Locals battle to stop Leard Forest coalmines

Local residents at the protest camp in the Leard Forest. Photo: frontlineaction.wordpress.com

Three open cut coalmines have been proposed over the Leard State Forest and adjoining farmland near Boggabri in NSW. Two mines currently operate in the forest, but their proposed expansion and a brand new mine would clear 50% of the forest.

The National Parks Association of NSW says the forest is “home to 26 threatened plant and animal species” and is “the single biggest remnant of native vegetation left on the heavily cleared Liverpool Plains”.

The largest of the mines, the Boggabri coalmine, was approved on July 19. Projected to mine 7 million tonnes of coal a year, it is the first major coalmine approved under the Coalition state government.

The mine approval has angered many local farmers and conservationists. Phil Laird, spokesperson for the Maules Creek Community Council, said on July 20: “The Boggabri coalmine is proof positive that the NSW government has turned its back on the community and delivered business as usual for multinational mining companies.”

“The NSW government promised pre-election that no mines would be approved before the Namoi Water Study was completed, but this mine breaks that promise.”

The Leard forest coalmine plans are part of wider rush of coal and coal seam gas projects throughout the Gunnedah basin. Traditionally a farming region, inland northern NSW is facing coal seam gas drilling in the nearby Pilliga scrub, and the neighbouring Goonbri Mountain is threatened with mountaintop removal coalmining.

Residents in Maules Creek, a village that neighbours the forest, have been organising against coal expansion since 2010. In May, after feeling that their concerns about the approval process had been ignored, a group of farmers blockaded the road to the Boggabri coalmine and stopped coal trucks for six hours.

Besides the destruction of the forest and the environmental impacts, residents say they are also worried about the dust, noise and health impacts the mines would bring. A public forum in Gunnedah on August 6 heard about the health risks from coal and coal seam gas mining, noting the experiences of communities in Tara in Queensland and the Hunter Valley in NSW.

At the end of the forum the crowd agreed they were not prepared to accept negative health outcomes and passed a motion calling for “a Health Impact Assessment [to] be conducted within the Gunnedah Basin with full community involvement to assess the individual and cumulative project effects of the impact of coal and coal seam gas”.

In an August 13 statement about the need for the community to carry out their own health assessment, Laird said: “The [mine] planning process does not assess health impacts of individual projects, nor does it assess the cumulative health impacts. Government is incapable or unwilling so the community must work together to safeguard the health of all people in our region now and in the future.”

Protest group, Front Line Action On Coal, has also set up a protest camp near the Leard forest and is inviting people to join them.

One of the campers, Murray Drechsler, said he decided to initiate an action against the mine expansion and is hoping to build a community blockade strong enough to prevent it from going ahead. He told Green Left Weekly: “I wanted to bring attention to the issue. We’ve had a good response from the community and we’re working with other coal and coal seam gas action groups between Gunnedah and Newcastle.”

The team have set up camp near the entrance to the mine and are inviting people to come to tour the mine site, take part in skill shares and camp with them for as long as possible.

“What’s happening in Broome [protest against the Kimberley gas hub] is a fantastic example of people power,” Drechsler said. “I’d love to see us build up to that.”