NSW Government Targets Protestors While Shrugging Off Big Coal's Breaches

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The New South Wales Planning Minister is refusing to intervene or even comment on why controversial mining company Whitehaven Coal has been allowed to defy government directives relating to its Maules Creek Mine for more than two years.

In September last year New Matilda revealed that Whitehaven Coal had installed a ‘ghost greenie’ on the key community consultation panel of the north west New South Wales mine.

It emerged that Greening Australia, the conservation group Whitehaven claimed had been providing input on the mine’s impact on the critically endangered Leard State Forest, had no knowledge of its alleged role.

This despite the fact that, shortly after the inaugural meeting of the Community Consultative Committee, in June 2013, Whitehaven Coal had been warned to ensure it actually had an environmental representative on the committee.

Last week, New Matilda revealed that even after Whitehaven Coal was fined over meeting minutes falsely recording Greening Australia as an ‘apology’, the role remains empty.

A spokesperson for the responsible minister, Rob Stokes, said it’s “not appropriate” for the minister to comment “because it’s a compliance matter”.

The response provides an insight into how this travesty has been allowed to persist: the NSW government simply doesn’t think it’s a problem.

They gave the multi-billion dollar company a poxy $3,000 fine for its botched minutes and failure to comply with multiple government directives and ensure the committee had environmental representation. 

This is the status quo, and for the people fighting Shenhua’s Watermark mine, south east of Maules Creek across the Liverpool Plains, it’s an instructive lesson on how ‘rigorous’ and ‘strictly enforced’ conditions are likely to be.

In New South Wales – the aspiring mining state – the stark reality is that people of conscience are penalised more harshly than rule-bending mining giants.

The saga over the consultation committee, which is the only formal avenue for ongoing dialogue with the community, is not the first time Whitehaven has been in trouble for breaking the rules.

In December 2014 it emerged that the company had exceeded its annual two million tonne coal production license at Tarrawonga mine – also on the Liverpool Plains – by 150,000 tonnes.

The company actually published data exposing the breach in its annual report, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to slap it with a $15,000 fine.

The extra coal that had been extracted was worth something like $8 million dollars – it was a very profitable breach.

There’s an interesting synchronicity in the fact that one of the more than 350 people arrested protesting against Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine received a fine of nearly $8,000 earlier this year.

Another battlefield at the emerging north west New South Wales fossil fuel frontier, the Pilliga State Forest, provides more evidence of the disproportionate treatment of activists and extractive giants.

At the Pilliga, Santos is developing the state’s largest coal seam gas field, the Narrabri Gas Project, which has also been the scene of scores of arrests.

An Armidale grandmother and mental health support worker, Pat Schultz, was fined $2,200 for protesting against the development.

In contrast, a spill at the Pilliga gas development, which was owned at the time by Eastern Star Gas, landed the company with a $1,500 fine amidst claims of heavy metal concentrations five times the drinking water standards.

(This was before the EPA got ‘tough’ and increased the fines ten fold last year, which explains Whitehaven Coal’s comparatively larger $15,000 fine.)

It seems unlikely that Eastern Star Gas’s decision to sell to Santos was forced by fines over its environmental record, but there is an unabashed push from Premier Mike Baird’s Liberal government to put an end to civil disobedience by ramping up fines.

“So-called plans to phase out mining in New South Wales have no place in this parliament,” he said late last year. Not in the parliament, though, but at a mining industry dinner attended by his former Chief of Staff, Stephen Galilee.

Galilee is now the CEO of the New South Wales Minerals Council, and spearheaded a campaign for political intervention as the unprecedented level of opposition to certain coal mines in the state ramped up and the number of arrests became embarrassing.

The mining boss has been in the press again recently advocating anti-protest laws. Baird's promised "crack down" shouldn't be far off.

We will throw the book at you,” the Premier said late last year. He was, of course, talking about the people compelled by conscience to protest against highly contested developments, as opposed to those who profit from them.

The Planning Minister’s refusal to even comment on Whitehaven Coal’s flagrant disregard for the rules, let alone move to enforce them, is further proof that mining companies aren’t going to have the book thrown at them any time soon.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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