“I’M NOT STOPPING”
A David-and-Goliath battle has been won against a coal-mining giant, but this farmer is not about to give up fighting
For almost 30 years anti-pollution campaigner Wendy Bowman has taken a stand against mining giants.
WENDY BOWMAN, a slight but sprightly 84 year old, walks into the rose-filled garden of her pretty cottage and wipes her hand over the outdoor coffee table. A plume of dust rises into the air. Grey soot. It’s everywhere, a film of fine particles lining the chairs, the ground and the leaves of the trees. “It’s from the power stations. Every time you wipe the top of the fridge or microwave it’s black, you open your doors and windows and it comes in,” says Wendy, shaking her head sadly. “I’ve even got dust in my lungs, you can see it on a CT scan. We think a lot of the children in this area have lost lung function, too.”
Wendy’s little home in Camberwell, in the Hunter Valley, about 200 kilometres north of Sydney, used to be a tiny parcel of paradise. But these days, just beyond the creek and the green pastures where she raises her cattle, the landscape is scarred as far as the eye can see by open-cut coal mining.
This type of mining, which accesses the coal from the surface through massive pits, came to the Hunter Valley in the 1980s. In a fertile agricultural area better known for its dairy farms, horse studs and vineyards, almost two-thirds of the Hunter has now been granted coal concessions, producing more than 130 million tonnes of coal every year. Some of it is used in local coal-powered power stations, but most of it is exported overseas.
Where there were once lovely valleys, the landscape is now filled with huge ridges and mountains of rock that’s been dug out to access the coal seams. One mining company tried to prettify the waste by planting Australian native trees on top. They all died.
The rapid growth of the coal industry in the Hunter has seen most landowners displaced. It’s ripped communities apart. But Wendy is not one to give in without a fight. While many of the locals have moved away, lured by large financial incentives paid by the mining companies, Wendy has stood her ground. Today, the grandmother, her 190-hectare property and her cottage, Rosedale, are all that’s standing between this parcel of land and obliteration from coal mining.
For eight years, Wendy has refused to move as mining companies eyed the rich coal seam beneath her land. She’s knocked back offers of millions of dollars and has fought a protracted legal battle to protect her property.
HEAVEN TO HELL
Wendy grew up in Sydney to parents who loved the land: an accountant father who yearned to be a jackaroo
and a mother who originally came from the bush. She loved holidays spent walking in the countryside near Cooma and learning to shoot rabbits.
She started a design course in Sydney but within a few months had met her husband, Ian. In 1958 they moved to Ashton, an idyllic property on the Hunter River, where they lived in a historic homestead, Granbalang, and ran several share dairies. “It was a lovely time,” Wendy smiles. “You knew everybody, if someone got ill or the tractor broke down there were always people there to help.”
And then, in 1984, Ian died suddenly and Wendy was left alone at 50 to run the farm. She was not daunted. She knew a thing or two about farming so she got on with it, not only managing but thriving.
In 1989 she noticed her crops were dying with no explanation. She approached the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which took samples from the river – water the farms used for irrigation – and found it was extremely high in salinity and heavy metals. It had been contaminated when one of the local mines had tunnelled underneath.
Before his death, Ian had signed a contract with the nearby Rix’s Creek open-cut mine, and their home was part of the lease area. Wendy knew she would eventually have to move, but she held on for years in the home she’d built with Ian. By 2005, the blasting was so close it was unbearable.
“The amount of dust in the atmosphere, orange clay everywhere, our rainwater tanks filling up with sludge – I just couldn’t stay there any longer. I had to leave. When Rix’s Creek mine heard I was trying to have the old homestead heritage-listed they gave me 28 days. I had nowhere to go.”
She threw everything into a shipping container and moved into a dilapidated cottage on another family property, Rosedale.
“What they were doing to people was appalling,” says Wendy. “These mining companies divide and conquer. They choose one farmer and offer them five times what the farm is worth. A lot accepted. They would sign a contract and were told not to tell anyone, even their wives. Husbands and wives broke up, it was father versus son, brother versus brother.”
Wendy founded Minewatch NSW to investigate the environmental effects of mining and provide a support group for local landowners who were being pressured to sell up. Minewatch and Wendy spent years collecting data showing that local water sources were contaminated with saline water, and worked with Hunter New England Health to regulate saline water discharges. She installed air monitors to alert the community about the quality of the air, and campaigned tirelessly to inform people of the impact the mines were having on the environment.
In 2010, the mining company Yancoal proposed expanding their Ashton
South East Open Cut mine to extract 3.6 million tonnes of coal per annum, the majority of it from beneath Rosedale. The company acquired most of the private properties that it needed, but there was just one problem: Wendy wasn’t budging.
Her main objection was that the mine could pollute Glennies Creek, which flows into the Hunter River and provides water for farms. “We found a tree caught in the creek about six years ago, and behind it was banked-up grease and bubbles, flocculant from the mine upstream. I think that silt is already lining the bottom of the Hunter River downstream. If you pick up some silt in your hand it’s black, it’s coal.”
Despite objections, the state government gave the go-ahead for the mine in 2012. Wendy refused a large sum of money to sell her property to Yancoal, which then embarked on a long legal challenge to acquire her land. In 2015, the New South Wales Court of Appeal ruled that the mine could only go ahead on one condition: if Wendy sold her land to Yancoal.
Placing this sort of restriction on a mining company was a historic decision; it placed the power in the hands of a local landholder. It meant Wendy had won. George Woods, NSW coordinator of the Lock the Gate Alliance environmental lobby group, says the court decision set a precedent. “There are not many opportunities for communities and landholders to apply to the courts for review of mining conditions. It’s a highly contentious, political conflict and Wendy’s example has lent weight to the push in the communities to change the practice of open-cut mining,” she says.
For many years, small, underground mines and agriculture coexisted in the Hunter Valley. But in the 1980s, the government began to grant licences
for open-cut mines, which are cheaper to run. Driven by demand from Asia, coal exports have played a significant part in driving Australia’s economy. Today, 83 per cent of Australia’s coal mining industry is foreign owned, by companies such as Rio Tinto from the UK and Yancoal from China.
With approvals for mine expansions continuing as fast as ever, says Woods, it seems the government is more interested in the economic benefits of coal mining than in the impact the mines have on local communities and the environment.
Yancoal says it takes the management of mine site-related dust seriously and has established real-time monitoring systems both on- and offsite so it can stop open-cut mining operations when the weather conditions are unsuitable. It also says it takes stringent measures to ensure noise pollution and discharges are within approved levels – after all, the majority of its workforce lives in the local area.
“Our environmental and community teams continue to engage with Ms Bowman occasionally as a local neighbour to the mine. This has included the mending of fences and basic assistance with neighbouring property issues as required,” said a Yancoal spokesperson.
“Our teams have always found her to be good- natured, engaged and aware of the need for balance between the local agricultural and resources industries of the Hunter Valley.”
Wendy’s persistence has been recognised with an international award, the Goldman Environmental Prize – the Nobel for grassroots environmental advocacy.
Stepping onto the stage in Washington to receive the award, Wendy – its oldest winner – was struck by the similarities in her story and that of the other recipients. From countries as diverse as Slovenia, Guatemala, Congo and the US, all were ordinary people who had stood up against the might of large companies to preserve the environment, often at great personal cost. The industries’ tactics were remarkably similar the world over, says Wendy.
“I thought – why should they be allowed to do this? Why should one business be allowed to wipe out all these other businesses, it’s not right and they shouldn’t be allowed,” says Wendy.
“I’m 84 now. But I’m not stopping. I’d be bored out of my mind.”
An open-cut coal mine in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Wendy feeding cattle on her property, which is surrounded by open-cut coal mines