WOLLAR environmental activist Bev Smiles is prepared to go to jail after becoming one of the first people in NSW to be charged under tough new anti-coal protest laws.
Ms Smiles, 62, was charged under the controversial new section of the NSW Crimes Act following a protest outside Wilpinjong coal mine on Wednesday. She was charged with interfering with a mine along with Wollar colleague Bruce Hughes and Bathurst supporter Stephanie Luce.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.
“I’m the radical ratbag they all suspected me of being,” said Ms Smiles, whose worst brush with the law in the past has involved speeding tickets.
“This is a test case on this draconian new law.”
Blocking vehicles from entering Wilpinjong mine, between Denman and Mudgee, at shift change on Wednesday morning was a logical step after years of fighting the creeping expansion of huge coal mines in the area, she said.
It came only days after a NSW Planning Assessment Commission hearing into further expansion of Wilpinjong mine, which will sound the final death knell for the village of Wollar, Ms Smiles said.
“We go through the motions but we know they’re going to approve it. The Government has taken away the right of communities like ours to take these cases to court. I presented the PAC with a 32-page submission on the impact the expansion of this mine has had on this community, but I doubt if it will even be read,” she said.
“Neither the PAC assessment report nor the Department of Planning recognise the depth of the social impacts that have already occurred, so there’s nothing left but to stand at the gate and protest what’s happening.
“I’ve always said I won’t go down without a fight. We just upped the ante on that. I’ve got nothing to lose. My message is you can put me in jail. Do what you want. I’m prepared to go to jail over this because what else is there left for me to do? Facts and evidence mean nothing in the way these things are dealt with. I’m happy to be a martyr to the cause.”
Ms Smiles said Wollar village 20 years ago, before Wilpinjong was approved in 2006, was a thriving community.
I’ve always said I won’t go down without a fight. We just upped the ante on that. I’ve got nothing to lose. My message is you can put me in jail. Do what you want.Environmental activist and Wollar resident Bev Smiles
“The school had two teachers, there was a hall committee, a CWA, a progress association, a fire brigade and an annual fire brigade ball. There were dances and art and cultural events, and Wollar was famous for the Wollar Cricket Association matches because we always had a bar and barbecue after it where people would stay for hours,” she said.
“We had a monthly newsletter and auctions to raise money for the things we needed. When things happened in the village people pitched in and helped. That’s all gone.”
Only three homes in Wollar remain privately owned. East of the village, where Ms Smiles, her sister and brother in law live, they are the only remaining residents and their homes are surrounded by land owned by Peabody Energy, which owns Wilpinjong mine.
Mr Hughes, who grew up in the Gulgong area and whose father was a timber cutter in the Wollar area where Mr Hughes now lives, is one of about 10 remaining property owners to the north.
Ms Smiles said another highly controversial coal mine proposal, in the Bylong Valley, would also have significant impacts on Wollar because mine traffic would be through the village.
“I certainly don’t want to move anywhere else, but the impacts of the mine as it is are significant, and we know that’s going to get worse. The Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Planning are trying to sneak in new industrial guidelines to this mine, before they’ve even been approved, and if they apply to this extension then I’m probably going to have to just walk away from this place for the sake of my health.”
Ms Smiles and others had asked the PAC to consider conditions which would give them acquisition rights, where they can negotiate to have Peabody buy their properties because of mine impacts.
“We’ve got properties you can’t sell on the open market. That’s the reality when a mine moves in.”