Farmers stand strong against BHP

September 27, 2008

Residents of Caroona, in the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, are in their 11th week of a blockade that has stopped BHP Billiton from carrying out coal exploration on their land.

In April 2006, in return for $123 million, the NSW government granted BHP a five-year coal exploration licence covering 344 square kilometres of land at Caroona. BHP aims to set up a longwall mine to extract the estimated 500 million tonnes of coal in the licence area.

Local farmers are concerned that coalmining would threaten the region's unique groundwater supply that makes it one of the most fertile and drought-resistant agricultural areas in Australia, producing one-third of Australia's durum wheat.

According to the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change's website: "subsidence due to longwall mining can cause deformation of ground surfaces as well as cracking of valley floors and creeklines. This can affect natural water flow regimes and water quality."

Moreover, the estimated 500 million tonnes of coal, when burned, would produce about 1.2 billion tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide.

The Caroona Coal Action Group was set up in 2006 by local farmers and community members to protect the land and aquifers. A member of CCAG, Tommy Clift, told Green Left Weekly, "We started with only a few people but now have over 240 people [on the blockade roster]."

"It's pretty hard when you have the federal government, the state government, BHP and one of China's biggest companies [Shenhua, who gained an exploration for neighbouring land at Watermark] as your enemies. But if nothing else we'll resort to people power. [That's how] they won the Franklin", she said.

GLW spoke to Tim Duddy, a spokesperson for CCAG and owner of the Rossmar Park property where BHP wants to begin drilling operations.

@question = How did this blockade begin?

About 10 weeks ago the [NSW] mining warden handed down an order of access [to BHP] without any signatures from us. The legal representatives of BHP refused to concede that it was reasonable to give us 24 hours' notice before they came onto the property.

They arrived here one morning to erect a fence — I was in Sydney but my younger brother rang me and said "What do I do?" I said, "We go and park the road in because they can go to hell".

That galvanised the entire community and the result of that was even greater than I had ever imagined. To consider you have a conservative farming community supporting something like this truly is an extraordinary thing.

@question = What are the main concerns driving the campaign?

The fact that the government refused to commission a water study and that they are still prepared to give [BHP] access to drill here without any form of accountability.

Under the current planning laws in NSW, the word "water" is not mentioned once in any compensation acts and in this area the water is more valuable than the land. So to own the land and have someone else wreck the water — we're simply not prepared to let people on to do that.

The [state] government is so keen to take the cash on the one hand, but not willing to take responsibility on the other. People of this district have had enough.

And when you've got a federal government that is making all these claims [about saving the Murray-Daring] at the same time as they're talking about putting a mine here — with the Mooki River, just to the east of here, which runs into the Murray-Darling system — how can you take them seriously?

@question = Would you say you have BHP and the state government on the back foot?

I'd say they were unprepared for what this [blockade] would do. They know they have the law on their side and they certainly didn't think that a conservative group of farmers would do this.

I know that we have the state minister [for primary industries, Ian Macdonald] and the Minerals Council of Australia concerned about the effect [the blockade] is having. They are finding that, in areas where they didn't meet with resistance before, they now are.

There are farmers who used to think mining wasn't such a bad thing but since this has happened they think it's a very bad thing. It's changing the dynamics of the district. A lot of mining takes place on private freehold land (at least initially) so to be blocked up at that point of entry is something that does concern the Minerals Council and the minister a great deal.

@question = Where do you see the campaign going?

We need to have the word "water" installed in the coal compensation act. We need to have a fully independent catchments-wide water study commissioned in this district.

We need the mining industry to think differently about the environment. I'm not opposed to mining per se but there needs to be proper studies of its water, climate and environmental impacts and this area should be the model for that happening.

@question = Do you have a message to people elsewhere campaigning against the coal expansion?

Everyone says you can't win. My suggestion is at least give it a go. No one ever thought we'd get as far as we have. If we'd simply rolled over it would mean they'd have never even contemplated doing water studies.

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