Coal giant’s campaign to destroy a rural community

A protest against mining in The Gardens of Stone in Springwood on April 21.

Coalmining company Coalpac Pty Ltd lodged a development proposal with the NSW government in July 2011 to expand its open-cut and high-wall coalmines in central western NSW.

The sites are in a proposed extension to the Gardens of Stone National Park and surround the small town of Cullen Bullen. Coalpac’s “consolidation project” involves expanding its Invincible and Cullen Valley coalmines, and building a new quarry in the Ben Bullen State Forest near Lithgow.

Coalpac has a 20-year contract to provide thermal black coal to Delta Electricity’s Mount Piper Power Station. If approved, the expansion will enable the company to extract a further 108 million tonnes of coal, raising production to 3.5 million tonnes a year for 21 years.

The NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure ruled that the company’s first environmental assessment did not adequately address the project’s potential impacts on biodiversity, natural, historic and Aboriginal cultural heritage, noise, air quality and groundwater. But Coalpac resubmitted its development proposal in January last year. It is still being considered by the department.

In April last year, the people of Cullen Bullen presented the member for Bathurst, Paul Toole, with a petition signed by more than two-thirds of residents opposing an open-cut coal mine near the town.

Third-generation Cullen Bullen resident Eva Rizana spoke at a rally held in Springwood on April 21 to protest mining in The Gardens of Stone. Her speech is abridged below.

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I first came to know about the Coalpac Consolidation Project when we received one of their newsletters in our mailbox. The newsletter contained a map, along with some technical information about the operation of the mine. I didn’t really understand all the technical information, but the map made it very clear that the proposed mine would be very, very close to the town.

Essentially, the Coalpac Consolidation Project would mean that the 200 residents of Cullen Bullen will be living in the middle of an open-cut mine for the next 20 years. Like most of the residents of Cullen Bullen at that time, my family felt lost, confused and extremely isolated.

The proposal is for the mine to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with blasting occurring several times a week. In some cases, the mine operations will be only 500 metres from homes.

The NSW Department of Health, along with local doctors, have raised concerns about the impact of mining operations on the health of the residents. While I’m extremely grateful for their contributions, and welcome the knowledge and expertise that they bring to the argument, I find it slightly disturbing that we have a system that requires professional evidence that living in the middle of a 24-hour, seven-day a week open-cut mining operation for 20 years is detrimental to people’s health.

To me and the majority of residents of Cullen Bullen, it’s simply logical that being within 500 metres of the dust, fuel fumes and noise, and in close proximity to the blasting, isn’t good for residents’ health.

I know of numerous residents whose health has already been impacted by the existing mine operations just over the hill in Tyldesley. Their symptoms include itchy eyes, itchy skin, skin rashes and hives, as well as breathing difficulties. These symptoms clear up or go away when they leave the area for extended periods of time, such as for holidays, however [symptoms] quickly return once they come home to Cullen Bullen.

I’m also disturbed that the very real experiences of these people can’t be offered as further evidence of the detrimental effects of open-cut mining in close proximity to people.

Coalpac has agreed to compensate residents for any damage caused to their homes by the mining operations. [But] Coalpac can present a multitude of reasons other than its mining operations to explain the damage.

The majority of Cullen Bullen residents don’t trust Coalpac to fulfil in full the terms of their proposal. We also feel let down by some authorities in not forcing the company to comply with some of the terms already agreed to.

For example, Coalpac has an existing mine just outside Cullen Bullen. It started mining there about 12 years ago. The original mine was open-cut but was supposed to convert to underground mining after approximately four years. Twelve years later and the mine is still operating as an open-cut mine.

The mine couldn’t go underground due to fire in many pockets of coal and, while I’m certainly not promoting the use of mining practices that endanger the safety of miners or other workers, you can see how, from our perspective, Coalpac has developed a reputation of not fulfilling promises.

Most residents believe that if the proposal for Cullen Bullen is approved, Coalpac will start pushing the envelope in terms of things like blasting times, noise and dust restrictions, and proximity to homes and pagodas.

The voices that are being heard in mainstream media are not painting a complete picture. Yes, mining does create local jobs and that is important. But to the best of my knowledge, only three or four of the 2000 residents of Cullen Bullen are employed by Coalpac.

Coalpac’s Consolidation Project proposal says only 1-2% of its workers will be sourced locally.

Unfortunately, the Cullen Bullen that I grew up in has already disappeared. The sense that, even though things weren’t perfect, we all pulled together when we needed to has gone. Big business and big money, along with loads of misinformation, have divided the town.

The majority of residents object to the proposal, as evident by the more than four to one ratio of submissions from Cullen Bullen residents to the Department of Planning objecting to the proposal. But the few Coalpac employees, along with their families, understandably support the mine.

To me it feels like the people of Cullen Bullen are being used as pawns in a game that we have no chance of winning. Coalpac knows how to play this game and is using its knowledge and resources to win.

We don’t want to become another Maitland, Singleton or Ulan moonscape. While you might hear a different story in mainstream media, the truth is that the vast majority of residents are opposed to the mine, and anything that can be done to avoid future generations having to fight this same battle over and over again would be most welcome.

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