NSW government tries to silences environmentalists

Cataract Dam in Sydney's water catchment area.

The NSW Barry O’Farrell government has been criticised for having close links to mining companies after it made two controversial decisions in December last year.

The Coalition government announced it would appoint a former mining company executive to the board of the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) and confirmed it would axe funding to the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).

The role of the SCA is to manage the drinking water of 4.5 million people in the Sydney area. A strong community campaign led by Stop CSG Illawarra has highlighted potential contamination of water after several coal seam gas (CSG) exploration licences were granted inside the water catchment.

With the water catchment under threat of CSG mining, the entire SCA board was replaced and the new chairperson, Mark Bethwaite, is a former director of two of Australia's largest mining companies, North Limited and Renison Goldfields, and is also a former treasurer of the federal Liberal Party.

The law that governs the authority says board members must have ''qualifications and experience relevant to water quality and public health''. However, now there is no public health expert on the board for the first time since it was established in 1998.

Stop CSG Illawarra has called the process an “abuse of power”.

The group said: "How can it possibly be acceptable that the authority charged with protecting our drinking water — for the purpose of public health — has not one public health expert, but is headed up by a former mining executive?"

The appointment was made at the same time as coal seam gas company, Apex Energy, is applying for new petroleum exploration licences in the area.

Labor environment spokesperson Luke Foley said: "I fear this new appointment will see mining companies given the green light to drill for coal seam gas in the sensitive special areas of the Sydney Catchment Authority."

In another bid to curb the environment movement, the EDO, which provides free legal services to communities involved in environmental disputes and has increasingly given aid to groups fighting coal and CSG proposals in NSW, will have its funding cut by the government.

The office is now on the brink of closure after new guidelines ban the provision of legal advice to activists and lobby groups.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 10 that: “Documents released under freedom of information laws show the NSW Minerals Council and the Australian Coal Association lobbied the Premier to cancel the EDO's $2.5 million annual public subsidy.”

Pepe Clarke, Chief Executive Officer of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said: “The EDO is a critical resource that ensures citizens understand and can exercise their legal rights to protect the environment when other institutions fail to do so.

“The government must adequately fund the EDO to ensure ordinary people have access to legal advice that enables them to protect their local environment and the community’s health.”

Stop CSG Illawarra said: “It is difficult to recall a period when an Australian state has seen such disregard for proper government process and standards. It’s time for all citizens of NSW to let this government know, in no uncertain terms, that this latest abuse of power is a step too far.”

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