Mining companies on the rampage in south-west Australia

October 21, 2011

Australia’s south-west is the only part of the country internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. It is also a major agricultural area. The south-west town Margaret River is one of the country’s primary wine producing regions and a major tourist destination.

Over the past year the mining industry has been salivating over this fragile region, planning to mine coal, coal seam gas, tight gas, thorium, oil and mineral sands. Although plans for oil rigs off the Margaret River coast have been cancelled, the website lists 12 current proposals for coal and gas mining in the south-west region.

In August last year, Margaret River residents kick started a powerful community campaign, built on solid scientific evidence, against a proposed coalmine run by Vasse Coal. The proposed mine would be built only 15 kilometres from the town centre. Due to the strength of the campaign, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) did not approve the Vasse Coal proposal. Vasse Coal has since appealed this decision.

A decision on Vasse Coal’s appeal is scheduled for October 31. Activists expect environment minister Bill Marmion to then make a final decision on the project.

The local community has become very frustrated with the legal process. Marmion could have knocked the mine on the head by now. Instead, Vasse Coal has been granted multiple extensions to make its case, as well as the opportunity to appeal the EPA decision.

In an email sent to the No Coal!tion network, farmer Brent Watson wrote: “There is not much point at all you getting caught up in the legal process — we are weak in it. We are subservient in it. It was lobbied for and drafted by Industry. Our arguments have virtually no legal weight.

“So — we have to invent our OWN process. And not be drawn into the traps inherent in the legal ‘approvals process’ which will grind you down and spit you out.”

Disenchanted with the legal process, Margaret River residents have created their own. They organised a protest that drew a fifth of the town’s population. They painted a political mural down the main street. They swamped the EPA with more submissions than it had ever received. In short, they discovered their collective power.

Greens MP Giz Watson has tabled a bill to enable local governments to override the mining act. The No Coal!tion campaign group has welcomed this bill as a step in the right direction, but is ultimately pushing for the south-west to be protected against mining by special legislation. The Greens bill, if passed, would leave the south-west vulnerable to future local governments who might be pro-mining. The Greens are now conducting community consultation and aim to develop the bill further.

The No Coal!tion’s mural emblazoned with the words “Margaret River: Too Beautiful to Undermine” was removed from the main street earlier this year. It has now been retrieved by local artists Rebecca Cool and Ross Miller who are seeking a new site to display it.

The No Coal!tion had planned to display the mural in protest outside a mining manager’s conference scheduled for October 26-27 in Margaret River. The conference has since been cancelled.

As well as the Vasse Coal project, the community is also battling applications for exploration by Western Coal. Western Coal has not told the community what it wants to explore for or the methods it wants to use. Presumably, it seeks to mine coal.

The community found out about Western Coal’s fourth proposed exploration lease in the local paper, after the period for objections had closed. Two leases had slipped under the community radar and were granted in late 2010. Mining companies are not legally required to notify communities if the minerals they are after are 30 metres or more below the surface.

This is despite the tremendous damage to surface ecology caused by coalmining. Save Our Southwest activist Cath Miller sent in the only objection to the second proposed lease. She told Green Left Weekly she wonders how many more people would have objected had they been informed.

Landowners opposing Western Coal exploration were summonsed to the Busselton Warden’s Court on September 29. More than 50 landholders and their supporters mobilised for the court date. The strength in numbers kept people’s spirits up, despite the intimidating nature of the legal system. Western Coal did not even bother to send a representative to the hearing.

Many who attended complained about the inconvenience. “We have to take out all our time and effort while these people get paid just to waffle,” No Coal!tion activist Ross Miller told GLW. “They tell us we need expert advice. Who is going to pay for it? The mining companies have that anyway. It disrupts people’s lives. People have to work. Instantly our land is devalued by half. The law does not protect people, their assets or their livelihoods. The law is there for the mining companies.”

Representatives from the Augusta-Margaret River Shire attended to oppose the exploration. Nobody from Busselton Shire attended, although they have taken a position against coal mining in the region.

Westralian Gas and Power had two drilling reservations, a special prospecting authority and exploration permits between Margaret River and Busselton. It began drilling the Kaloorup Number Two well near the Vasse township in March 2010, to test and design its fracking program.

Its drilling permit has since expired and it recently announced that it had relinquished its joint venture interest in the Margaret River permit EP445, with Red Mountain Energy Pty Ltd, under which they were required to drill five wells by March 2012.

Whicher Range Energy has announced it may develop a major tight gas field in the hills east of Busselton involving more than 60 wells, the August 8 West Australian said. It intends to start drilling in 2012, the August 19 Busselton Dunsborough Times reported.

Whicher Range Energy’s website says the company drilled five gas wells in the Busselton Shire before 2000. It used 1.2 million litres of diesel to frack the Whicher Range Gas Field in 2004, according to an email from Environment Minister Norman Moore’s office to the No Coal!tion, the August 19 Busselton Dunsborough Times reported.

As part of a national day of action called by the Lock the Gate Alliance, Margaret River and Busselton campaigners held a demonstration on the October 16.

Communities in the south-west are putting up a huge fight. Yet they need solidarity from the rest of the country. For people living in Perth, let alone in the eastern states, it can be easy to think that the south-west is out of sight and out of mind. But it would be a grave mistake to leave this critically important part of the country to the ravenous appetite of the mining companies.

In the past, people in Perth have demonstrated their outstanding solidarity for rural Western Australia. If it weren’t for Perth activism, Ningaloo reef would have been trashed by now, the south-west forests would have been felled to the ground, and there would be an international high level nuclear waste dump in the WA outback. It is time for people in the cities to remember their solidarity for the bush and fight like never before.


Westralian Gas and Power has changed its name to Titan Energy (as in The Titanic!)

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