Gomeroi launch new challenge to Shenhua coal mine

Gomeroi Traditional Custodian Dolly Talbott. Photo: Environmental Defenders Office

Gomeroi Traditional Custodians who lost a bid to protect a sacred site from being destroyed for the Shenhua Watermark coal mine in north-west New South Wales have lodged a new application to protect country. The new application represents more than 600 Gomeroi people and 31 Aboriginal Nations.

Spokesperson Dolly Talbott said she was disappointed with the Federal Court ruling on July 22, but she would not give up the fight to protect sacred places at Mount Watermark near Gunnedah.

Since 2011, there has been growing opposition to the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine proposed for the fertile Liverpool Plains, near Breeza.

In April 2015, the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians of central NSW and central south Queensland applied to the federal Environment Minister, under section 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) to protect several significant areas.

The minister acknowledged last year that the mine would destroy or desecrate significant areas, but concluded that its potential economic and social benefits outweighed that.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDA) acted for Talbott in a challenge under the ATSIHP Act to the lawfulness of the minister’s decision to not grant protection to several significant areas of Aboriginal cultural heritage.

“It remains vitally important to us to protect our sacred places, songlines and burials of our ancestors” Talbott said on July 22. If anything the decision demonstrates the abject failure of the act “to provide meaningful protection for areas of particular significance to Aboriginal people”, she said.

Talbott said the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, representing more than 600 Gomeroi people and 31 Aboriginal Nations, have submitted a new application, with new information, to protect the sacred areas.

She said Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan caves in Western Australia had demonstrated that there is “an urgent need to protect the places of significance to Aboriginal people”.

Talbott told The Guardian Australia on July 26 that Gomeroi Elders had decided to reveal further sites in their new application, in the hope that the minister might reconsider her decision. “They aren’t sites that you normally would share with anybody, and now we’re forced to.”

EDO spokesperson David Morris said he shared the Gomeroi’s disappointment at the court’s decision.

“We think this outcome highlights the fact that our federal culture and heritage laws are not fit for purpose. The laws are designed to protect places of significance to Aboriginal people — yet the decision shows that the ATSIHP Act allows the expectation of short-term economic outcomes from mining to outweigh the protection of culturally important sites. The Court has found that the Minister was permitted to consider very broad, non-Indigenous, matters in deciding to refuse protection for these ancient sites of immeasurable value.”

In May 2018, Lock the Gate Alliance lodged a freedom of information request after the NSW government struck a deal with Shenhua to buy back about 50% of its mining licence for $262 million. Lock the Gate argued that the public has a right to know how its funds are being spent.

The government refused to release the documents and EDO challenged the decision. In January last year, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal upheld the decision to withhold the documents, even while agreeing that is was significant public interest in the buyback deal.

Meanwhile, on July 20 the interim report for the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was released.

Professor Graeme Samuel said one of the key reforms needed is a review of Indigenous cultural heritage laws. He said more work is needed to support better engagement with Indigenous Australians and to incorporate traditional knowledge of country in how the environment is managed.

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