“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

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - HE­LEN SIGNY

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.

CO­EX­IS­TENCE

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

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