Liverpool Plains' farmers are celebrating the New South Wales state government's decision, on August 11, to buy back BHP Billiton's Caroona coalmine licence for $220 million.
This comes after a struggle that began in 2008, when farmer Tim Duddy and the local community began a blockade that put a spanner in BHP Billiton's efforts to start drilling operations on his family's Rossmar Park property.
At the time Duddy said he was concerned that BHP Billiton had not undertaken any community consultation nor done any preliminary water studies on the area's aquifers which water the region's high agricultural yields.
He was also incensed that BHP Billiton had just marched onto his property to start drilling, telling Green Left Weekly at the time it was impossible to imagine BHP Billiton would be allowed to do the same in any city-based enterprise without even giving 24 hours' notice.
The then Labor government issued the $100 million exploration licence to BHP Billiton in 2006, when coal and gas licences were being dished out like confetti.
BHP Billiton's plan was for an underground coalmine covering approximately 344 square kilometres. The decision was absurd, given that the soil of the Liverpool Plains is some of the most prized in the world and, according to The Land, “unrivalled in Australia for its drought resistant groundwater supplies and ability to reliably produce high-yielding summer and winter crops”.
The Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) campaigned hard against BHP Billiton's mine and demanded a full, independent, catchment-wide water study to be conducted ahead of any exploratory mining.
But the laws — then the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (Part 3A) — routinely gave mining companies the green light without comprehensive studies.
CCAG said: “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 Billiton's extensive environmental damage from long wall mining down south already shows.”
Even the state government's natural resources commissioner at the time, Dr John Williams, publicly urged more regional and planning studies to “make sure we know where the no-go areas for mining and where the go areas for mining with care are”.
Duddy told ABC on August 11 that the project should never have happened.
“The licences should never have been issued. It has been an absolute cancer that has eaten away at the agricultural investment in the district. The community now can get on with pursuing agriculture the way it needs to be pursued.”
Premier Mike Baird has also just announced the government had started negotiations with another mining giant, Shenhua, which wants a mega open-cut coalmine in the same area. The $1.2 billion 35 square kilometre Watermark coalmine is located on the ridges running down to the Liverpool Plains at Breeza, and carries the same, if not bigger, risks as the Caroona coalmine.
Shenhua, a Chinese-owned company, is also struggling, with a company report in March stating gloomily that there is no end in sight to the global economic downturn and coal glut.
Baird says he wants to excise parts of the Watermark mine's mining title that encroach onto strategic parts of the Liverpool Plains. But farmers and locals want the whole mine closed down.
The NSW Greens' energy spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham described the Caroona buy-back as a “historic victory” and said the state government must now commit to cancelling plans for the Watermark mine, KEPCO's Bylong project and Hume Coal's Berrima proposal.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said the federal and state governments must now focus on creating sustainable jobs in renewable energy and clean manufacturing to ensure a viable future for regional NSW. “A planned transition away from coalmining and coal-fired power is the way to boost employment and the NSW government needs to plan now so communities are not left behind with few work prospects,” she said.