Margaret River community defeats coal mine

The WA state government finally rejected Vasse Coal’s proposal for a coal mine in Margaret River on February 7. The mine would have been built 15 kilometres from the town centre, directly beneath the river.

Margaret River residents came out in force to oppose the proposal, as it posed a direct threat to water supply, biodiversity and air quality. Margaret River’s two main industries, agriculture and tourism, depend on the environmental health of the region.

The defeat of the Vasse Coal proposal is a big victory in WA politics. Particularly in Western Australia, the mining industry can seem all-powerful. Yet Margaret River residents have proven that it is possible for an organised community to beat them.

Here’s how it was done.

When they first heard about the Vasse Coal proposal, Margaret River residents called a public meeting to figure out a community response. Fifty people attended, and formed a campaign group called the NO COAL!ition.

The NO COAL!ition, working in conjunction with other groups, organised several rallies. The first mobilised about 1000 people. The NO COAL!ition also organised supporters to flood the Environmental Protection Authority with submissions. The huge volume of submissions caused the EPA's computer system to crash and it decided against the coal mine.

After considerable procrastination, environment minister Bill Marmion decided to heed public opinion and uphold the EPA decision. About a month later, the mine has now been knocked on the head.

Other highlights of the 18-month campaign included an online petition, which was signed by 7806 people. The campaign also demonstrated the power of political art. Local artists Rebecca Cool and Ross Miller organised the community to paint a beautiful anti-coal mine mural down the main street. The mural is over thirty metres long, and it is visible at the Save our Southwest website.

With any campaign victory it is important to read the fine print. The defeat of Vasse Coal sets an important precedent, yet the fight is far from over in Margaret River.

A second mining company, Western Coal, also has its eye on the same coal seam. Further, petroleum companies want to develop an unconventional gas industry in the Southwest. Whicher Range Energy holds an exploration lease for tight gas, and Titan Energy holds an exploration lease for coal seam gas.

Safety from mining needs to be enshrined in law, otherwise the southwest will have to fend off an endless string of mining applications one at a time.

The southwest, as the only part of the country internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, should be protected by special legislation. The mining act and the petroleum act need to be changed to give local government the power to override them.

Western Australia should also impose a statewide moratorium on fracking and unconventional gas until they are proven safe. Finally, it is high time to investigate the southwest’s potential for renewable energy.

Marmion and WA Premier Colin Barnett have rejected the call for protective legislation, opting to look at planning and rezoning controls instead. The problem with this is that the mining act overrides all other planning laws.

The group Save Our Southwest continues the fight. Local residents opposing Western Coal’s exploration leases are due to appear in court next on the first of March. They mobilised to request special legislation on the fourth of February when Barnett opened the new Margaret River Shire offices.

Rural campaigners can also count on solidarity from the city. A new group in Perth called No Fracking WAy is now gearing up to fight the unconventional gas industry.