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Politicians join BHP blockade

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Politicians join BHP blockade
by Bianca Birdsall

Until this year not many people had ever heard of Caroona.I think most of the 147 residents preferred it that way. Now BHP have come to town, and do not look likely to leave.

Caroona is situated in the Liverpool Plains, which produces one third of Australia’s grains and cereals. It continues to support crops, even during times of drought, and is considered to be of worldwide agricultural significance.

A coal exploration license was awarded to BHP subsidiary Coal Mines Australia by the State Government in April 2006 at a cost of $100 million. Part 3a of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act now allows for any project considered critical infrastructure to fall under ministerial control. This removes many privileges of appeal including the capacity to petition the Land and Environment Court. The new Minister for Planning MP Kristina Keneally has so far failed to comment on the issue.

Just after the license was approved the farming community and Quirindi residents joined together to form the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG). More than 175farmers have maintained a blockade against BHP accessing Rossmar Parksince July 18. The CCAG have gained momentum in their call for an independent catchment wide environmental study to be conducted before mining approval is gained. Since the blockade began, support has grown as numerous politicians have joined the local Federal Member Tony Windsor.

Although the area is a vital part of the Murray Darling system, the Minister for the Environment Peter Garrett has so far deflected responsibility. Garrett rejected Windsor’s questions in Parliament last week, claiming it to be a State issue. “It’s like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank” said Windsor.

At an SOS Liverpool Plains community event Dr Pauline Roberts said that should the mine go ahead, 6.2 million litres of water per day would be extracted by BHP without payment. In protest of claims regarding the financial windfall that BHP produces, Roberts said the industry provides less than 1% of the NSW GDP, and pay 7% of income in royalties and tax, but “receive more than this from the Government in diesel rebates.”

An interim report was released by BHP in August which concluded that areas for further exploration included land beneath the Doona State Forrest where it believed coal could be “efficiently extracted by underground long wall mining.”

MP Peter Draper has criticised his State colleague’s intentions. “It seems clear that the NSW Government are putting BHP’s economic wellbeing ahead of the very valid ecological concerns” he said.

MP Mark Coulton has also come out on the side of the farmers. “There is a very real fear that mining in the area could cause irreparable damage to the high quality underground alluvial aquifers” he said, “which not only provide a source of irrigation for the local farmers, but are also the main water supply for some 20,000 households in the region.”

Since I began watching this issue a few months ago, coverage has certainly increased, but public interest largely has not. Even if the effect on agricultural supply and pricing is ignored, if nothing more this is a case study of the needs for appropriate oversight of the planning and development process, and the rights of landowners and the state when it comes to resources.


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Not the only one Bianca

Bianca,  I know the area well.  The Liverpool Plains are historically a major and rich agricultural area.  I can understand the real concerns over this proposed development, notwithstanding that we hold BHP shares!

This is not the only coal development threatening areas to the north east. There is another brown coal planned development at Fenton near Toowoomba which also has local farmers up in arms, again understandably.

Mind you in regard to the LIverpool Plains I do not think irrigation from underground aquifers is supportable as so little is known about the recharge capacity of the underground water reserves. Many have fallen dramatically in the current drought. I have never believed that drawing from underground reserves for irrigation of such crops as cotton and rice was wise. Further south in the Basin cotton was grown being totally dependant on bores, adn it was admitted that little was known about the recharge capacity in that area.

We seem to be forever chasing dirty coal as opposed to putting real effort and money into alternatives, and taking out good agricultural land in the process. I recall Hunter valley dairies close to coal mines had serious herd repiratory health problems some years ago.   

It seems agricultural industries will always play second fiddle to the mining industries. BHP is not unique in that regard.

Cheers, and thanks for bringing this vexing issue up. A lot of people in this country are very city focused.

Thank you

Jenny, thank you very much for your comment.    

There are a lot of developments in New South Wales, existing or proposed, that have caused community consternation.  I was at a meeting in Quirindi a few months ago, and there were residents from all over the state who had been affected – one man had just lost his house from legal fees, another said six men from his region had suffered heart problems because of infrasound. 

I agree with your point about whether or not it is viable to continue growing cotton etc using underground water sources, but no agriculture will be possible if the aquifer is damaged by coal extraction.  Perhaps after the water study is completed and the environment is better understood, then the community will be able to focus on agricultural best practice. 

You’re spot on about the majority of the population being city focused.  It is a shame, especially since so much of the Australian identity is wrapped up in the land, and yet few ever step foot in a paddock.  Garnaut made a similar point about the Barrier Reef, and whether or not we are willing to pay to protect our identity.  I suppose people will probably be upset in a few years, when food and consumer product prices go through the roof.

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