Vickery coal mine truck
Open cut coal mine in operation.

Five hours north of Sydney, the Liverpool Plains is home to the best dry farmland in Australia, with yields per hectare 40 per cent above the national average. Think soft golden wheat, giant sunflowers, marble-scored beef and soft, golden durum wheat that’s so good it’s imported to Italy where it’s used to make hand-rolled pasta. 

“These are the plains of the richest descriptions, a beautiful and fertile country,” wrote surveyor-general John Oxley, the first European to sight the plains.

But what Oxley couldn’t see at the time was that the plain’s riches also run deep beneath its famous black self-mulching soils, where multinational gas and coal giants have identified vast coal deposits and enormous fields of natural gas.

In 2009, Chinese mining company Shenhua won approval by the Foreign Investment Review Board to buy farmland on the plain – the first step in a lengthy process to open its proposed 100-million-tonne Watermark Mine. But the local community did not approve.

“We are not against mining,” a farmer on the plains told the ABC at the time. “We are a primary industry. We produce export dollars, which is no different from mining but this is the wrong place for a mine. You don’t put a mine in a food bowl.”

Twelve years later Shenhua is making a graceful exit from the plains after the NSW Government gave them $100 million in taxpayer money to withdraw its lease application. 

Deputy Premier and state Nationals leader John Barilaro acknowledged that the mine application had “divided” the community and caused “a lot of anguish”, describing the payout as a “victory” for the people. But at the same time, Barilaro said the government does “not demonise the coal industry” and there are parts of the state where it is appropriate.

A new frontline

One of the places where it is appropriate, is apparently the Namoi Region on the edge of the Liverpool Plains where a new battle is brewing over Whitehaven Coal’s proposed $700 million Vickery coal mine. An expansion of an existing mine approved by the Independent Planning Commission of NSW, it will pull 3.7 million per tonnes of coal out of the ground every year.

Whitehaven Coal, the Australian firm that owns the site, says the Vickery coal mine expansion will create more than 1,000 jobs and add $1.2 billion to the state’s economy – around four times the value of the total annual agricultural output of the plains.

But Lock the Gate Alliance, a national group fighting what it calls “risky” coal and gas mining projects, says the Vickery coal mine will also dump an extra 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding 20 per cent to Australia’s annual climate footprint, and consume bore water at the expense of local farmers.

“Coal mining is already competing with agriculture for water in this district and building another huge coal mine there will be a big mistake.”

Georgina Woods, Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson

The NSW Farmers Association agrees.

“In our opinion, there is not enough water for this mine and the Department of Planning admits this is their assessment,” says Malcolm Donaldson, secretary of the Boggabri Branch. He also says the proximity of the mine to the Namoi River and its associated tributaries, aquifers and floodplains “presents a range of worrying impacts”.

Raw coal from a mine
Raw coal piled up on a loading pad at an Australian mine site.

The Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC) on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development – a group of researchers who advise governments on the impacts of coal mining proposals on water – say not enough research has been done on water interconnectivity in the area to know for certain if proposed, which is a problem itself. But they do concede bore water use at the proposed mine expansion “may affect groundwater availability and the dynamics of surface water-groundwater interactions”.

There are also concerns the Vickey coal mine expansion will impact Kurrumbede, a historic homestead that was the inspiration behind ‘My Country’ (I love a sunburnt country), probably the most famous and loved poem in Australia.

“Mining has already reached saturation point as mining companies have already bought out nearly 80 farms in the district,” Donaldson says. “This contributes to a diminished lifestyle for rural residents, changing the fabric and structure of our proud agricultural community.”

Malcolm Donaldson, Hon Secretary of the Boggabri Branch, NSW Farmer’s Association

See you in court

Legal action has been launched to stop Vickery in its tracks, though it’s not about water use. And the protagonists are neither farmers nor miners; they’re school children and politicians who’ve found themselves in the middle of a multi-billion dollar gunfight.

The defendant is Australia’s Environment Minister Susan Ley, who is being sued for the projected climate change impacts of the Vickery Extension Project. The minister has a duty of care to protect children’s future, says 16-year-old Anjali Sharma, the lead plaintiff in the case who has expressed severe “climate anxiety and fear” over the projected impacts of climate change.

Signage from recent climate strike event
Signage from recent climate strike event.

Anjali has a history of online environmental activism but she is just a media-friendly figurehead in the trial. Melbourne-based Equity Generation Lawyers, a firm specialising in climate change law, are the brains behind it all and the Vickery coal mine was just at the wrong time and place – one of scores of proposed coal mines the plaintiffs could have trained their sights upon.

Stopping the mine expansion from going ahead is certainly something they want, but the case represents much more than that. If successful, it could set a legal precedent that makes it difficult for new fossil-fuel mines to be approved anywhere in Australia.

The minister’s staff told The Farmer she can’t comment while the trial is underway. Whitehaven said the same. But in a previously issued statement, Whitehaven CEO Paul Flynn rejected the claims while coyly pointing to the elephant in the room: coal is Australia’s second most valuable export commodity. It brought $55 billion into the country last year. Liquified natural gas earned even more, at a time in history when the government needed it the most.

“As the Australian economy starts to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, it is vital that major employment-generating investments in the economy are not delayed by legal claims that have no substance.”

Paul Flynn, CEO of Whitehaven Coal

Early this year, George Newhouse – director of the National Justice Project, a non-profit legal service that fights for social justice – said the plaintiffs should not hold their breaths because similar legal cases have been heard and rejected by courts, overseas. “It didn’t work in the USA and looks tenuous in New Zealand,” he said. His advice turned out to be right on the money, as in May, the Federal Court dismissed the case.

 But the court concurrently ruled that the Environment Minister does indeed have a legal duty not to cause harm to young people of Australia by exacerbating climate change when approving new coal mining projects. It’s an important legal precedent that has set the stage for an appeal and new cases claiming damage against mines for the impact of climate change. As Chris McGrath, an expert in climate litigation, told the ABC: “There’s now a big crack in the wall. It’s blown it right open.”

Environmental debates are also extending to the petroleum sector, where “exploration licenses” are being scrapped. Read more on the issue here.

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