Maules Creek - why people of faith should get involved

Caring for Creation in action - ARRCC President Thea Ormerod writes about an historically important campaign against coal mining.

Caring for Creation in action - ARRCC President Thea Ormerod writes about an historically important campaign against coal mining.

With so many coal mines around the country, why was the environment movement so preoccupied with the one at Maules Creek in north-west NSW? And why did people of faith take an interest?

ARRCC President Thea Ormerod writes about a campaign that ARRCC supported in 2014, to attempt to stop the expansion of coal mining in Maules Creek and surrounding areas. This campaign is no longer running. The mine is completed, leaving a large part of the Leard State Frest destroyed and the Gomeroi Tradionl Custodians bereft. Many ordinary people who took part are variously left grieving, or more deeply realising the evil we are up against, or more determined to continue their principled campaigning work, or all of the above. 

There have been numerous statements from religious leaders about caring for Creation, based on principles of caring for our precious Earth and making sure its riches are justly available for all, including coming generations. There have increasingly been statements, too, about preventing climate change and the urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

A number of these widely agreed principles were violated in Maules Creek on the Liverpool Plains. The expansion of open-cut coal mining became an iconic cause, like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline issue in North America. The mine, now completed, could add 13 million Mt coal per year to exacerbate global warming if it continues and is fully operational. The ANZ Bank is a big investor in the mine so, if you have an account with them, let them know this is unacceptable to you and perhaps switch to one of the smaller banks which do not invest in fossil fuels.

From the outset, the concern of civil sociey was that if the Maules Creek mine became operational without significant protestl, investors in the enormous mines in the Galilee Basin would have confidence that their expansion plans are safe from the risk of effective community opposition. The Galilee Basin is estimated to have enough coal deposits to make up, when burned, 12% of the worlds’ total carbon budget.

As it turns out, the Maules Creek mine has destrroyed a large tract of the last remnant of Box Gum grassy woodland, and seven of the eleven sacred sites in the Leard for the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians. Before construction of the mine begun,the Leard State Forest was the 0.1% of this kind of woodland remaining and the tracts that remain are home to 400 species, many critically endangered. Because Box Gum grassy woodland requires fertile soils, most of it has been cleared for agriculture.

Some of the threatened species are various species of tiny bats including the Corben’s long-eared bat, Yellow-bellied Sheathtail bat,  Little Pied bat, Large-eared Pied bat and Eastern Bent-wing bat.  Some of the other threatened species that occur are; Koala, Pale-headed snake, Barking owl, Squirrel glider, Little eagle, Turquoise parrot, Speckled warbler, Hooded robin and Grey-crowned babbler. The Leard Forest also has numerous common species of birds, reptiles, frogs and wallabies. Endangered migratory species will also be affected, including the Swift parrot and Regent Honeyeater.

Local experts believe that Whitehaven were given the approval for the mine based on false and misleading information. The company asserted that the off-set properties they purchased were of similar quality to the forest they were destroying. A careful analysis by local experts showed this to be substantially incorrect. This was presented to both the NSW and Federal governments, but the mine was nonetheless allowed to proceed.

The availability of groundwater is now seriously under threat. Coal mines draw heavily on local water which expert advice shows the mine could drop the water table by five to ten metres. Far less water is now likely to be available for food production and human use and there will be a permanent reduction in water flows into the Namoi River, all lasting well after the mine closes in 20 years. Water is the life-blood of the local agricultural community, and this will be compromised enough with the progress of a changing climate, without this further diminishing of water supply by coal mining.

The local Gomeroi Traditional Custodins were not allowed into the forest for over a year while their sites were being destroyed, not even to perform important burial rites when members of the community died. They have not only the right, but the duty under their lore, to carry out these ceremonies, but were prevented from doing so. The Gomeroi petitioned the State Government, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Whitehaven Coal company itself, and took the matter to court. They requested intervention from Minister Hunt, using his powers under the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Heritage and Protection Act, 1984, but he failed to intervene. Despite all assurances from the company and their own valiant fight for their cultural rights, seven of their eleven sacred sites in the forest were bulldozed. That's seven Gomeroi sacred sites destroyed forever, causing great harm to the Gomeoi Tradional Custodians. 

Every legal and legislative avenue to stop the open cut coal mine in Maules Creek has failed. Not one of the 212 submissions from the community supported the mine, and still the mine was approved. The question is: what forces allow this to happen?

The broader environmental movement for a time made the prevention of this destructive development a special focus. While the campaign has substantially concluded, protesters managed to send a signal that these kinds of mines are risky investments. They made huge sacrifices over long periods and, while this battle was lost, much was gained in terms of strengthening relationships between various civil society groups and organisations. This campaign also brought home in a very personal way, to many ordinary people - students, religious people, doctors, nurses, teachers, academics, farmers and environmentalists - the depth of immorality of these immoral projects.

Through ARRCC, people of faith did help bolster the morale of protesters and of the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians. The campaign posed this question to the religious community at large: do people of faith leave it to others to do the heavy-lifting on issus such as these? Or do we see some legitimacy in self-sacrificing, peaceful, nonviolent resistance as religious people have done so many times in the past? Religious people have a long history of peaceful, nonviolent resistance, led by such people as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers and, in Australia, Donna Mullhearn. Are these people highly regarded only because they acted in different circumstances to our own, or are there parallels with our own situation in this country which so readily approves these death-dealing projects?

Thea Ormerod, President, 

Australian Religious Response to Climate Change
[email protected]
02 9150 9713

0405 293 466

Here is a photo taken on Monday 10th February, 2014. Thea and others gathered with local landholders, traditional owners from the Gomeroi nation, and the heads of national and state environmental groups to express our commitment to protect the unique forest and the surrounding farmland from Whitehaven's destructive open-cut coal mine.

MaulesCreek Thea