For embattled miner Whitehaven Coal, it’s a recurring nightmare: As the company seeks to flatten more critically endangered forest, coal trains and bulldozers are being blocked by a fresh wave of protest.
The mining company is attempting to clear the Leard State Forest to make way for its Maules Creek Mine, but conditions placed on the project by government mean that can only be done between February 15 and April 30, to try and lessen impacts on animal breeding cycles.
Making good on a longstanding promise to keep the heat on Whitehaven even after the mine started operation near Narrabri, in north west New South Wales, protestors have ramped up the pressure over the last week as fresh clearing gets underway.
This morning, Mark Selmes, a 56-year-old librarian and wildlife carer scaled a coal train near Willow Tree. Simultaneously, three others have locked themselves to bulldozers in the Leard State Forest.
The demonstrations follow the arrest of three activists on Saturday.
The forest is home to 30 threatened species, and a critically endangered ecological community that’s been cleared to just ten per cent of its original national extent.
It’s this incredible biodiversity value – and the destruction of a range of the Gomeroi people’s sacred sites and cultural history – that has made Whitehaven Coal the premier target of the environment movement.
Over the last few years, nearly 400 people have been arrested trying to destroy the mining operation before it destroys the Leard Forest. Under the banner of Front Line Action on Coal, a diverse coalition of traditional owners, environmentalists and farmers have come together with extraordinary staying power.
“The mines and the government departments rely on people getting burnt out and just rolling over and giving up,” said ecologist Phil Spark, a spokesperson for Front Line Action On Coal.
“I remember when we first started protesting out there, the manager of Whitehaven said to me ‘Look you guys are going to be all fizzled out in a month. The universities are going to go back, you’ll lose all your recruits, and it’ll be all over’,” he said.
“Well, here we are, years later, backing it up, and it reinforces the strength of the message and the determination to expose the insanity of destroying this forest,” he said.
A large tract of forest has already been cleared – to make way for the now operational Maules Creek Mine – but Spark maintains that the ongoing protest actions are not in vain.
“Every time you hold Whitehaven up and block a coal train or a dozer, there’s a cost involved. It disrupts all their planning, and it costs them money,” he said.
“That filters through to the share market and it filters through to the financial world – that this opposition is not going away – and that keeps downward pressure on the securities of anyone investing in coal.”
He said the troubled and expensive development of the Maules Creek Mine would also give others – like the Chinese state-owned Shenhua Watermark Mine, proposed for nearby Breeza – pause for thought.
“This must put some sort of a pressure on their decision making. It’s the same coal lines that Shenhua plan to get their coal out on that two trains have been [held up by protests] during this last week,” he said.
One of the activists who chained himself to a bulldozer this morning is Reuben Legge, who said he was prepared to be arrested because, “Whitehaven is brutally destroying a forest which has supported life on this planet for thousands of years”.
“Enough is enough,” Mark Selmes said from atop of Whitehaven’s coal train. “The coal on these trains comes from destroying crucial habitat: The animals can’t just pack up their bags and go somewhere else, and soon there will be nowhere else.”
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