Selected residents living next to a controversial $4.7 million sand mine in the heart of the Williamtown red zone have accepted an offer of financial compensation on the proviso their local community group dropped its court action against the project.
In a move that has caused further pain to a community already suffering from the devastating effects of PFAS contamination, the Williamtown Sand Syndicate offered 16 Cabbage Tree Road residents $7200 upfront plus a $600 a month for the life of the mine in late November.
The syndicate pitched its offer, which it insisted should be kept top-secret, as a “mutually beneficial commercial settlement”.
The offer was later upped to $10,200 up front plus $900 a month after one resident told the syndicate to “double the amount being offered”.
The mine, which is forecast to generate $16 million for Port Stephens Council, will result in an average daily increase of 146 vehicle movements on Cabbage Tree Road.
Almost all of those who were offered compensation have accepted.
“We are already stuffed because of PFAS. We can’t stop the mine; it’s just about making the best of a bad situation,” one resident who took the money said.
But those who refused believe the community campaign and the associated appeal should continue.
The Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group had been fundraising since May to appeal an Independent Planning and Assessment Commission decision to approve the mine.
Representatives from the group, the commission and sand syndicate were due to attend a court-ordered conciliation conference in late January as the first part of the merit appeal process.
The Residents Action Group executive met recently and agreed to withdraw the Land and Environment Court appeal on the basis that the overwhelming number of residents who been offered compensation indicated they wanted accept the deal.
Committee members Cain and Rhianna Gorfine, who were among those to receive an offer, did not participate in the deliberations.
Mr Gorfine said a core group of supporters and volunteers had managed to get the mine’s footprint substantially reduced, the length of the operation reduced from 15 to 20 years to five to seven years and put in place measures which ensure the site is fully rehabilitated and can never be developed.
“It is not the most ideal situation, however, we are very happy that the most heavily affected families near the sand mine will get some recompense. The reality is, at the end of he day, the closest residents will have a sand mine and get something, or have a sand mine and get nothing,” he said.
“Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action Group has always represented the community to the best of their ability and can appreciate the broader pressures that local residents have been placed under due to the contamination disaster. We therefore fully support the decision the committee has made on behalf of those families.”
The group’s executive also agreed that all large donations received in support of the appeal will be returned to donors.
The Williamtown Sand Syndicate did not respond to the Newcastle Herald’s questions about how it had devised the compensation offer and why it had targeted 16 residents with its offer.
Kay Rochester and Barry Davis whose properties are directly opposite the mine entrance, did not accept the money and are unhappy the residents’ group formally withdrew the appeal this week.
“People have attended meetings, fund raised, written submissions, described in detail the problems associated with this venture on an already fragile community,” Ms Rochester said.
“We had hoped and believed that the courts would understand that any economic value for others was overshadowed by the detrimental effects on this area and the people. The appeal was almost our last ditch stand.”
“To have that appeal withdrawn by a committee without consulting the entire group does not reflect the majority of members wishes.”
Mr Davis added that he was distressed at the toll the episode had taken on many people who had previously stood side by side.
“The way this has torn people apart has been crazy,” he said.
“I don’t have a grudge against them (the committee). But I would have liked everyone to have had the opportunity to get together to talk about it, make a decision and then get on with life,” he said.
Another Cabbage Tree Road resident Gaylene Brown, who did not receive an offer, said she could see why some had chosen to accept compensation and others wanted to continue to fight against the mine.
“This is much bigger than the sand mine. These people have been through so much; they have been worn down,” she said
“People have to look after themselves - I can understand why some people have accepted the money, but I can see why other people are unhappy the appeal has been withdrawn and are feeling they weren’t consulted.”
“Ultimately everyone is going to be affected by the trucks and dust.”
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington accused the sand mine syndicate of exploiting residents who had already experienced enormous stress in recent years.
“The Cabbage Tree Road sand mine proposal was never welcomed by this community,” she said.
“This is a community that’s already faced too much stress as a result of the PFAS contamination, and on top of that they’ve had repeated bushfires at their back fences. The approval of the sand mine was yet another kick in the guts for these residents.”
“I’m angry that the mining company is preying on the vulnerabilities of this community, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of these families. The decisions they are being forced to make, in these terrible circumstances, are deeply personal and should not be judged by anyone.”
I’m angry that the mining company is preying on the vulnerabilities of this community, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of these families. The decisions they are being forced to make, in these terrible circumstances, are deeply personal and should not be judged by anyone.”- Port Stephens MP Kate Washington
Former Port Stephens councillor Geoff Dingle, said the mine should never have been approved.
“The council is meant to be a protector of the environment but has shown itself to be anything but. They talk about koala hospitals on the peninsular, but here they are happy to knock down massive amounts of vegetation to try and recoup a pittance from this mine. The council will earn a minuscule amount, about one per cent of the value of the sand,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything about the compensation deal. It seems sad, but ultimately it’s a matter between the residents and the sand mining company.”
A lease for the site was awarded by the council in 2013, against the advice of staff, to Castle Quarry Products, which was part of the Nathan Tinkler’s Buildev Group, that is now defunct.
A majority of councillors from the previous council voted to transfer the lease to Williamtown Sand Syndicate headed by Newcastle accountant Chris Sneddon.
Former Buildev staffers Murray Towndrow and Darren Williams are also involved in the project.
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