Community wins 'battle for Bickham'

May 21, 2010
Picket against the proposed coal mine at Bickham, November. Photo:

The decade-long campaign against the Bickham coal project, north of Scone in New South Wales, ended in victory on May 14, when NSW Premier Kristina Keneally announced the government would reject the proposed mine.

The open-cut mine would have extracted 36 million tonnes of coal over 25 years.

Keneally's decision came after the May 3 publication of the state Planning Assessment Commission's (PAC) report, which recommended the mine not proceed.

It could be the first time the NSW government has ever blocked the development of a coalmine.

The PAC report raised concern over the risk posed by mining to the Pages River, 100 metres from the proposed site. It said: “In an environment where water resources are stressed and the Pages River itself is over-allocated this residual uncertainty poses an unacceptable level of risk.”

The PAC, which held public hearings in Scone in March, recognised in its report the "significant and legitimate" concern from the local community over the health impacts of coal dust and airborne toxins from the mine.

It went further, criticising the inadequacy of existing government regulation of air pollution from mining: "The current regulatory system is incapable of guaranteeing effective control over these emissions at all times.”

The report also challenged the Bickham Coal Company's claims that the mine would create more than 300 local jobs. It found, based on a range of evidence — including the coal company's own information — that the job creation would be much lower, that few of those employed would be drawn from the local area and that job gains would likely be outweighed by job losses from other local industries negatively affected by the mine.

The state government granted a coal exploration license over the area in 1999. In response, the Bickham Coal Action Group (BCAG) formed in 2001. One of the group's founders, Michaela Malone, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the victory.

“I applaud the government for a sensible decision — an open cut coal mine in this location was a very bad idea right from the start”, said Malone.

“We have been fighting this mine for nearly a decade. There’s an incredible sense of relief that it has been stopped and there’s been an amazing sense of community optimism about the future since the decision.”

“At the start of the campaign, we discussed whether we were going to take a legal or political approach. In the past when groups have taken a legal path, even when they've won court cases, the government introduced new legislation to get around the ruling.

So we decided to take a political-community approach — to involve and inform as many people as possible.”

In 2004, the state government gave the go-ahead for the Bickham Coal Company to take a 25,000-tonne “bulk sample” of coal from the site (which it sold to Japan) with minimal environmental assessment. The sample extraction left behind what Malone described as a “mini open-cut mine” next to the river.

“BCAG lobbied the government for years to stop the mine going ahead. One of the effects of the lobbying was the government commissioning an extensive first-time study to look at the cumulative impact and risks of introducing coal mining to a coalmine-free zone. The study’s main conclusion, back in 2005, was that the mine posed too high a risk to the river.

“It hasn't just been BCAG but a range of other community groups. A huge number of people have been involved and the thoroughbred [horse] industry was very important over the last few years.

“When we started the campaign, climate change was pretty much a dirty word in the bush and the campaign involved a lot people with a lot of views so we didn’t focus on it. As a result more people joined the campaign and became engaged in the climate change debate.

“Personally, I think the growth in awareness about climate change and the environment helped us gain support.”

In response to Keneally's announcement Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said: “This is a great win for one community, but it only has wider significance if it is the start of a genuine shift by the NSW government from its addiction to damaging coalmining to investing in clean, sustainable energy production.

“This government has initiated the biggest expansion of coal mining in the state's history, at a time when climate change tightens its grasp on the planet", she said.

Among the list of mines and expansions the Labor government has approved in recent years is the Anvil Hill mine in the Hunter Valley, which will directly affect 1200 hectares of remnant woodland, destroy two rivers and add more than 500 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in its lifetime.

Another coal project in Caroona on the Liverpool Plains could also go ahead. On May 19, in a late-night hasty debate, the ALP state government, aided by the Liberal and Shooters’ parties, passed legislation that diminishes the ability of farmers to challenge coal projects that threaten water sources.

The Land Access Bill was drafted in response to a Supreme Court decision that found in favour of two farmers challenging coal development in Caroona on the basis of damage to water supplies. NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said on May 20: “The NSW government has used the Land Access Bill to grant concessions to the mining industry well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision the bill overturns.”

In 2005, the state government amended the Environment Planning and Assessment Act, introducing the infamous Part 3A that gives the planning minister powers to approve "major development projects", including coalmines, even where there are breaches of environmental and planning laws.

If the government is serious about listening to communities about coalmining, it will heed calls to repeal Part 3A.

The PAC report noted that Bickham “is potentially the 'thin edge of the wedge'”, and that a rejection of the project could create a precedent for how mines are considered in future.

Malone said the lesson for others fighting the coal industry’s expansion was: "Don't ever say it can't be done.”

[Simon Cunich is a member of Newcastle Resistance and involved in campaigns against coalmining and exporting in the Hunter Valley.]

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