IN recent months, the people of Wollombi have contended with bushfires and drought, a flood and the impact of COVID-19, but they were shocked to find a potential new threat right under the feet of their historic village.
On Tuesday, the state government unveiled its Strategic Statement on Coal Mining and Exploration. It has opened the possibility of coal mining near Wollombi.
About 178 square kilometres of land neighbouring the tourist town has been marked as a potential area for coal exploration.
"We nearly collapsed when we saw it," said Simone Smith, president of the Wollombi Valley Progress Association. "We've had no prior warning or information to lead us to think this was on the agenda."
"When I saw 'Wollombi', it was disbelief," said Cessnock Mayor Bob Pynsent. "I had no idea that Wollombi was a candidate for coal mining."
Long-time Wollombi real estate agent Steve Annis-Brown said the prospect of coal mining in the area was "just ridiculous".
"I just can't believe there's any practical consideration of this for an area that is so unsuitable for it in every possible way," he said.
Steve Annis Brown said Wollombi would be "the worst place in Australia" for a mine, arguing it would be "a complete waste of time from environmental and economic perspectives".
While releasing the statement in the Hunter Valley, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said, "There's a strong future for coal, a strong future for mining here in NSW".
However, the people of Wollombi argue there is no future for coal in the Wollombi area, and if that industry was pursued near the village, it would impact on the very future of Wollombi.
"It's totally illogical, especially given it's a prime tourist destination in a historic area," said Michael Noyce, whose family has a vineyard in the district and a cellar door and tourist accommodation in Wollombi.
Sylvana Sturevska and her partner David Prendergast own Wollombi Wines, which they bought about 18 months ago. She is waiting to find out more about the government's coal statement and what it could mean for their vineyard.
"It's not something I thought about, because I didn't think mining was part of this area," Dr Sturevska said. "People choose to visit this area because of its outstanding natural beauty. It would be a shame to lose some of that natural beauty."
Steve Annis-Brown believed the decision to put Wollombi on the coal exploration map was political, arguing the government was shifting the focus away from mining in prime agricultural areas, and "now they're going to undermine us".
The owner of Wollombi Real Estate said while mining in the area was unlikely, even considering it would have "an immediate negative impact".
"I can't see it's got a practical leg to stand on, but we will still suffer from guilt by association," said Mr Annis-Brown.
"All they're going to do is heighten the anxiety of everyone who is looking to buy in the district, or who owns property."
The people of Wollombi point out that part of their town's long history are the battles for the area's preservation. They fought plans for a dam in the valley, and, in recent years, the community has resisted coal seam gas exploration in the area.
David Burgess, who has lived in Wollombi and is a former coordinator of community action group Lock The Gate, said this announcement was a "shock".
"First and foremost, the way people have been informed is quite disgraceful," he said.
David Burgess said the community would attempt to find out more about what was planned. He said Lock the Gate was to meet Department of Resources and Geoscience representatives next week, and a protest was being held this morning outside the Cessnock office of state MP Clayton Barr.
Like the community, Mr Barr wants more information.
He has called on the government to release the documentation that led to the Wollombi area being marked for coal exploration.
"Without the detail, it's like they've put on a blindfold and thrown darts at a map of the state," he said.
Councillor Pynsent indicated that, "after gauging community concern", the council could look at raising the issue with the state government.
"I'd be extremely protective of the historic nature of the village of Wollombi and the surrounding areas," Cr Pynsent said.
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