JOANNE McCARTHY: Seeds of revolution

THERE were no fireworks in the NSW Supreme Court on Wednesday as Rio Tinto and the NSW Government argued a judge got things wrong when he rejected the Warkworth coal mine extension near Bulga in April, and found in favour of Bulga residents.
Nanjing Night Net

A dour barrister for the mining giant read out slabs of transcript. There were questions and answers about background noise levels. Some points were made. But to quote Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association president John Lamb at lunch: ‘‘That was boring as batshit.’’

But oh so significant despite that. This is about coal, but it’s also about belief in government and the integrity of processes supposedly in place to protect the public.

Land and Environment Court chief judge Brian Preston’s criticism of the government’s Warkworth approval outraged Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Coal & Allied. Planning Minister Brad Hazzard sought immediate legal advice.

Rio Tinto met with Premier Barry O’Farrell in May, to push the point made in its statement immediately after Preston’s decision – that a judge could ‘‘overrule’’ decisions of the Planning Minister, government departments and the Planning Assessment Commission which constituted a ‘‘rigorous three-year process’’.

That’s one way of looking at it.

I recommend reading just one document, the February 2012 Planning Assessment Commission decision to approve the Warkworth extension, to get a sense of another way of looking at it – the perspective of Bulga residents, and many other Upper Hunter mining communities.

The Planning Assessment Commission accepted the ‘‘very significant’’ negative impact of the extension on the village and the local environment. It accepted that both the mining company and the government had failed to deliver on previous commitments, including the terms of a Ministerial Deed of Agreement, despite Bulga residents relying on those commitments to invest in homes and businesses.

It accepted that ‘‘best management practices’’ at the mine complex could be ‘‘substantially improved’’, which supports residents’ complaints of serious noise and dust problems based on current operations, even before the mine extends closer to the village.

The Planning Assessment Commission recommended approval subject to ‘‘robust and clear’’ environmental standards, ‘‘unambiguous’’ obligations to meet those standards, and ‘‘effective regulatory action in the event of poor performance’’.

They’re fine words, but the reality is Bulga residents repeatedly making late-night phone calls to complain about excessive noise and dust, having those complaints challenged, and almost laughably small fines when matters are actually pursued by government departments.

You could argue – and certainly mining companies and politicians argue – that the economic benefits of mining outweigh the rights of a small place like Bulga with its 300 residents.

The NSW Government’s proposed State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) makes that abundantly clear. We might have dust monitoring. We might have health studies. However, a SEPP that says in black and white that the value of the coal resource is the principal consideration in decision-making, above all others, which puts a question mark beside the point of any health or environmental considerations.

Coal rules.

But not quite yet.

There they sat in the impressive Banco Court on Wednesday – about a dozen Bulga residents including John Lamb, John and Leslie Krey, and Marie and Stewart Mitchell. Outside the court, hundreds of others protested the SEPP and proposed changes to the state’s planning laws.

People like John Lamb, the Kreys and the Mitchells believed the O’Farrell government’s promises of integrity in planning, and transparency in government decision-making. After the ugliness of Labor’s corrupted coal approval processes, it was a relief.

What they got – what we got – was a NSW Government that has damaged public confidence by a different means. We weren’t given the chance to vote about a government that would value the coal resource above other considerations when making decisions about mines.

This government hasn’t explained why it needs to sit in the Banco Court this week beside Rio Tinto, and against the people of Bulga. It didn’t tell us it would consider doing that.

It’s a corrosive thing, when people cannot believe the politicians who lead them.

The people of Bulga are fighting that, as much as they’re fighting a mine where too many commitments have already been made, and broken.

On Wednesday John Lamb fronted Barry O’Farrell while the Premier was standing in a cafe ordering a sandwich. He asked O’Farrell to visit Bulga, to talk to residents.

In NSW, in the Great Age of Coal, it’s almost a revolutionary idea.

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