Supporters of the NSW Hunter Valley community of Wollar held simultaneous rallies in Sydney and Mudgee on November 29 against a coalmine expansion that threatens to wipe out the village.
The NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) is reviewing the proposal to extend the Wilpinjong coalmine. It held a public hearing about the project in Mudgee but Wollar residents and supporters boycotted it and protested instead. They said the process is stacked against them and the community’s legal rights have been taken away.
Under NSW law, major developments, including coalmines, are subject to a review by the PAC before a decision is made to approve them. If directed by the planning minister, the PAC must hold a public hearing into the project.
PAC public hearings have none of the powers of a court, but holding a public hearing extinguishes third party appeal rights for the project. This means that if the development application is approved, members of the public have no right to challenge the approval in court.
In 2012, the Independent Commission Against Corruption recommended the expansion of appeal rights to a range of developments as an anti-corruption measure, but the NSW government has denied this right to multiple communities affected by major coalmine developments in the years since, including Maules Creek, Bulga, Breeza on the Liverpool Plains and now Wollar.
Community groups wrote to planning minister Rob Stokes in September urging him to not extinguish appeal rights for the Wilpinjong extension project. He did it anyway.
Wollar resident Bev Smiles said: “This PAC meeting is designed to achieve just one thing: the removal of our legal right to challenge this coal mine. It is a meaningless fake consultation that we fear will rubber stamp the mine expansion that will kill off the village of Wollar forever.
“Why would we participate in a process that treats us this way? How can we sit quietly by while our legal rights are stripped away, when our entire community is at stake? We want to stop the mine expansion for the survival of our community.
“My community has already suffered so much since the mine opened 10 years ago. The mining company and the planning department told us we would not be impacted, but they lied. The dust and the noise have driven many people away, but our community can bounce back if we're given a chance.
“What's really hard to swallow is that our own state government has abandoned us, and is working with the mining company to finish off Wollar for ever.”
The NSW Department of Planning approved the original Wilpinjong coalmine in 2006 and now admits that the once thriving community of Wollar has been all but destroyed by the mine.
In its recent assessment of the Wilpinjong Extension Project, the department argued that Wollar is no longer worth saving and recommended approving the expansion of the mine to within 1.5 kilometres of the village, while acknowledging that this will spell the end of Wollar.