Chief Judge Brian Preston of the NSW Land and Environment Court handed down his judgement this month on the proposed Rocky Hill Coal Mine in the Gloucester Valley.
In what has been claimed as landmark judgement, Justice Preston refused the proposed mine. The refusal has gained broad attention within the national and international media, with its position highlighting the importance of localised responses to the global challenge of climate change and opening the door for a more progressive approach to climate litigation.
Climate change was, however, only one of the reasons why the mine was refused, and the significance of this judgement goes beyond its climate change argument.
As a social anthropologist who has worked with communities in mining affected areas for the past four years, I have come to know people and places that have both thrived and suffered in their interactions with coal.
At the ‘coal face’, communities speak about the social impacts of coal in a far more expressive way than how they are discussed and measured within policy and industry circles.
They speak about the everyday impacts of noise, dust, vibrations, blasting and combustion on their families’ health, lifestyle and relationships, they discuss the changes to their landscape and community that have left them feeling alienated and despairing in their own homes.
Their concerns have most often been dismissed, with technical measurements of variables such as noise and dust taking precedence.
Environmental impacts are, in these circumstances, removed from their social environment, seen in isolation, as something objective.
In the Rocky Hill case, the proponent, Gloucester Resource Limited (GRL), presented measurements and predictions on environmental impacts that, by definition, would be within the recommended levels and aligned with ‘best practice’.
Nonetheless, noise and dust have real impact that cannot be ignored. As Justice Preston acknowledges in his judgement, such impacts are dependent on the environment in which it is experienced and tie themselves in with people’s experiences and expectations to place.
Impacts such as those related to noise, dust and amenity is, then, not simply technical measures, but phenomena that are woven into people’s sense of place and community, and, as such, contribute to social impacts.
The judgement on social impacts in this case is unprecedented. Not only is it the first judgement that is based upon the NSW Department of Planning and Environment’s new Social Impact Assessment Guideline, it is a judgement that positions how we think and act on social impact of state significant projects beyond its conventional scientific framework and recognise the lived experience of those living most closely to a proposed project.
In his judgement, Justice Preston states that the Project ‘will have significant negative social impacts on people’s way of life; community; access to and use of infrastructure, services and facilities; culture; health and wellbeing; surroundings; and fears and aspirations’ and that the project will cause distributive intra- and inter-generational inequity.
On most of the measures of social impact, he finds that the project will have ‘likely’ ‘major’ impacts resulting in ‘extreme’ social risks. His reading of the social impact testimonies - by experts and residents - adopts a holistic approach to social impacts that sees the environment and community as interconnected in both material and temporal terms; it is a judgement that incorporates people’s lived experience of place.
Essentially, the judgement states: place matters. And local people are key in defining and understanding what their place is and should be.
This includes Aboriginal people, who so often in the past have been ignored and rejected a voice in planning assessments.
The Rocky Hill case was no different, with Aboriginal ways of knowing and perceptions of place dismissed in GRL’s social assessment. In contrast, Justice Preston recognises the impact the project would have on Aboriginal cultural values embedded in the landscape.
It establishes a strong position on how to protect and recognise Aboriginal people and heritage – by protecting Country. We cannot compartmentalise heritage; heritage is in landscapes, in place, within Country.
The impacts of this judgement will remain to be seen.
For now, what we can take from it is the importance of merit appeal and for communities to have their voices heard by an independent authority.
Communities have lost this right, with the NSW Planning Minister transferring the right to challenge a mine approval by forwarding the case to the Independent Planning Commission.
The judgement showcases the importance of community voices to be heard in a space in which divergent ways of knowing are recognised and judgement is based on independent assessment.