They called it ‘the sleeping village’. Yet, today, it is a village where its residents cannot sleep, kept awake by coal trains at night or by worries about what the future might hold.
Only three hours drive from Newcastle, Wollar is a small, peaceful, historic village that is surrounded by three open-cut coalmines: Ulan, Moolarben and Wilpinjong. The latter, operated by Peabody Energy, sits on what used to be smallholdings where Wollarians lived and worked. Since its purchase by Peabody in 2006, the Wilpinjong mine has been subject to seven modification applications, with each placing increased pressures on the people of Wollar through more machinery, noise, dust and vibration. There has been a gradual loss of services, the churches have closed, and the local fire brigade has amalgamated and relocated. Wollar has experienced a steady decline in population, with only 10% of the pre-Wilpinjong population still in the area.
The latest modification application at the Wilpinjong mine is particularly concerning for the people of Wollar. The proposal is for incremental expansion of the existing open cut pits over approximately 500 hectares, as well as the development of a new 300-hectare open cut pit at Slate Gully. The community is already adversely affected by mining activity, and the latest proposal is being described by some locals as the “community’s death sentence”. As people have been bought out, those who remain in this remote village have become even more isolated. Life has become harder. The future feels lost.
Last week, Peabody Energy released the Environmental Assessment for the project. The Social Impact Assessment (SIA) illustrates how this project will result in the township of Wollar becoming unviable: “…the combination of the existing low amenity, the potential loss of the school and store, isolation, and community ageing is likely to see Wollar cease to function as a village...”.
The SIA draws a clear picture of how the expansion of the Wilpinjong mine encompasses what they describe as the “often-seen dichotomy between the regional benefits and local impacts of mining projects”. At the core of this sit questions of the costs and benefits of economic progress: how much are we prepared to lose in order to temporarily boost employment, regional economies and state royalties? What value do we place on lives and livelihoods, on communities and heritage, on future regional productivity and resilience, and on the natural environment of regional Australia?
And whilst these critical questions consume many working in the land use planning space, it is the stories and lives of affected locals that remain most compelling. These are stories of displacement and uncertainty, where homes have been shattered and futures are unclear.
Whilst Peabody might purchase some properties in the village, the majority of households sit outside the acquisition zone. Many of those who can be bought out do not want to leave and feel at a loss about where to go. The purchase price of a house is not equal to the price tag on their lives, their past and imagined future. Those outside of the acquisition zone are left in another predicament: they will be left with ‘stranded assets’; with houses and properties that cannot be sold.
The project is likely to benefit the greater region, provide some new jobs, and extend employment for the existing workforce at Wilpinjong. Yet these benefits come at a cost that we, as a society, should not ignore.