IN THE stand-off between Colin Faulkner and the largest private sector coal company in the world, over a patch of ground in an Upper Hunter village many people would never have heard of, Faulkner likes to think he’s still on top.
The community of Wollar he has known for 30 years is gone, leaving Faulkner one of the last men standing in a village with a coal mine at its back door, where the general store, the Anglican and Catholic churches and all but a handful of private properties are owned by Peabody Energy.
But he’s not budging.
“My Mum was born here, the family farm was here,” he says.
Faulkner points across the road to a line of yellow box trees near homes and buildings bought up by Peabody since 2006 when its giant Wilpinjong coal mine was first approved. For more than a decade the mine has edged closer to Wollar, located about 40 kilometres north-east of Mudgee, after a succession of further approvals by a NSW government which contracted Peabody to provide Wilpinjong coal for Bayswater and Liddell power stations.
“I planted those trees 30 years ago,” Faulkner says.
“It was always quite a community here. I did fencing, building houses, doing rammed earth buildings, that kind of thing. Then the coal mine came. They’ve destroyed a community by buying everybody out so there’s hardly anyone left. And they didn’t replace it with anything.”
In July, 2017 the NSW Planning Assessment Commission rebuked the Department of Planning for its assessment of the social impact of Kepco’s buy-out of nearby Bylong Valley to make way for a controversial open cut mine to provide coal to Korea.
The Korean mine company “depopulated” Bylong Valley by buying up heritage properties including Tarwyn Park and Iron Tank, the general store, the local heritage church and more than 13,000 hectares of prime agricultural land and homes, the assessment commission said.
The buy-up had “profound consequences for Bylong’s organically grown social networks”, the commission said.
It criticised the Department of Planning for appearing to “accept a degree of inevitability” of the loss of community associated with the Hunter’s super-sized open cut coal mines. The department was also rebuked for taking the view that mine acquisitions occurred under “open market conditions”.
“Some sellers may have felt they had no option but to sell,” the commission said.
Peabody is preparing what is believed to be the first social impact management plan of a community, after the Planning Assessment Commission approved the eighth expansion of Wilpinjong mine in April, 2017, but imposed the social impact evaluation as a condition of consent.
The whole social fabric of a village is just pushed away.Activist Bev Smiles
Peabody is required to identify negative social impacts from the mine and buy-outs, measures to minimise the impacts and a review process for the life of the mine.
Wollar resident and Hunter environmental activist Bev Smiles says the process would not help Wollar because the negative impacts were significant and irreversible. But, she says, “because of all the fuss we’ve been making it’s helping other communities”.
Peabody snapped up heritage-listed St Luke’s church and cemetery at Wollar when the Anglican Church stripped it of its stained glass windows, pews and fittings in 2009 and listed it for sale.
Smiles stood in the cemetery where headstones told the story of a community, and spoke about the history of a place that is lost when properties are bought by a multinational mining company and residents move away.
Wollar played a central role in tragic events between July 20 and October 27, 1900, when Jimmy Governor and others killed three women, two men and four children in separate incidents in the Ulan, Wollar and northern NSW areas before he was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1901.
The part-Aboriginal man went to school at Gulgong, worked at Wollar and became a police tracker at Cassilis. At his trial he alleged he killed his first victims, Grace Mawbey and Helen Kerz, after Kerz called him “black rubbish” and said he should be shot for marrying a white woman.
“They say Australia’s biggest manhunt to that time was based at Wollar hall,” Bev Smiles says.
History books record the life, crimes and death of Jimmy Governor, whose story was adapted for the 1972 Thomas Keneally novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and made into a film of the same name in 1978.
But Bev Smiles mourns the loss of place that occurs in Upper Hunter villages like Wollar and Bylong when they are “depopulated” by a mine project.
“The whole social fabric of a village is just pushed away,” she says.
One of the last private property owners in Wollar grins when he talks about the shiny new blue shed he has built on his land, and the number of times in the past year that Peabody representatives have questioned him about his future plans, and then offered to buy him out.
He prefers to be known as “one of the Clarke family”.
He bought his block of land in the middle of Wollar more than 30 years ago and he plans to build a house to match his shed. On the front fence is a yellow and black “Lock the Gate” sign. Elsewhere there’s a “Save Wollar” sign.
“They keep coming out and asking me what I’m doing. They came out the first time about 10 years ago wanting to buy me out but I want to stay. I’m going to build a house here. The mine people keep telling me their exploration licence goes through my place but I keep telling them I’m staying. I’m building. I think there’s only four privately-owned places left in Wollar, and I’m the first to build something new here for years,” Clarke says.
Colin Faulkner, Bev Smiles and Clarke believe Peabody has bought out most of the village because of lines that appear in the mine’s conditions of consent.
Wilpinjong must ensure that noise from the mine does not exceed certain levels “at any residence on privately owned land or at the other specified locations”. But the noise condition does not apply if the mine “has an agreement with the owner” of the privately owned properties “to generate higher noise levels”.
Conditions for blasting and air quality are similar. Tenants in mine-owned properties – the majority mine workers – must be notified of any health risks but the mine is only required to ensure “all reasonable and feasible avoidance and mitigation measures are in place so that dust emissions do not cause exceedances”.
“The mine buys people out because if there’s no people living in privately-owned properties in Wollar, it doesn’t have to comply with those conditions”, Smiles says.
Peabody did not respond to direct questions about the aim of its buy-outs.
A spokesperson said the Department of Planning supported Peabody’s “approach to purchase a number of properties in Wollar and establish a buffer between the mine and local residents to reduce noise and dust impacts”.
“Peabody regularly undertakes extensive noise and dust monitoring and mitigation in Wollar to ensure compliance with the conditions of its development consent,” the spokesperson says.
The company continued to maintain buildings and grounds of the two purchased churches, allowed access to the community and since 2011 had subsidised Wollar general store to keep it open for residents, the spokesperson says.
Faulkner and Clarke like the idea of being the last men standing in the way of Peabody relaxing its noise, dust and blasting conditions.
But they don’t like what’s happened to their village.
“When I first came here it was a real community and there were lots of alternative people around doing interesting things. There was a proper general store and businesses around the place, but that’s all changed,” Clarke says.
The mine has suggested he might want to move to Mudgee.
But for Faulkner, Wollar is home.
“I’ve got nowhere to go because I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he says.