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Not yet six feet under: tiny town fights burial by mining giant Peabody Energy

By Nina Hallas

Nestled just outside Mudgee, in the wide, hilly plains and purple hue skies that paint the Central West, Wollar was a small but lively town, and a central hub for otherwise isolated rural properties.

Map of Wollar, located approximately 40km from Mudgee in NSW Central West. Source: Google Maps.

It was host to art and cultural events, like the annual fire fighters ball, and home to the famous cricket association, where spectating family and friends broke snags and beer at the traditional post-match BBQ.

Today, as the nearby Wilpinjong mine encroaches closer to the town, threatening to sink it into the ground, many locals fear for the future of a community that has all but disappeared.

One such local is Wollar born and raised, Mick Fetch. With a family history in the town spanning 140 years, he feels “deeply passionate” and “connected to the place”.

Trying to rally public awareness around the issue, he runs the ‘Save Wollar’ campaign page on Facebook, in a David and Goliath battle against the international resources giant, Peabody Energy.

Though like 90% of the town population, Mick and his family have had to pack up and leave, unable to endure the ‘…unrelenting noise, smell and dust on a 24/7 basis” since the mine began operation in 2006.

 

Ariel view of enclave carved by Wilpingjong Mine. Source: Mining Technology

Under NSW mining regulations, mining companies are bound to follow certain provisions around public health and safety, in order to mitigate issues of noise, water and air pollution and toxicity.

However, in the experience of Phyllis Setchell, a member of the Mudgee District Environment Group, involved in making environmental impact submissions to relevant stakeholders, Peabody Energy has been less than compliant.

“I’m no raving greenie, but there has to be a better way [than coal mining]”

“You have to fight for every bit of monitoring, and then when you put in a complaint, there is nothing done about it” Setchell claimed.

Residents attest that the company has circumvented its requirement to keep its operations a safe proximity from residential areas through an aggressive land-purchasing scheme that has now acquired all but three stalwart private properties in its possession.

“… this was a forced removal, there is no doubt about it….” Fetch alleged.

Children hold a lemonade stand to raise funds for the campaign to Save Wollar.

Meanwhile, as one of the few remaining residents holding the fort, Bev Smile has witnessed the secondary impact the mine has had on the accessibility of services for the area since the mass exodus of people.

“We’ve lost our fire station, our mechanic, our shop… it’s too expensive to get vets to come here now too… we used to have a fuel delivery arrangement but there’s no longer enough commercial farms to make that feasible…”

Despite the local community exhausting every legal avenue of appeal against the move, Peabody Energy, was granted a 800 hectare land expansion and 7 year extension of its lease, allowing Wilpinjong to remain in operation until 2033

“When laws are unjust, disobedience is duty”.

On behalf of the town, Smiles feels “betrayed by the NSW Government”, claiming mining interests have been “put before the interests of the local community”

Fetch echoes her frustrations, and speaks to the divide that mining sparks in wider society, with jobs and investment on the one hand, and people and the environment on the other.

“So many people don’t understand what’s going on, they think mining creates all these jobs… it does create jobs, but to what cost?”

“I’m no raving greenie, but there has to be a better way [than coal mining]”

With a group of thirty protesters, Bev, her fellow and former neighbours, and their supporters decided to embark in more direct action to express their opposition.

Taking advantage of a shift change, the group held banners in the middle of the road, and blockaded Wilpinjong Mine.

For refusing to leave when police issued a move on order, Smiles and two others, now infamously referred to as the ‘Wollar Three’ were arrested.

Scene of the ‘Crime’: Bev Smiles, lead away by police for blockading Wilpingjong Mine. Source: Newcastle Herald

They currently face trial as the first charged under controversial new ‘anti-protest laws’ passed through State parliament in March of 2016.

Under this legislation, ‘interfering with a mining operation’ has entered the criminal code, carrying a maximum seven-year gaol sentence for those convicted.

President of the New South Wales Civil Liberties Council, Stephen Blanks is concerned this bill “impinges on the legitimate right to protest”, and speculates “sectional interests” influenced the bill.

In the 2013-14 financial year, Peabody donated a hefty $50,000 to the Liberal Party and a further $25,000 to the National Party.

They join other major resource and energy companies that have made political donations in the hundreds of thousands to the major parties in the last three years, fuelling cynicism that the move was a political quid pro quo.

Donations made by major resource companies in the last three financial years. Data sourced from Australian Electoral Commission Financial Disclosure Register and Democracy For Sale.

Meanwhile, according to the Australian Taxation Office records for the 2014-2015 financial year, US-owned Peabody Energy is one of 670 large companies that paid zero dollars in tax. They did not respond to a request for comment.

Bev Smiles is not deterred by the legal action against her, and will continue the fight to save Wollar.

Recalling the words on a banner of a supporter, in the amalgamated essence of every civil right activist through history, she declares, with staunch conviction, “when laws are unjust, disobedience is duty”.