Monday 21st of April 2014

sunk so low .....

sunm so low .....

We’ve written much about the little town that wouldn’t disappear. Bulga, the New South Wales Hunter Valley hamlet that is under siege from the global coal miner, Rio Tinto, spawned our first ebook, our first multi-media presentation and a raft of follow-up articles.

The story has a particular appeal because it’s not only about a threatened little town; it is about ancient forests, farmed lowlands and endangered wildlife, all remnants of the old Hunter Valley that the famed British naturalist, John Gould celebrated in his great work, Birds of Australia, published in seven volumes – the last of which first appeared 165 years ago.

Huge open-cut coal mines now pockmark the Hunter region. London-headquartered Rio Tinto is at the forefront of coal mining here, and operates one of the Hunter’s largest open-cut mines, Mount Thorley Warkworth (MTW), close to Bulga. The hamlet’s 300 residents have long co-existed with the mine, which opened more than 30 years ago. Indeed, many of the town’s working people are employed by Rio Tinto, or they work in other mines nearby or in jobs associated with coal mining.

But the people of Bulga rebelled when Rio Tinto sought to extend the life of the Warkworth mine beyond the 2021 date on which its licence was set to expire. The company had decided to greatly enlarge the mine and push it into the town’s fringes. Rio, as we have reported, had also promised – by way of a Deed of Agreement it signed with the NSW Government in 2003 – to forever stay away from ancient forested areas and the habitats of endangered birds and animals. And not to come any closer to Bulga. But all that changed when the price of coal shot up several years later; Rio decided it wanted to expand the mine into these highly sensitive areas and to rip out the coal beneath by open-cutting and destroying the land above.

The government green-lighted Rio’s plans, but the people of Bulga, faced with the mine encroaching to within 2,600 metres of their town, fought back. And in April this year, the town scored a stunning victory that angered not only Rio – but rocked the coal-mining industry across Australia. The chief judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court heard the town’s challenge and stopped the mine expansion. He acted not only because he was persuaded that ancient forests – some of which were the last of their kind on the planet – would be destroyed, but also because he found Rio’s claim that 44,000 new and indirect jobs would be created by the expanded mine to be a fantasy.

We won’t canvass all that has happened since – only to say that Rio Tinto has been aided by the NSW Government in almost every step of its attempts to expand the mine and circumvent the ruling of the Land and Environment Court.

The government joined Rio in a Supreme Court challenge to the Land and Environment Court decision. The Supreme Court is yet to hand down its decision on that appeal.

Next, the government changed planning laws so that in future any NSW court would be hard pressed to block any coal-mine project in the way that the Land and Environment Court blocked Rio in April. Under the new laws the bureaucrats and courts that decide whether new coal-mine projects can go ahead are required to elevate the economic benefits of coal mining over its adverse environmental and social impacts.

Of course, within days of that change becoming law – and despite an avalanche of formal objections – Rio lodged a fresh application to extend its mine, albeit over a reduced area, but with the option of seeking bigger extensions in the future.

And the NSW Government has acted with what appears to be unprecedented speed to process Rio’s latest application. When Rio first sought to expand the mine in 2009, it took the government 400 days to produce a report recommending approval of the expansion after the period for public objections closed. This time around, the government took just two days to produce its report.

That report will now go to the body charged with making the final decision on Rio’s expanded mine – the Planning Assessment Commission. And who will chair that two-person panel? Garry West, a former National Party MP and Minister for Energy under the former NSW Liberal premier, Nick Greiner.

West will chair a public meeting on Rio’s plans in the Hunter town of Singleton next week – a meeting likely to pit Rio employees against the townspeople of Bulga.

But Rio’s leg-ups from the state government don’t end here. Last Friday John Krey, the Bulga resident who has spearheaded the town’s fight against the mine, received from the state government a document that astounded him. He discovered that in late September the government and Rio secretly changed that 2003 Deed of Agreement in which Rio had vowed to protect large swaths of ancient forest and endangered-species’ habitat near the town – the land that contains the coal Rio had decided it now wanted to mine because of rising coal prices.

The Deed of Agreement has been gutted and now allows Rio Tinto to mine through and destroy the old forests and the habitats of endangered species – provided it gets planning permission. What were once no-go areas for Rio have suddenly become potentially mineable coal fields.

A Rio spokesman explained these changes to The Global Mail: “The original deed was acknowledged by the Department of Planning and Infrastructure as an early attempt at offsetting and one that does not reflect current Government policy.”

Compare this to Rio’s firm obligations under the deed it signed in 2003; Rio then promised, “to permanently protect for conservation and exclude open-cut mining” from the sensitive areas.

(Offsets are areas of lands that a miner agrees to protect in exchange for mining elsewhere. Offsets are supposed to be of similar ecological value to that land which is destroyed by mining)

But why did the government agree to change the deed? The answer is money for Rio. In its assessment report, which supports Rio’s latest mine extension, the government admits that the deed was changed principally because the swaths of highly sensitive old forests and habitat have rich coal seams beneath them. They are classed in the Deed as Non Disturbance Areas and contain forest and bushland of the last of their type on the planet – including the fabled Warkworth Sands Woodland which sits on ancient, wind-blown sand formations, no longer extant anywhere else in the world. Rio, however, argued that “from an economic efficiency perspective” it made no sense to save the woodlands.

That brought a rebuke from Justice Brian Preston when he handed down his decision in the Land and Environment Court in April, knocking back Rio’s then much larger mine extension plan. Said the judge: “However the existence of a mineral resource does not necessitate its exploitation. There is no priority afforded to mineral resource exploitation over other uses of land, including nature conservation.”

But the Deed’s once gilt-edged protection for the woodlands is gone.

All of this state-sponsored assistance of Rio’s plans to expand its mine followed Rio’s vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying of the NSW Government. After the miner’s defeat in the NSW Land and Environment Court, representations from Rio executives were backed up with a flurry of letters and emails.

What was Rio telling the state government?

The Global Mail tried using NSW’s Freedom-of-Information laws to gain access to Rio’s representations. Rio strenuously objected to our application, telling the government that such communications were “commercial in confidence”, and that their public release could harm Rio’s business.

Next week, The Global Mail will seek a formal review of that decision, in the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal. We will argue that the tribunal should inspect the documents we were denied, to test the validity of Rio’s argument and the state government’s decision to acquiesce to Rio’s wishes.

Yesterday Rio formally notified The Global Mail that it will join the proceedings, to contest our attempt to gain access to the documents. It has assigned to the task Australia’s fifth-largest law firm – the top-drawer Minter Ellison, which describes itself as representing “blue-chip public and private companies, leading multinationals operating in the region, global financial institutions, government organisations and state-owned entities”.

The Global Mail – a not-for-profit website publishing journalism in the public interest – will not be represented by a lawyer when we meet on December 17. We’ll be going up against Big Coal alone.

Secrets & Mines