FOR Bulga resident and Mount Thorley Warkworth coal dragline operator Paul Harris, life has come down to two choices.
‘‘It’s my job, or my home, and I am siding with my home,’’ Mr Harris said as he fronted a Planning Assessment Commission review of two life extension projects at the giant Mount Thorley Warkworth super-pit at Singleton RSL on Thursday.
While a few of Mr Harris’ workmates might have known what he was going to say, his appearance caught outsiders by surprise.
With his orange fluoro Coal & Allied safety shirt on, you could reasonably expect him to be part of a queue of Rio mineworkers pleading with the commission panel to approve the project to protect their jobs.
But it was not to be.
Launching into an attack on a company and an industry – through the Minerals Council of NSW – that he said used workers as propaganda, Mr Harris spoke about a community he said had been betrayed by a decision to push for mining of Saddleback Ridge despite the belief it had been protected by a decade-old agreement between the company and the former Labor state government.
Having cut the long sleeves from his safety shirt as a symbol of rebellion before entering the hearing, Mr Harris said ‘‘disgraced politicians’’ had changed the laws to get around two earlier court rejections for a project he said would never have been needed had Rio not lifted production levels so dramatically that Warkworth mine was running out of coal in 2015, six years before its approval expired.
He was not the only person to question how production got so far ahead of schedule that the company had to come back to the government to beg for permission to mine the ridge.
Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association spokesman John Lamb said that shorn of their thousands of pages of detail, the two proposals could be simply explained.
The Warkworth extension was to mine Saddleback Ridge, the area that the company had promised to protect in earlier applications.
The Mount Thorley extension was to take the hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste rock and soil overburden from the Warkworth mine, and dump it at Mount Thorley.
Mr Harris was not the only person who owed a living to the mining industry to criticise the project, although they were naturally enough in the minority.
Towards the end of the hearing, retired mineworker and Bulga resident George Tlaskal took two five-minute allocations of speaking time – he was also representing his wife who was too upset to come – and said that by Rio’s figures, the closer the mine came to Bulga, the less the impacts were felt.
Mr Tlaskal called for an industry-funded trust to pay for the properties that were stranded and devalued by the ongoing march of open-cut mining.
Earlier, Mr Harris had said he could put his Bulga property on the market, but who would buy it?
Like others, he spoke of the unfair and illogical rules that put the boundary for compulsory acquisition of the mine down the middle of a street in Bulga, so that people on one side of the road were eligible to be bought out, while others were not.
While quite a few people told Mr Harris he was brave for speaking out as he had – perhaps risking his job – Mr Harris felt he had no choice.
He also felt his quest was hopeless.
‘‘I think this is a a foregone conclusion,’’ he told the hearing.
‘‘This extension is a done deal with the state government in bed with Rio from the very start ...’’
And if the mine did go ahead, he wanted ‘‘a clear guarantee’’ that Rio would maintain the 1300 employees they said were the main reason the life extension had to go ahead.
THE predictability of a planning assessment commission hearing into Mount Thorley Warkworth mine has been shattered by an employee speaking against the proposal saying it was his home for his job and he was siding with his home.
Paul Harris, a long time Bulga resident and Coal and Allied employee, delivered a stinging tirade against his employer wearing an orange fluoro safety shirt with the company logo.
He said he had spoken the way he did to counter the propaganda he said he was sick and tired of hearing from Rio Tinto.
The two-day hearing began with planning commission chair Paul Forward telling a packed room that the commissioners had been to the mine and to Bulga, the village that will be the brunt of the expansion if Saddleback Ridge is mined as Rio Tinto wants.
Rio Tinto managing director Chris Salisbury spoke of the mine's financial and economic benefits, both to the community and to the state.
He was backed by various employees and representatives of companies doing business with Mount Thorley Warkworth and by Soo Cheol Shin, from the South Korean company POSCO, a shareholder in the mine since 1981.
Having staged a small protest outside the hearing before it began, various environmental groups including Lock The Gate and the Hunter Environment Lobby spoke at length about what they saw as the environmental shortcomings of the mine in particular in regard to dust, water and threatened species.
The hearing resumes after lunch and is expected to continue on Friday.