was just and equitable.
“Normally through the power and weight of importance [mining companies] granted themselves they’ve been able to basically bulldoze their way through from the outset, but Justice Pain said no. These are reasonable conditions in the circumstances,” Higginson says.
“You have to remember that it’s a mining project, it’s not a public purpose – at the end of the day you’ve got two competing private interests.”
The mining interest is undergoing serious financial woes. In June 2014 Yancoal announced it had debts of more than $5 billion and had posted a $192 million loss for the year. It was seeking to fund a $US1.8 billion debt owed to its parent company, Yanzhou Coal, which is haemorrhaging money to bail out this ailing subsidiary.
Nonetheless James Rickards, investor relations manager at Yancoal, says that economic conditions permitting, they’re determined to carry on with the expansion, dubbed the South East Open Cut Project, which will earn a projected $109 million over its seven-year life.
“We reported a significant loss in the last annual results,” he says, “but we are rebuilding an organisation that has been financially challenged for quite some time. And very difficult economic conditions don’t assist with that.
“We haven’t appealed the new decision at this time. There are a lot of other options we have to consider before then in regard to the lease of that land.”
Rod Campbell, research director of The Australia Institute, an independent expert witness in the EDO’s case against Yancoal, found the economic reasoning behind the proposed expansion spurious from the outset.
“Initially they said the dollar value benefit to NSW was to be $368 million, and one thing I argued was that original number included profits going to China and so shouldn’t be considered. In the end the judge largely accepted Yancoal’s second analysis that, if it went ahead, the mine would earn $109 million in royalty payments and corporate and payroll tax.”
Just up the road from Wendy is the rambling Ravensworth Homestead, built by the First Fleet surgeon John Bowman (unrelated to her). This colonial sandstone manse is falling to pieces on mine-owned land, despite a court order that it be restored as a heritage building.
Wendy says that if she sells, Camberwell will join a list of towns destroyed by mining in the Hunter.
“The Department of Health have said no one is allowed to live there if this mine goes ahead, so the stupid mining company have said to everyone who owns their own homes, ‘Just go away for seven years and then you can come back.’ Can you imagine the state those houses would be in if everybody left them for seven years?”
One of Camberwell’s most vocal residents, Deidre Olofsson, began lodging freedom-of-information requests with the Department of Planning in 2012, asking for copies of minutes from Ashton’s discussions with them. It took three years to learn there had been meetings between Ashton Coal and the Department of Planning, the Office of Water and the Planning Assessment Commission prior to 2010, but that no minutes had been taken.
It’s a glimpse into a political process begun by NSW Labor’s former planning minister, Tony Kelly, who escaped criminal charges after the Independent Commission Against Corruption found him guilty of corruption over property dealings.
He acquired the Camberwell Common in 2010 from the community trust that had managed it since 1876 and awarded its control to Ashton Coal. Under community pressure, the government subsequently re-gazetted the land to be managed by a new community trust, but objections brought by Ashton Coal have tied the matter up in the Land and Environment Court.
Olofsson also questions possible connections between members of the government’s Planning Assessment Commission and the mining industry.
“I started to ask questions of the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) whether they’d registered the pecuniary interests of each commissioner between 2008 and 2012. They couldn’t give them to me because they didn’t have them – there were no registers,” she says.
The state ombudsman’s office has criticised the PAC for failing to maintain a register of financial interests of its members before 2012, and instructed that it do so in future. It has now been asked by the EDO to investigate the possible conflict of interest of two members of the PAC.
Olofsson holds little hope for the village if Yancoal should prevail. “Once they’ve gone there’s no other industries to come. There’s very few dairies left, most of the land is destroyed. There’s going to be a mass exodus from this area. Camberwell is riding on whether Ashton appeals the court judgement and what happens to the Bowman property in the future. It comes down to Wendy’s age and Wendy’s family. So if Wendy goes, it’s over.”
Twelve towns like Camberwell have been eaten up by mining operations in past decades. Another on the verge of extinction is Bulga, just 36 kilometres away.
Bulga’s defenders have won a Land and Environment Court challenge and a Court of Appeal challenge to stop the mine expansion. Following their success, the Baird government has tweaked the planning laws to attempt to drive it through. A third decision on whether the mine can go ahead is pending.
Open-cut mining started in the Hunter Valley in the 1980s. Wendy’s husband Mick, who passed away in 1984, was a vigorous opponent to projects that eventually claimed the family’s historic Ashton homestead and farm that is now the main Ashton Coal mine.
“I had to sell Ashton in 1994 because upstream, Coal and Allied had been allowed to mine under Bowman’s Creek,” Wendy says. “The bottom of the creek broke through, so we didn’t have any water in the creek for two weeks, but all of a sudden it came up two kilometres away in a spring on another property. We tested the water going in – it was between 300-400 parts per million salinity, and when it came up it was between 1200-1500ppm. And we’d wondered why the lucerne was dying. We had to sell because they sent us broke.”
Wendy points east to the ridge where Rixs Creek and the New England Highway intersect, and describes the mine’s proposed expansion.
“All the flats and right up to the bottom of that ridge would be mined,” she says. “There are a lot of aquifers up and down the ridge. This is a very important waterway. It provides a pipeline to Broke, clean water to Singleton, Branxton, Greta, Lochinvar and the farmers and vineyards there, as well as the abattoir. It provides water to Pokolbin, and that’s a very important tourism destination.
“This is one of the richest valleys in the whole of Australia and has some of the best regulated water from the Glenbawn and Glennies Creek dams. You’re less than two hours to Newcastle, with all the export facilities for everything that you grow.
“Now when all this mining is finished, everybody in the Hunter is going to have to rely on the stored water in those two dams, because all the aquifers that used to keep them refreshed in a dry time have all gone.”
Wendy looks around her property and east to Camberwell, where the South East Open Cut Project is ready to swallow her farm. “The best thing that ever happened is this downturn in the mining industry,” she says. “It’s made them all sit back and think. Anything that goes mad comes down with a thump anyhow – always has, hasn’t it? That’s how the world works.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Standing farm". Subscribe here.