NSW farmers take on BHP Billiton

Farmers in Liverpool Plains, south of Tamworth, are taking on BHP Billiton's drive for black gold.

On July 21, nearly 200 local farmers and their families set up a blockade to stop BHP from entering Tim Duddy's property, "Rossmar Park", to start drilling operations. This followed an injunction granted on July 18 against the Duddy family.

Duddy told Green Left Weekly that it was impossible to imagine that BHP would be allowed to enter any city-based enterprise without even giving 24-hours' notice. "Yet, it is allowed to come on to my property, which has been in the family for a century and a half, and start drilling", he said.

The local farmers are angry that community consultation and preliminary water studies on the area's aquifers — which water the region's high agricultural yields — have not been carried out.

According to the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG), "We cannot afford to have these water supplies damaged, cracked, polluted and drained away. The aquifers grow our food and provide water for people, animals and the environment. The miners do not understand this or they would not be mining here — there is no 'damage free', half-way house as BHP's extensive environmental damage from long wall mining down South already shows."

Duddy pulled out of the community consultation committee in March for these reasons. He stresses that he is not against mining: he is concerned that, because of the district's aquifers, care has to be taken to ensure they are not polluted or destroyed by the mining operations.

The state government is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from BHP, having granted it the right to explore, and turns a blind eye to the mining giants's refusal to consult.

BHP's record on consultation and preliminary water testing in the designated 350-square kilometre area is not good. Another local farmer, Ben Evan, told the Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon in March that drilling had taken place on his property without warning, and without a request to access nearby bores to test the water prior to the drilling or afterwards.

CCAG spokesperson Doug Ranken said the group was campaigning for a "full, independent, catchment-wide water study" to be conducted ahead of any exploratory mining. He said that under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (part 3A), such projects are given the green light without comprehensive studies.

Ranken also wants the NSW and federal governments to commission a study into the impact coal exploration and mining could have on underground and surface water reserves — especially important given the long-running drought in parts of Australia.

Considering that "the state government has already pocketed an extraordinary $100 million from BHP Billiton to allow it to explore Liverpool Plains, $8 million for a major study is no major ask", Ranken said.

Interestingly, Dr John Williams, the state government's natural resources commissioner, admitted on the ABC's 7.30 Report on July 2 that "we need regional studies and planning studies that make sure we know where the no-go areas for mining and where the go areas for mining with care are". He added: "Presently, I don't believe that we have sufficient information to make those judgements."

Growing concern about climate change and consciousness about the need to move away from a dirty coal-driven energy sector hasn't diminished profit-hungry corporations' quest to mine more coal. But their anti-community and environment stand is increasingly coming under fire.

CCAG has seen a leaked NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change report that cited numerous instances of environmental destruction by open-cut and underground coal mines. It describes as "devastating" the subsidence caused by BHP Billiton in its undergound mining in the Southern Coalfields, and states that "impacts related to subsidence are very difficult to rehabilitate".

"Currently there is no balance between how coal is extracted and actively avoiding or minimizing impacts", the leaked report notes. It also states: "Coal mining is a temporary land use. As a result, areas impacted by mining must be appropriately managed to make them safe and suitable for other future land uses."

The Caroona farmers are ready to negotiate access based on the CCAG Access Agreement which holds BHP Billiton to its publicly stated record of "zero harm".

They have written to the relevant ministers and local independent MP Tony Windsor to gain support for their call for an independent study of the groundwater and surface water flows of the region prior to further mining or exploration. The Liverpool Plains Shire Council is urging NSW planning minister Frank Sartor to do just this, and is urging Penny Wong, federal environment minister, to intervene.

"Caroona farmers are standing up for environmental protection against state and federal governments which continually fail to put any meaningful limits on irresponsible mining developments across highly productive agricultural land. The profit interest of the mining lobby should not drive projects that will destroy the agricultural capacity of Australia for all time", Ranken said.

According to BHP Billiton, "Approval to develop a mine in the [Liverpool Plains] area will not be given until the NSW government requirements are met and community concerns and expectations are addressed".

It would seem that this is a long way off.