People power will win in the end

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Opinion Piece, Northern Daily Leader 12.4.2012, (this article is more relevant than ever with Cecil Plains and Fullerton Cove blockades commencing today, Ed)

It’s a frustrating time living in the shadow of the proposed coal mines in the Gunnedah Basin in the Central North of NSW. The cookie cutter approach to mine project applications developed by the resource companies and the Planning Department are rolling over the valley with predictable results. Sound ideas, common sense and logical arguments count for nothing …. “Clear a forest for a coal mine, no problem” … “Totally foreign owned, even better”.

Whether factually right or wrong, the perception is that accountability is optional and anyone including our institutions can spin their way through. Government departments, one off scientific studies and senior political figures are all willing to chance their arm. Three recent examples spring to mind.

The Coalition Strategic Regional Land Use Policy takes pride of place with a 180 degree U turn on the pre-election promises for the no-go zones and ring fences to protect strategic land. So complete is the about face that the entire state is open for mining and gas extraction. The stakeholders in the consultation process walked away and the prospect of NSW Farmers and the peak conservation body, the Nature Conservation Council issuing joint press releases gives a good indication that the stakeholders weren’t happy. For the Planning Minister to claim in a moment of classic spin, that this was an indication that the policy was about right, is about as far from the truth as possible. Indeed it is a sign that the policy is completely wrong.

Next up is the Namoi Catchment Water Study. The Terms of Reference, painstakingly developed by the community for the purpose of identifying the risk to the quantity and quality of surface and groundwater resources of the Namoi Catchment were promptly ignored in the contract between the Government and the Independent Expert, Schlumberger Water Services (SWS). There is no visibility for the community as the contract is commercial in confidence and hard won gains in the Terms of Reference were lost among budgetary and time line pressures. Quantitative analysis of water quality is absent from the Phase III reports. The fact that the parent company of SWS is a mining services company who supplies Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) Chemicals in Queensland and throughout the world is disconcerting to say the least. These chemicals and the fracking process itself, certainly don’t improve the ground water quality and it is conceivable that it is not in the best interests of future contracts for Schlumberger to forensically dissect the potential impacts of fracking in the Namoi Valley.

Further cause for community concern can be observed with the NSW Governments Planning Assessment Commission’s recommendations re the Boggabri Coal and Maules Creek Coal Mines slated to open cut  in the Leard State Forest. The forest is described as a Tier 1 biodiversity hotspot and is nominally protected under the Federal EPBC Act. Despite the Planning Minister’s written Terms of Reference to assess the cumulative dust impacts, the Commission returned reports for both mines without any quantitative air quality assessment and a recommendation to merely monitor dust emissions. The net result provides no legal protection afforded by designated Zones of Affectation for the affected community but a “suck it and see” process designed to fast track approvals. There is no “planning” process just an incremental “approval” process ignoring the cumulative impacts and likely to perpetuate the mistakes evident in the Hunter Valley.

These examples show how the institutions have been hijacked and what little respect there is for due process and the expectations of the public. The net result is investment uncertainty in the state of NSW with the non mining industries being destabilized due to increased risk across a range of spheres from land use policy, water resource security and the environmental and community impacts from individual mining projects. Combine this investment uncertainty with the crowding out effect due to a high Aussie dollar and increased labour costs and purported benefits to the locals are greatly diminished if not negative.

People are rightly asking how this can be? Who is responsible for circumventing Ministerial and Departmental Terms of Reference? What measures are available to put some rigor back into government policy? In the face of extensive “regulatory capture” and in the absence of government leadership, it is the community who will show the way.

The successful blockades at Georges Island and at Gloucester, on the Scenic Rim in Queensland and the recent protest actions in the Leard Forest involving local environmentalists is likely borne out of such frustration. In the absence of sensible legislation, these direct actions give an indication of the things to come. Non violent protest workshops, blockades and legal action will add to the non productive time spent writing submissions, lobbying politicians and liaising with the media. Everyday people will impose their own moratoriums and join the Lock the Gate movement which has grown in less than 2 years to encompass more than 140 community groups across the country. Something will have to give as people power will eventually win through and the backlash against the mining industry will be something to behold.