OPINION: Upper Hunter small communities are paying the price for the NSW Government's support for coal

Pristine: One of the beautiful Upper Hunter valleys affected by Peabody Energy's expansion plans at its giant Wilpinjong coal mine between Denman and Mudgee.
Pristine: One of the beautiful Upper Hunter valleys affected by Peabody Energy's expansion plans at its giant Wilpinjong coal mine between Denman and Mudgee.

OPINION

THE planning process in NSW is biased against small communities when it comes to coal mining.

You only have to look at the case of my village of Wollar in the Upper Hunter, between Denman and Mudgee, and repeated expansion approvals at Wilpinjong coal mine since it was first approved in 2006.

The original approval said only three properties would have to be acquired because of mine impacts, but by 2014 Wilpinjong owner Peabody had purchased 41 properties.

More than two years ago a Department of Planning executive told the NSW Planning Assessment Commission that the loss of households and services because of repeated mine expansions was not a “desirable outcome for the area”.

Despite that, the department actively supported buyouts because it gave people “the opportunity to move away”. That support is close to an admission by the department that its earlier assessments of the mine’s potentially serious impact on the community were wrong.

Wollar Progress Association was shocked three days before Christmas when the Planning Assessment Commission finalised a review report on another proposed expansion of the mine, less than a month after a public hearing. A significant number of people objected.

While the PAC report identifies areas requiring more assessment work, including the proposed mine void, it has failed to acknowledge the issue of increased isolation for remaining residents in properties outside Wollar village.

The PAC has failed to recognise the right of my community to exist and it has ignored the impact that killing off Wollar would have on the remaining isolated private properties.

There is no recognition of the cumulative impact of loss of community between Ulan and Bylong caused by ongoing mine expansion in the region. The social impact of mining on local people has been ignored.

The ongoing decimation of communities is a major legacy of the coal mining industry that is not being acknowledged or mitigated through the planning process in NSW.

The association is particularly disappointed that the PAC declined a formal invitation to meet with Wollar community members when conducting inspections of the Wilpinjong Mine. Commissioners only met with Peabody Energy.

The commission failed to meet the terms of reference to pay particular attention to the impacts of the project on Wollar village. By failing to meet with the community in Wollar, the commission declined the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the issues.

Not only have we lost our right to appeal an approval in the Land and Environment Court, we are left with significant social and economic disadvantage with no compensation.

The march of coal in more isolated parts of the Upper Hunter means individuals and communities like Wollar are left stranded within hundreds of square kilometres of mine-owned land.

There is a strong argument for a fair compensation process to be put in place when a coal resource is being extracted for the public benefit.

The NSW Government remains deaf to the cries for help from small communities, and keeps making it easier for coal companies.

It is not fair in our society to have such blatant winners and losers.

Bev Smiles is spokesperson for Wollar Progress Association.