Shenhua Mine. It’s been slammed by Alan Jones; Tony Windsor says it may never be built. Meet the alliance of farmers and advocates blocking Shenhua’s controversial project.
Farmers on the Liverpool Plains have joined with greens groups in an unprecedented alliance that will attempt to stop the controversial Shenhua Watermark mine. Approved in July 2015 by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, this would allow a massive 35km square open cut mine in the middle of the finest agricultural land in Australia. It’s now awaiting final state government approvals, but critics including former Independent MP Tony Windsor say it may never be built. John Hamparsum, a farmer whose land is right next to the proposed mine, is rather more blunt.
“The people’s resolve is such that there’ll never be a bulldozer on that country. The gloves would be off and it’d be civil disobedience at a level that the government hasn’t seen in NSW. Tempers are that point now that people want action, they want blood.”
Representing over 400 landholders and local businesses, the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) are the longest running opponents of the mine.
CCAG have already launched 27 anti-mining court cases against the mine. In 2008 they first opposed BHP with a blockade at Breeza led by octogenarian George Clift, who famously stated that he’d meet them at the gates with a shotgun before he’d let them mine the Liverpool Plains. That 635-day blockade effectively discouraged anyone from attempting to mine here until 2011, when 100 farmers blockaded Santos from exploratory drilling for coal seam gas. The newly formed Liverpool Plains Alliance, incorporating green groups including The Wilderness Society and citizen’s advocacy group Lock The Gate, is poised to blockade the mine site if necessary, to prevent what they see as an economic and environmental catastrophe.
Andrew Pursehouse, president of CCAG, warns that a legal campaign would be CCAG’s first option.
“We’ve got the support of the Australia Farmers Fighting Fund, because this is of national significance. We’ve already spent around about a million bucks fighting this. But if all else fails we’ll stand up for our rights and invite whoever wants to be here and stop this nonsense. Don’t underestimate what a farmer can do.”
Naomi Hodgson of the Wilderness Society has been instrumental in forming the Liverpool Plains Alliance. She earned the respect of north-western NSW farmers for her staunch campaigning in the Pilliga Forest, where some 18 local landholders have been arrested striving to prevent Santos from establishing a proposed 800 coal seam gas (CSG) wells.
“This issue has sparked a raw nerve throughout the populace”, she says. “People who’ve never before felt strongly on coal mining issues can see that we must draw a line against the industry’s perpetual expansion. Digging up some of our best food producing country for coal is a proposal that crosses that line.”
The Alliance has created a major social movement on the Plains, abetted by the emergence of the Liverpool Plains Youth, comprising the sons and daughters of local farmers with perhaps less of the ingrained resistance to green groups as their forebears. They’re planning an activist training weekend in November to prepare against potential police confrontation.
This continues a phenomenon begun at the anti-CSG blockade at Bentley in northern NSW, where hundreds of conservative townspeople and farmers aligned themselves with environmental groups and activists to stop that proposal.
Tony Windsor, the man who negotiated the “Water Trigger” bill through the Senate in 2013, ensuring that CSG and coal mining projects cannot proceed until independent scientific advice concludes they won’t damage water resources, has been a vocal critic of the mine since it was first mooted.
“My viewing of the tea leaves is that this mine won’t happen,” he says. “Part of that will be because of public resistance, part will be because of the breach of process from both Hunt and Baird. I believe it can be shown that Hunt, Baird and Barnaby Joyce haven’t abided by their own processes of the law. In fact, by circumventing the bio-regional assessment process, they’ve removed the very evidence that’s required to determine the longer term scientific implications of this mine. All of those things will eventually get explored in the courts. That’s one of the reasons why Abbott was on about the environmental vigilante stuff. They talk about Adani but it’s just as much about this mine and the Chinese Free Trade Agreement as anywhere else. It’s the most complex issue that I’ve ever dealt with in politics and it’s the easiest one to create politics out of. It’s a Chinese noodle.”
The Shenhua Watermark project has been a controversial project since corrupt former Labor minister Ian Macdonald first sold an exploratory license to the Chinese owned Shenhua mine on the misconception that it was further south in the Hunter Valley. Now the structural price of thermal coal is steadily falling and Chinese coal imports have dramatically dropped away as their sluggish domestic economy concerns over pollution and increasing reliance on renewables have started to bite.
“Shenhua don’t necessarily want this mine,” Laird says. “China produces about 4.5 billion tonnes of coal a year. Australia produces about 450 million… Their focus is going to be on brown fuel sites inside China.”
In Australia, domestic opposition has been steadily growing since 2015. An online petition against the mine garnered over 50,000 signatures, while an independent Facebook group with hundreds of members is pledging to launch a citizen’s blockade.
Gunnedah’s Namoi Valley Independent newspaper held an online poll that showed 97% of 4,700 respondents to be against the mine. And last year’s crowd-funded TV campaign from Lock The Gate was spearheaded by Alan Jones, who in it declared that, “the latest move by the Abbott government puts at risk not just our environment but our very democracy”.
That notion of democracy hinges upon a belief in the sanctity of its iconic bellwethers. Besides food and water security two other salient issues here are Aboriginal cultural heritage and the koala population.
The Gomeroi people claim that while the entire Plains are sacred there are special sites, known as the Grinding Grooves, which absolutely must be protected. Shenhua have said they will relocate them from the mining zone to somewhere safe.
Gomeroi traditional owner Mitchum Neave says they are an important war memorial site, where warriors used to sharpen spears for conflict with marauding Casula or Wiradjuri tribes – and white settlers.
“This is our Gallipoli site right here,” he says. “You wouldn’t like it if I destroyed your war memorial, I’d be locked up.”
He says they cannot be safely moved.
“I won’t speak for other people but I’ll join a blockade. We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture, we’ll rally together.”
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Sue Higginson is principal litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), who are representing the Upper Mooki Landcare Group on behalf of the koala populations of the area.
They’re alleging that when the Planning Assessment Commission made their decision they have failed to properly consider the impacts the mine is going to have on koalas,” she says.
“Essentially there’s a requirement that questions ‘Is this mine likely to place a local population at risk of extinction?’. Never did they answer that question. And that’s what it comes down to.”
Higginson says that the government is proceeding in non-compliance with the laws surrounding mining developments, just as they did in Queensland, where Adani’s case was defeated after Environment Minister Greg Hunt failed to take into account the fate of two threatened species in his approval of the Carmichael mine.
President of Lock The Gate, Phil Laird, an ex-farmer himself, points out that following a major corruption scandal, Shenhua are dramatically curtailing their capital expenditure in overseas markets. He says that detailed market analyses show a pronounced downturn in Chinese interest in Australian coal.
“Shenhua don’t necessarily want this mine. Probably if it wasn’t approved by Greg Hunt they would have quietly welcomed the decision,” Laird says. “China produces about 4.5 billion tonnes of coal a year. Australia produces about 450 million. They’re reducing their production by about 10% a year so they’re effectively reducing their production by the entire Australian production. They don’t want to build any new greenfield sites. Their focus is going to be on brown fuel sites inside China.”
Andrew Pursehouse is pinning his hopes on a political solution. In the light of a new political landscape he says there may well be a change of heart on this matter. Prime Minister Turnbull owns two farms in the Hunter Valley and he and his wife have visited the Pursehouse property in recent years.
“Turnbull has been a water minister so had a pretty good understanding of the delicate water systems we have here. So he’d be more of a friend than Abbott. So we’re looking at changes in that sphere, but if all else fails, well, the people that did the Maules Creek blockade are looking for a new camp, they want to come here.”
He points to the nearby town of Breeza, where Murray Dreschler, the founder and stalwart of the Maules Creek mine blockade, has established a weekend camp, on invitation from the Breeza Progress Association.
“So it’ll be more than just farmers, it’ll be the so-called green element. The passionate professionals, along with the general community. If all else fails, it will come to that, but this is last resort stuff.”