On Wednesday the 26th I embarked on the annual ASEN (Australian Student Environment Network) mid-semester road trip. This year we travelled from Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle, made our way to Wollar, Wiradjuri country, and progressed through to the Pilliga and the Leard State Forests on Gomeroi country. Being somewhat introverted and shy, and with a relative lack of experience, I was feeling pretty apprehensive about facilitating a road trip for a group of people, many of whom I had never met. Thank goodness for the other ASEN convenors, Andy and Anna from the Leard State Forest who helped make the trip happen.
During the trip we spent most of our time listening and learning from local people; what we learned was that their lives have been devastatingly affected by coal mines and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) extraction. We heard stories and experiences from Sue-Ellyn, a Gomeroi woman and member of Grandmas Against Removals, along with locals out in the Pilliga who monitor the ecosystems of animals and plants around the CSG wells. We also spoke to residents of the small township of Wollar at the edge of the Wilpingjong coal mine and farmers who risked their livelihood hosting hundreds of protesters on their properties during the campaign to stop the massive Maules Creek coal mine. In spite of these demoralising situations, everyone in these areas continue to fight back against corporate greed.
For me the trip began in Newcastle. After driving a few hours through the Hunter Valley, down seemingly endless dirt roads and bush, we reached Wollar, a small town in the Upper Hunter. We were warmly welcomed by a handful of the town’s last remaining locals. They told us stories of what the town was like before the large American mining company, Peabody, tore down the forests and dug deep into the hills, only a few kilometers from people’s homes, to create the Wilpingjong coal mine. We heard first-hand accounts of how Peabody came to town promising jobs and prosperity. But what we found was a once thriving country town which had a cricket team, locally owned pub, school and RFS reduced to crumbling houses, empty streets and a single general store, now bought out by Peabody.
On our way out of town we drove past the massive black hole in the ground that is the Wilpinjong coal mine and recalled the stories the locals shared with us the night before, of how the mine had driven hundreds of people out of town and left the locals with no work opportunities and no sense of community. But the 6 strong and staunch people remaining in Wollar haven’t given up hope and continue to fight Peabody’s planned expansion of the mine, which if approved will be only a few kilometres from the town. Earlier this year around 5 locals took part in a peaceful protest, preventing any trucks from entering the mine by blocking the entrance. They stood their ground, and didn’t move on despite police threatening to arrest them and now face harsh charges under the newly introduced anti-protest laws.
Next stop was the Pilliga, where we visited the coal seam gas wells in the forest, for which oil and gas company Santos is responsible for. There we saw the spill sites of contaminated water, which is extracted in the fracking process and contains uranium, lead, high levels of sodium and many other petrochemicals and heavy metals. We learned that trees cannot grow back after this water has been spilled. Santos attempts to regenerate these spill sites using only wood chip and water and that its trees fail to grow past 5 metres tall, at which point they die. Santos plans to extract water from and drill into the Great Artesian Basin which will contaminate the crucial water source for countless towns and farms.
We met with a group locals including an ecologist who monitor the ecosystems in the Pilliga and test the PH levels of rivers and water tables around the CSG extraction wells. Every week, and sometimes multiple times a week, they drive to each well, which are up to hundreds of kilometres apart, to ensure that Santos isn’t further polluting and endangering the environment. Apparently it’s a common occurrence for contaminated water to be pumped into surrounding rivers and creeks. Despite the enormous effort involved, the team often do this with no funding while trying to balance work and looking after their families. Just before we went on the trip, Turnbull announced he plans to expand NSW’s production of gas, which may result in up to 850 more gas wells in the Pilliga. This will have an unfathomable impact on the ecosystem, especially on aquifers such as the Great Artesian Basin. Being out in the beautiful bush, seeing the wildflowers, wallabies and birds with this in mind, and thinking of my friends who had locked onto construction machinery and protested out here was heartbreaking.
While at the Pilliga, we talked to Sue-Ellyn, a Gomeroi woman, who reaffirmed what we had heard at rallies – that the stolen generation continues today and that the rates of child removals are two times higher than they have ever been. But Sue-Ellyn added a personal twist to these horrific statistics, sharing with us her own experiences. We also learnt of the racist government legislation and policies that allow this to continue today. Over dinner, Sue-Ellyn told us stories of the horrific abuse that often occurs in foster homes and the lack of collaboration and understanding FACS workers have of Aboriginal culture and people. Often FACs workers will refuse to work with a mother on the basis that she is hysterical or unreasonable to work with. However, they lack the empathy to understand the experience of having a child taken away, and in many instances are unaware of the intergenerational trauma and antipathy towards a service that has played a leading role in cultural genocide. Sue-Ellyn emphasised that First Nations people have never stopped fighting to get their children back. She said they often work alongside non-Indigenous people to bring their kids home.
We left the Pilliga with both our hearts and minds heavy, thinking of the land which will never recover from the fracturing process and release of coal seam gas and reflecting upon the saddening stories Sue-Ellyn shared. Unfortunately, we were about to encounter further human-made tragedies.
We made our way to Narrabri, stopping to visit Siding Springs Observatory. We spoke to a worker there who opposes new CSG wells being built. They spoke about the risk of bush fires in the area due to increasing temperatures and pointed out an area around the observatory where there had been a bushfire a few years ago. We also learnt that learnt that the approval of new CSG wells will result in light pollution which affects their studies of the solar system.
Finally at Narrabri, we camped on a local farmer’s property. In the past he’d allowed hundreds of protesters to use his land as a base to organise protests against the construction of the Tarrawonga, Boggabri and Maules Creek Coal Mines, set to be built in the middle of the Leard State Forest. On our first day there, we visited the Maules Creek mine that can be seen from the cottage we stayed in. The mine operates 24 hrs a day, causing dust pollution and the contamination of water with lead and other heavy metals. That night we met with another farmer over dinner, whose health had deteriorated due to the lead and heavy metals found in their water and whose farmland has been affected by the dust coming from the coal mines. Seeing the immensity of the gigantic Maules Creek mine is something I won’t forget. The damage caused by this massive tear in the earth can never be reversed. I felt disheartened seeing the mine not only because of the irreversible damage that’s been done, but the stories of friends who had protested against the mine, the energy, time and effort they put into opposing the mine, and the hopelessness some feel after it had been constructed..
Throughout this trip, we witnessed directly how coal and CSG mining exacerbate climate change, destroy ecosystems and the habitats of native animals, pollute waterways, desecrate First Nations people’s sacred and important sites and cause communities to collapse. The claims of prosperity and abundance, and employment for local people which interested parties proliferate seem completely false. This trip served as a stark reminder that coal mining and CSG extraction are destroying the planet and communities, without even mentioning the corruption and exploitation these mining corporations wreak on workers and communities across Australia and the world. However, the people I met in Wollar, the Pilliga and Boggabri have inspired me to continue to take action against fossil fuels again. Their resistance is unyielding and their sense of hope is contagious.
If anyone is keen to get involved with ASEN, join the NUSA environment collective or Fossil Free UON. Also on November the 10th, a few of us from UON are going to Spring Into the Pilliga on the 10th until the 12th of November for a weekend amongst the wildflowers, bushwalks, talking to ecologists and seeing first-hand the damaging effects of CSG extraction. If you’re interested in coming along email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Keira Dott