Yesterday a group of around 100 protestors sheltered, bedraggled in torrential rain, outside the Martin Place office of New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, preparing to deliver the ‘Bulga Declaration’.
They want “a return to justice, for a start; fairness and honour”. Things that have been snatched from them by the government of New South Wales.
Over 2,500 people have signed the declaration, pledging to “use all peaceful means” to protect the residents of Bulga and the Wonnorua custodians from Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine expansion.
After a five-year struggle, which has seen two courts reject Rio Tinto’s mine, the peaceful means available to them have all but run out.
The mining giant wants to bring its massive open-cut coal mine, already just kilometres away, to the residents’ doorsteps.
Yesterday, Fairfax revealed the ultimate plan, canvassed in a secret report by Rio’s mining consultants, could see the mine’s westward march end a mere 500 metres from the homes on the outskirts of the 200 year old village in the upper Hunter Valley near Singleton.
The company says its not planning to mine the area, that it doesn’t have approval, and has not lodged an application for approval. Understandably, residents aren’t holding out hope.
“Well, Rio Tinto pretty much, don’t talk to us,” one resident said. “They either patronise you or lie to you, ignore you; there’s a whole range.”
What’s shocking about this struggle, though, is that opponents of the mine are also battling the state government, which teamed up with Rio Tinto to fight residents in court.
“In 2012 the Land and Environment Court listened to 14 days of evidence,” resident John Krey said at yesterday’s demonstration, “the Supreme Court of Appeal listened to four days of evidence”.
“And they both said ‘Rio Tinto, bugger off, this is not going to happen.”
More specifically, what Chief Justice Preston wrote in his Land and Environment Court judgement is this: “I consider the project has not been established to be justified on environmental, social and economic grounds.”
The ruling was upheld in the Supreme Court of Appeal, where the government joined with Rio Tinto to cross-sue residents.
“So what did the government do?” Krey said, “the government set out and they changed the law”.
Now, coal is literally king, and the community’s right (across the state) to have approvals reviewed by the judiciary has been removed.
While the Chief Justice was “balancing these significant adverse environmental and social impacts against the material economic and social benefits of the project”, the “economic significance” of the coal resource is now the “principle consideration” under state planning policies.
It was modified by Chris Hartcher, a former politician who remains the subject of a corruption investigation, Krey told demonstrators.
Another former politician, also scalped by ICAC, was the Premier at the time. Documents obtained under freedom of information laws reveal that three weeks after the first court ruling Barry O’Farrell met with Rio Tinto’s top brass, the then Chief Executive of Energy Harry Kenyon-Slaney, who later wrote to O’Farrell wielding legal advice and thinly veiled ultimatums.
The threat of whether Rio would “continue to invest in New South Wales” after this disturbing community win was raised.
The company explored legal options including making a short-term modification before it could “then re-lodge a development application for the same development that was recently refused”.
The first would “likely…result in litigation” while the second, the lawyers said, “would likely be unlawful”.
In view of this, a blueprint for how to change the State Environmental Planning Policy was provided.
“In our opinion the only option left to secure an outcome that will deliver certainty to the [expansion]and other major project approvals in New South Wales is to legislate to validate the decision of the Planning Assessment Commission to approve the MTW Extension Project,” Kenyon-Slaney said.
The government did this, within three months of the Land and Environment Court ruling.
More recently, as Rio Tinto again jumps through the enlarged planning hoops, the Planning Assessment Commission mentioned by Kenyon-Slaney advised the government that due to the severity of the impacts on Bulga’s residents it should consider relocating the entire village.
The PAC is an independent advisory body, but it is bound to enforce the government’s ‘reforms’.
“It seems clear that the New South Wales government thinks that one foreign Rio Tinto bird in the hand is worth more than 380 Bulga Aussie birds in the hole,” resident of 18 years Anne-Marie McLaughlin said.
Many, like the Kreys, bought land on an earlier approval condition, dating back to a 2003 expansion towards the village which required Rio Tinto to preserve in perpetuity, to the exclusion of surface mining, the area known as Saddleback Ridge.
The ridgeline not only shields residents from the worst of the noise and dust, which forces Anne-Marie and her husband Rob to wear earplugs to bed, it’s also home to 17 per cent of the remaining critically endangered Warkworth Sands ecological community.
The area proposed to be cleared for the latest open-cut coal expansion will impact 110 registered Wonnarua cultural sites.
“Bulga to me, and the land all around, is very important,” traditional custodian Kevin Taggart told demonstrators.
“So for our people, our rights, our pathways, all of our meanings, they just go and chew our meanings to pieces and destroy everything,” he said.
“I’ve been reared up there and hunted on there, fished around that area, and at the present time, for the last 10 years, the fish have depleted, and now the fish are gone.
“Isn’t that telling us something is wrong? It’s got to be telling us something is wrong.”
Premier Mike Baird, evidently sees nothing wrong. Under his government, plans for 16 new or expanded coal mines in the Hunter Valley are being canvassed behind closed doors. If approved, they would cover an area about 18 times the size of the City of Sydney.
In November last year, Baird assured an industry dinner that “so-called plans to phase out mining in New South Wales have no place in this parliament, and I’ll be very clear on this, no place”.
He has been less clear on where he stands with those affected by his plans.
“Before the election, Premier Mike Baird promised he would visit Bulga,” Krey said.
“Late last week I finally received a reply from his department reneging on his commitment, pushing our community off to the Planning Minister instead.
“It seemed like his interest in Bulga’s fate was another pre-election puff of wind.
“Only on Friday, when contacted by media, did the Premier agree to visit.”
Yesterday, it was neither the Premier nor the Planning Minister who received the Bulga declaration, signed by villagers, Wonnarua traditional custodians, the Broke Fordwich Tourism Association and the Hunter Valley Wine Tourism Association.
It was a po-faced staffer, who braved the cameras for a few minutes before retreating from the icy rain and desperate voters to the insular offices of 52 Martin Place.
If he or Premier Baird bothers to read it this, in part, is what they’ll see:
“The New South Wales government may have signed the death warrant for Warkworth Sands and the village of Bulga, but the people have not.
“The government and Rio Tinto are colluding against us, but we are united and we will not be subdued.”
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