[T]he Liverpool Plains are in danger of being turned into a second Hunter Valley and we know what the consequences would be for local communities, agriculture and water.
Dr Kerri Clarke, Environmental Representative on the Maules Creek Community Consultative Committee.
Over 25–28 September 2016 the Australian Student Environmental Network (ASEN) took a road trip to the small community of Maules Creek, along the Liverpool Plains in northern New South Wales. Here we met with local activists, ecologists and farmers involved in the Wando Conservation and Cultural Centre (WCCC) and Leard Forest Research Node (LFRN) who are concerned about the expansion of open-cut coal mines in the region, which were established circa 2006. LFRN have initiated a citizen-science project to collect data regarding air, water, noise, radiation and light pollution, which it intends to make accessible and as a response to the corporate secrecy surrounding the kinds of monitoring mining companies are undertaking in the region.
The Liverpool Plains is primarily an agricultural region which contains significant tracts of critically endangered woodlands and sensitive Aboriginal sites, many of which have been destroyed by mining operations. The Leard Forest was the site of the #LeardBlockade, organised to resist the clearing of the forest and the expansion of mines in Boggabri and Maules Creek operated by Whitehaven Coal and Idemitsu Resources. Organised by Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC), #LeardBlockade brought together environmental activists, farmers and Aboriginal communities and was the first coal mine blockade camp in Australia. It began as a forest occupation in 2012, however following the closure of the forest due to ‘fire danger’ early in 2014 the camp relocated to Wando, the property of local farmer Cliff Wallace. The blockade is part of the Leard Forest Alliance (LFA), which comprises the following groups: Front Line Action on Coal, Maules Creek Community Council, Lock the Gate Alliance, Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, 350.org Australia, The Wilderness Society, Quit Coal (Sydney), Australian Student Environment Network, Friends of the Earth Australia, Northern Inland Council for the Environment, Nature Conservation Council (NSW), Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, Friends of the Pilliga, Mary’s Mount Protection Alliance, Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord, Protect our Water, & Rights, Save Our Soils Liverpool Plains. The LFA has a Protection Treaty with the Gomeroi custodians of that region.
Joao Dujon Pereira’s documentary Black Hole (2015) captures the tensions of the blockade from 2013–2015.
A mobi video from ‘The Bats Return’ action in 2016 by FLAC is below.
In a primer on front line action in the Leard Forest, 350.org campaigner Phil Evans (2014) notes:
In 2014, the Australian Department of Environment launched a criminal investigation into whether Whitehaven Coal had deliberately misled the government about the conservation value of their biodiversity offsets following audits by independent ecologists which found that areas marked as box-gum woodland were completely different vegetation types. Although the investigation could not prove that the misleading claims were made deliberately, a government-ordered review validated the findings of the independent ecologists. This investigation also sparked a Senate Inquiry into the adequacy of offset programs, which has since recommended that critically endangered ecological communities should not be considered to be able to be offset, and that the market-based system of biodiversity offsetting is poorly regulated and deeply flawed.
Evans draws attention to the kinds of concerns and anxieties many harbour about mining operations in the region and more generally about the legitimacy of offset programs. As part of the program organised by ASEN we visited the Vickery State Forest with local botanist Anthony O’Hallaran, which is also threatened by a mine expansion. While the forest may not be well known to many, it has a significant tract of Whitebox eucalyptus woodlands and grasslands, which are critically endangered. O’Hallaran took us on an extensive tour of the forest, pointing out rare and unusual species that are not listed on the national register for that region. We learned of the hollowed out iron-barks that once would have provided shelter for species such as cockatoos and owls, of plants such as the medicinal ‘doctor,’ and were encouraged to keep an eye out for the droppings of koalas that inhabit the region. O’Hallaran and others from the WCCC discussed the need to ‘groundtruth’ the area and balance the information made available through the NSW Government about the species and biodiversity of that area.
O’Hallaran commented that the biodiversity of species in such places is still to be fully understood and that the ‘like for like’ offset programs that mines are required to undertake often only re-plant the most obvious species with little sensitivity to the forest’s understory and the careful balance of species that give rise to these unique ecologies. As Evans explains:
At the heart of this controversy is an impossible dilemma for Whitehaven: since the Leard State Forest contains the largest intact high-quality remnant of white box-gum woodland, it is not possible to find enough of that ecosystem in the same condition to offset its destruction in the Leard State Forest. Nevertheless, having convinced both state and federal governments to approve the mine early last year, the company has been allowed to continue to clear and purchase offset properties over the life of the mine.
Tania Marshall, the ‘Mother’ of the Leard and Pilliga protest camps took us to visit a cluster of scar trees, where there once was a significant settlement of Aboriginal people.
Another significant complaint comes from the local Gomeroi and Gamilaraay Aboriginal communities whose sacred sites have been desecrated and destroyed. According to FLAC the destruction of these sites breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 2, and 18) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Articles 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, 34, 37, 40). Traditional Custodians have had to undertake anti-discriminatory legal action in order to access these sites including Lawlers Well, the last remaining site sacred to the Gomeroi. As Lawlers Well is currently under threat from Whitehaven’s plan to expand the Maules Creek mine, Gomeroi Custodians have lodged an urgent application with the Environment Minster Greg Hunt, urging him to use his powers under Section 9 and 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act to permanently protect the site. After two years they are still awaiting a decision.
On the last day of the trip some of us visited Neotsfield, the property of Alistair and Jenny Donaldson, who are involved in the ‘Lock the Gate’ anti-fracking campaign in the region. Neotsfield is primarily a cattle farm and also produces grains, some hay and seed. Alistair was very generous, explaining to us the workings of his property; the crop rotation, soil and irrigation issues etc. Retiring after the tour to the farmhouse for tea and banana bread, Alistair discussed his investigations and concerns about unconventional gas extraction. These included environmental effects, such as its effects on artesian water basins and aquifiers crucial to farming in the region and social concerns which include mining’s effects on local businesses, the prevalence of cancer clusters near mine sites and the sell-off of mature mines to minimum liability companies which fail to properly seal, rehabilitate or restore these sites.