On March 2, two Gamilaraay men, Paul Spearim and Allen Talbot, and a Githabul man, Laurence Miles, locked on to concrete barrels at the entrance to Whitehaven's controversial Maules Creek coalmine, stopping work.
The action followed protests earlier in the week, with one man stopping coal trains near Willow Tree and three others locked to bulldozers.
Whitehaven is clearing the environmentally and culturally significant Leard State Forest, on Gomeroi/Gamilaraay country, for the expansion of its Maules Creek coalmine. The protesters aim was to prevent coal reaching the port from all mines north of Willow Tree, including the Maules Creek mine, as well as to delay the clearing of the forest.
The protests follow allegations that Whitehaven has cleared the forest during extreme heat in breach of its Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP), which forbids clearing in temperatures over 35°C. Citizen Scientists recorded temperatures of 38°C in the Leard Forest while clearing continued.
Local ecologist and Leard Forest Alliance spokesperson Phil Spark said: “Whitehaven is clearing critical habitat for over 35 threatened and endangered species. When it is too hot animals hide in their hollows to conserve energy. Clearing during this time ensures that not only will these animals' homes be destroyed, they will not have the opportunity to flee.
“There needs to be certainty in whether or not Whitehaven is complying with its BMP. We demand that there is an independent monitoring process, and that Whitehaven disclose its onsite readings.”
The Environmental Defenders Office, on behalf of South East Forest Rescue, wrote to Whitehaven Coal and the NSW Department of Planning on February 26 calling for an immediate investigation into the alleged non-compliance and urging stricter measures to prevent Whitehaven coal ignoring the rules.
Concern about the expansion of mining on Gomeroi/Gamilaraay country has led to alliances across First Nations and with non-indigenous protectors.
Spearim said: “For me, personally, this is about the protection of our sacred lands, water, animals, song, dance, knowledge and culture of the Gamilaraay nation.”
Miles said: “We have come from the east to support the Gamilaraay in their fight to save Mother Earth. We are one in this fight.”
Federal environment minister Greg Hunt has an obligation under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage and Protection Act (ATSIHP Act) to protect significant sites in the forest.
Whitehaven has already destroyed or irrevocably damaged 38 sacred sites, including 10 sites of high significance. Lawlers Well is the last site of high significance left within the Maules Creek coalmine boundary.
Two years ago Gomeroi traditional custodians made an application for Hunt to use his powers under sections 9 and 10 of the ATSIHP Act to stop work in the area and protect this last sacred site. Hunt replied that as Whitehaven will not clear the area until 2017 he does not need to make a decision now.
Gomeroi traditional custodian Dolly Talbot said: “We are asking Greg Hunt to commence an independent report including oral evidence to make an informed decision. We are asking him to do his job right and protect our Lawler's Well.
“It is so hard seeing the destruction of our country. The elders have been waiting too long for answers. It is completely unacceptable that Hunt dragged his feet on the protection of Lawlers Well. We reasonably expect the respect of a timely assessment and our rightful opportunity to have protection enacted.”
Annette Schneider and Sarah Sargan, who locked on to a bulldozer in the forest, said: “We are a few of many concerned about the mining expansion on Gamilaraay/Gomeroi country, and the impacts this will have on our last remaining forests and climate. This affects us all, we will do all that it takes until our voices are heard.”
Mark Selmes sat atop a coaltrain dressed as a koala for five hours before he was removed by Police Rescue and taken to Muswellbrook police station.
“I am standing up for the wildlife,” he said. “I'm saying enough is enough. The Leard State Forest is home to many threatened species, and it is a high conservation value forest. The coal on these trains comes from destroying crucial habitat. The animals can't just pack up their bags and go somewhere else. Soon there will be nowhere else.”
Nearly 400 people have been arrested taking peaceful direct action protesting Whitehaven's Maules Creek mine.