Bylong Valley fights Kepco coalmine

Bylong Valley, near Mudgee in NSW, is a tranquil and secluded village. It is listed by the National Trust as a Landscape Conservation Area because of its stunning beauty and abundant prime agricultural land. But its tranquillity is under threat.

Mining company Kepco is proposing to build an open cut and underground coal mine near the village. If approved, the Bylong Coal Project would extract about 125 million tonnes of coal over its 23-year operating period.

On May 11 about 50 people attended a Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) hearing at Mudgee. Dozens of farmers, locals and environmentalists objected to the plans at the public meeting.

Bylong Valley was where Peter Andrews developed his revolutionary land care method, Natural Sequence Farming. His property, Tarwyn Park, was sold to Kepco in 2014. Since then Andrews has been fighting to have its agricultural and environmental significance recognised on the State Heritage Register.

Many who oppose the mine say the PAC hearing is a “fake consultation” and “ridiculous sham” designed to fast track approval of the mine. Under controversial NSW laws the public loses the right to challenge the merits of a mine approval in the Land and Environment Court if the PAC holds a public hearing into a mine.

Bylong farmer Graham Tanner fears his 324 hectare farm in the valley is under threat. He has lived on the property, about 1.5 kilometres from the proposed mine site for 27 years. He said the mine would affect his farm’s water supply and, despite financial pressure to sell his property, he was not moving.

“We love the place,” he said. “We just said look, we're not interested in selling out, you know, we've got a good farm.”

Kepco chief operating officer Bill Vatovec assured locals the mine would not affect the village’s water supply.

“We are very confident with the amount of water supply that we have,” he said. “The water licences are more than sufficient to be able to meet all the requirements in the most driest climatic conditions, and make sure the adjoining landholders are not impacted.

Community and environment groups have raised serious questions about the impacts of the Bylong project, and government agencies including the NSW Mine Subsidence Board, the NSW Environment Protection Authority and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage have also questioned the adequacy of Kepco’s planning.

Objectors raised issues about water and waste management, air quality, noise and blasting, the loss of Tarwyn Park, the loss of an historic church and exhumation of graves, loss of prime agricultural land, loss of prime equine land, and rock falls along at least 20% of cliff lines within the project area.   

But the local business community is optimistic about the mine. Mudgee Chamber of Commerce vice president Andrew Palmer said the project presented major opportunities.

“We see it as an opportunity for the region to grow. The Kandos area in particular has lost a lot of industry in recent years and a lot of jobs subsequently left. We see the Kepco Bylong Project as an opportunity to replace many of those jobs and continue to build our local community.”

But many farmers, locals and environmentalist are still sceptical about the potential economic benefits. “It’s our livelihood, it’s our business, and everybody seems to think it’s going to be good for Mudgee, good for Rylstone,” Tanner said. “But that’s all self-interest. They’re only thinking about themselves, they’re not thinking about us.”

Last month, the NSW Department of Planning and Environment released a preliminary report on the mine, recommending it be approved. The Planning Assessment Commission will publish its findings in a few weeks.

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