Laura Corrigan 00:00
Hello, I'm Laura Corrigan. Welcome to Voice of Real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. Host, Tom Melville is on the road this week reporting for an exciting project we have coming up. I can't wait for you to hear what he's working on. Now... Who do you think is responsible for protecting Australian children from the harm of catastrophic climate change? It's generally accepted that large-scale coal burning has contributed significantly to man-made climate change.... and that unchecked climate change will have a devastating global impact, particularly for young people who'll live to see it. When any coal mine is approved in Australia it needs to meet certain environmental standards such as the impact on groundwater or biodiversity. But the responsibility has never really been put on our decision makers to consider a mining project's impact on future quality of life. Until now... after eight teenagers and a Catholic nun took on the government. This story takes us to Boggabri in north-western New South Wales.
Sally Hunter 01:09
There's just house after house that's just rundown. No one lives in them, gardens are all overrun. And you know, that used to be, they were houses that families lived in and their kids went to school and their parents were in the cricket team, and they were all part of the social fabric and now that they're just not there. It's just hollowed out all of that sector of the community. You know, it's just brutal.
Laura Corrigan 01:32
That's Sally Hunter. She's describing some of at least 90 farms near her town bought up by the mining company Whitehaven Coal. The land was purchased as biodiversity offset, for mine infrastructure and as a buffer zone to protect neighbours from air and noise pollution.
Sally Hunter 01:49
I'm based on a property outside Narrabri in northwest New South Wales on Gomorrah country. It's very beautiful. So we are nestled in between the Namoi River and the Kaputar ranges a whole lot of national parks, north of us and then fertile plains in between. So lots of crops grown around here. And we have grass finished beef as our enterprise.
Laura Corrigan 02:16
She's one of many farmers in the region concerned about the impact of mining on their home. There are currently six mines between Narrabri, Boggabri and Gunnedah.
Sally Hunter 02:25
But I mentioned that we were droving there the other day, and as we were stopped for lunch, there was an explosion in the mine, you know, a few kilometres away from us and we all watched as the you know, the big smoke went up into the sky. So, but all of that is happening in what used to be a state forest and what used to be a patch, a very small patch of biodiversity and kind of life, you know, a lifeblood I feel like our natural areas are the lifeblood of, of our survival. And that region now is it's a series of coal mines.
Laura Corrigan 03:01
Whitehaven, which owns five of the local coal mines, was granted approval for a new one -- Vickery Coal Mine. The company is also seeking a mine expansion for Vickery, which is awaiting a final decision from the Environment Minister Susan Ley. This mine expansion was at the centre of a recent Federal court case. The case, Sharma AND Minister for the Environment, was brought by 8 teenagers, with a nun in her 80s acting as their guardian. They sought an injunction on the Vickery Coal Mine Expansion as well as a declaration that the Minister has a duty of care to ensure her decisions don't cause harm to Australian children... arising from carbon dioxide emissions. In a world first, Federal court judge, Justice Mordacai Bromberg, ruled that the Minister does have that duty of care, and it was inscribed into law. We'll call this the Sharma Ruling. Sally Hunter, again.
Sally Hunter 03:54
This is a recognition that each and every one of these mines is having an impact on our climate. And I was really pleased to get that recognition because it's obvious like it's the, you know, you know in your, in your bones that obviously if one plus one plus one plus one plus one equals five, or whatever it is, but that hasn't been a way that the decision makers have been thinking about it. And I think it's about time like it's, it's 2021 and we know that impacts from climate change are significant and worsening, and we're reaching these tipping points and time is not on our side. So we need to make some tough decisions.
Dave Watt 04:33
We went through a period when schools were struggling for numbers. You know, when we first moved here, there was two clubs and three pubs and we went back to one club, and one pub now so you know, things like that.
Laura Corrigan 04:51
This is Dave Watt. The Vickery Coal Mine will be 3 kilometres from his property.
Dave Watt 04:56
Yeah, well, my name is David what I'm a farmer at Boggabri. New South Wales I farm he with my family, my wife and three kids. We moved to the area in about 2007. And we now have two farms on either side of Boggabri.
Laura Corrigan 05:11
Dave says mining has changed Boggabri.
Dave Watt 05:14
I guess we've seen some fairly dramatic changes around Boggabri. Due to the coal industry when we moved here there were coal mines, but there are much smaller scale. And yeah, the rapid expansion over that time has really changed the demographics of the town, and just the whole whole area pretty well anywhere you go around here that you've got the visual of the of the coal mines in the distance, and it really has changed the whole area.
Susan Frater-Sims 05:42
In the last survey of members, there's a very positive response to mining in the region.
Laura Corrigan 05:48
That's Susan Frater-Sims. Secretary of the Gunnedah Chamber of Commerce. She's a primary producer and works off-farm as a transport and tourism consultant. Gunnedah is the closest big town to Boggabri and the Vickery Mine would fall within the Gunnedah Shire local government area.
Susan Frater-Sims 06:03
Our businesses and families are quite used to having mining and agriculture side by side up here. And also they understand especially after that last drought, that having all your eggs in one basket is just not okay. That agriculture and mining do sit side by side. And yeah, I think we've got a very mature approach to to mining.
Laura Corrigan 06:28
There's no doubt the coal industry has brought jobs to the area, including Boggabri. But Sally, who is also part of the Lock the Gate Alliance, says her town has swapped farming families for miners.
Sally Hunter 06:40
It's a town of normally 850 people or something. And when mining really geared up 10 years ago, they put in a Mack village temporary housing for mine workers, the majority of whom are male, and it's an 850 bed facility, you know, so it's essentially the same size as the town again, of just sort of one dimension of, of society. And it's not a sustainable way of growing a town I suppose.
Laura Corrigan 07:10
But Susan points out it's not just direct mining jobs that these companies draw to Gunnedah and the surrounding towns. She says they also bring in other skilled workers like accountants, chefs, nurses, teachers, business owners and technical tradespeople.
Susan Frater-Sims 07:23
Yeah, of course there's drive in drive out because it depends what suits people in their own lives and where they're up to. But I think in Gunnedah, our experience is we do get families moving here, not only to work in the mines, as I say, but actually in all of the surrounding businesses that benefit that are sort of beneficiaries from mining. I mean, it's the kind of things that we talk to the mining companies about -- including, you know, hours of shifts so that employees can still contribute to sport after school or family friendly travel hours, that sort of thing.
Laura Corrigan 08:03
Dave Watt has been campaigning against the Vickery Mine since it was announced in 2016. With a group of other farmers he fought the proposal for four years. But it was approved by the New South Wales Planning Department and the Independent Planning Commission in 2020. But Dave reckons if the mine expansion were rejected Whitehaven would scrap the whole project. Dave says if the Sharma Ruling sticks it would be good for the region.
Dave Watt 08:29
Well, you know, if they can get this ruling to stand well it could save this area. A lot of the government, the politicians that push for coal in areas like this, they just see it as a good thing for for the economics of the town. But what they're actually doing is they they're signing a death warrant for our towns. When we get rapid expansions in towns like Gunnedah, from mining like this. It's a false economy. There's new houses, there's all this new developments that goes ahead. But coal, now no one argues that it's got a finite lifetime. So when that's all gone, and it will come all of a sudden, Gunnedah is going to be in real trouble. There's gonna be, you know, houses, shops, everything's going to be vacant, but with no industry to support it.
Laura Corrigan 09:18
Susan says what concerns her about the Sharma Ruling is that it's outsiders making decisions about her home.
Susan Frater-Sims 09:25
Honestly, it is difficult when you live in a region to hear that other people outside the region are wanting to make decisions when they don't live here. So our response would be that you have to have trust in the system. You have to believe that there are other checks and balances to make sure things are safe and well done. And then there's quality in how things work, of course, especially with our agricultural base, where fully aware we are living climate change. And of course we understand that eventually one day, there probably would not be coal mining in this region. But we need a stepped approach.
Laura Corrigan 10:15
Susan says the new mine would be an asset.
Susan Frater-Sims 10:18
In the meantime, we do have coal mines, we do have global customers. And actually the extension to Vickery would create 450 long term permanent jobs in our Shire. It brings confidence it brings investor confidence. It brings business confidence. We are living here now. And we take very seriously as land stewards our role to look after this land into the next generations. Coal mining is just such one part of our economy and our social fabric.
Bella Burgemeister 10:58
When we first met our barristers, one of them is really good at rapping. And he shared this rap with us that he did for an old case that he had, and it was so good. And I think he's writing one for our case. So I'm excited to see that
Laura Corrigan 11:13
This is Bella Burgemeister.
Bella Burgemeister 11:15
I'm 15 I come from Bunbury in Western Australia. And I am one of the eight litigants in the Sharma versus environment minister case.
Laura Corrigan 11:22
Bella was one of eight highschool students who brought the duty of care case against the Environment minister.
Bella Burgemeister 11:28
My parents were super supportive of it, my friends didn't quite understand what I was doing, but still supported me anyway. Yeah, I think everyone who knew me knew that this was something that I wanted to do what would be participating in it. So I think they were all very supportive.
Laura Corrigan 11:43
Eight highschoolers aged between 13 and 17 took on the government and made a real impact.
Bella Burgemeister 11:49
I guess, it's another way of taking action really. So with School Strike, you know, we're taking to the streets and trying to have our voices heard. And then this is another way of taking action, you know, using the legal systems that we have to try to make change, positive change. And I thought that would be super important. And you know, this is a building case. So the arguments we use here might be able to be used again. So, you know, it was incredible, you know, its first of its kind, and I thought it would just be great to have on board.
Laura Corrigan 12:15
The students from Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales were brought together by their passion for climate action.
Bella Burgemeister 12:23
I was so excited. You know, it's an Australian first. So it's super exciting. Yeah, I was over the moon. We're all going to be hopping on a zoom call pretty soon to celebrate, you know, because it's such a big win for us. So we're all definitely gonna be hopping on a call.
Laura Corrigan 12:37
But, if you're under 18 you need a guardian to back your case. That's where the nun comes in.
Sister Brigid Arthur 12:42
I've done this before for mainly young asylum seekers, or other asylum seekers who for various reasons, can't represent themselves, usually people with mental health issues. I've also represented young Indigenous people in a couple of different court issues.
Laura Corrigan 13:03
This is Sister Brigid Arthur, an 86-year-old Brigidine Sister based in Melbourne.
Sister Brigid Arthur 13:07
Well, I think it's, you know, it's a matter of absolute urgency that we do something about the whole issue of climate change and what's occurring in our globe. Yeah, I mean, I'm very interested in the future for the future that Australia is carving. That's why I'm interested in the whole issue of asylum seekers and refugees. But I think this issue of climate change is also another one of the big moral issues that we're facing today.
Laura Corrigan 13:35
Sister Brigid says she was awed by the enthusiasm and commitment of the teenage applicants.
Sister Brigid Arthur 13:40
I think, realising that, seeing young people and -- except for one of them, who lives in Victoria, the others, I've only seen on zoom -- but seeing young people, passionate about young people and getting them thinking and making intelligent decisions and being ready to be challenged. And you know, so impressed by these young people.
Laura Corrigan 14:03
Bella says she hopes her case will be a leading example for other young people looking for a voice in the climate conversation.
Bella Burgemeister 14:09
I think it shows that young people are stepping up in this way. Because you know, we can't vote yet. So we have to try to use as many different systems as we can to have our voices heard. And going through the legal system is just another way of doing that. And it's great to see that so many young people are on board with what we were doing.
Jack McLean 14:25
We're thrilled with the results, and our clients are thrilled with the result as well. This is a truly historic win, it's the first time that a court has has found such a duty of care exists. And so we're very proud of the precedent that that sets, but also practically, we think that this judgment has a really important role to play in kind of opening the way for this government to make more sensible decisions when it comes to approving or not approving new fossil fuel projects that land on the minister's desk.
Laura Corrigan 14:56
That's Jack McLean, one of the lawyers at Equity Generation who represented Bella, Sister Brigid and the other applicants. I'll let Jack explain exactly what exactly the court declared.
Jack McLean 15:06
So our clients put forward a lot of evidence about the link between the extraction and burning of fossil fuels in particular coal and health, personal injury and death to Australian children. And the court found that the minister in exercising her discretion about whether to approve or not approve new coal projects, and in particular, the Victory Extension Project, needs to make sure that her decision doesn't contribute to that harm, doesn't further cause personal injury or death to Australian children,
Laura Corrigan 15:36
As well as the declaration, Jack's clients were seeking an injunction for the Vickery Coal Mine Expansion. That's the mine that would move in next door to Dave Watt, the farmer we heard from earlier. That injunction was not granted.
Jack McLean 15:48
The injunction was was particularly tough one to get because it related to a decision that had not yet been made. So usually, when you seek an injunction in a duty of care case, you're demonstrating that the person you allege that has the duty of care has breached that duty already, given the minister hadn't made the decision about whether to approve or not approve the mind that the court found that essentially she had not breached the duty yet, because she had not made a decision yet. So it was in many ways kind of a technical reason rather than a substantial reason why the injunction wasn't granted,
Laura Corrigan 16:24
But Jack says the declaration could have the desired effect anyway.
Jack McLean 16:28
But we're very happy that we got the declaration and we think that that prevents the minister from approving the mine, effectively.
Laura Corrigan 16:34
In a statement, Whitehaven, the company that owns the Vickery Mine, says it's pleased an injunction wasn't granted during the Sharma case. Whitehaven brought up the Sharma Ruling during their June quarterly report. I was given a recording of that meeting.
Paul Flynn 16:49
With the injunction against the minister having been defeated but with the court acknowledging the existence of a duty of care.
Laura Corrigan 16:59
In the recording Whitehaven head Paul Flynn assures stakeholders that the Environment Minister can still approve the project, even if the duty of care holds.
Paul Flynn 17:09
So what that means is that the Minister can approve the project and our expectations are that that will be the case. But in doing so, the minister will need to evidence consideration of duty.
Laura Corrigan 17:18
Whitehaven Coal had joined the Federal Court case as a second respondent to the Environment Minister but their involvement was very limited. Sally Hunter from Boggabri says by not granting the injunction the court has given the government an opportunity to take responsibility.
Sally Hunter 17:34
Obviously, the judge didn't feel like you know, he had the power to put in place that injunction. And I saw it, you know, really as an opportunity for the government to set this new policy direction and to step up and really take that opportunity to say, you know, I am the Minister for the Environment, I am protecting the environment, and I'm protecting the future generations. You know, here's my opportunity to say in this instance, no, enough is enough. And so, you know, it could have been an opportunity for change. But yeah, now that she's, or the government's, choosing to appeal that decision. I'm not sure what the implications will be. I guess we have to wait and see.
Laura Corrigan 18:18
So, the Environment Minister Susan Ley's office says she's planning to appeal against the ruling. Sally isn't impressed.
Sally Hunter 18:27
I guess I just find it pretty reprehensible that... I'm just not sure who is backing communities, rural communities, and who is backing the environment. Like if our Minister for the Environment is not backing the environment, you know, then who is? It's just beyond me.
Laura Corrigan 18:48
Bella says she's disappointed about the government's intentions to appeal against the Sharma Ruling.
Bella Burgemeister 18:53
I mean, having a duty of care didn't seem like a such a big deal, really. It's just saying that she should be thinking about young people and their futures when she makes decisions, you know, and she should be doing that anyway. But having this duty of care makes it legal. And I don't see why she would need to appeal that if you really cared about children's futures. It just really says to me that she cares more about the coal and gas industries then she does about young people and our future and what's going to be happening to our planet.
Laura Corrigan 19:18
In the Whitehaven recording Paul Flynn says they look forward to seeing the Minister's appeal, saying the Sharma Ruling will impact any polluting projects.
Paul Flynn 19:26
Of course, it's not just about Vickery, that any project that has a greenhouse gas footprint is obviously going to be impacted by this. So the Government's definitely minded to want to solve this one.
Laura Corrigan 19:38
Paul goes on to criticise the Sharma Ruling for implying that checks and balances in place under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, don't already take climate impact into consideration.
Paul Flynn 19:50
It's a strange outcome, this judgment, in the sense that the notion that every previous EPBC decision prior to this judge enlightening us as to the existence of this duty was made without due regard to the impact of any component of this project on future generations. I think that's not a suggestion which really, I think, has any merit
Laura Corrigan 20:10
I tried to speak to a number of people in Gunnedah and surrounding areas who worked for or had ties to the current coal mines, including councillors, but they said they couldn't comment due to conflicts of interest. But Susan from the Gunnedah Chamber of Commerce, who you heard from earlier, was happy to talk.
Susan Frater-Sims 20:27
From the Chamber of Commerce position in Gunnedah, the opportunities for Vickery expansion are positive on the whole, and for our businesses and families for future growth for future investor confidence, business confidence, and also it flows on to the region's economy. So Narrabri benefits, Tamworth benefits,
Laura Corrigan 20:52
In 2019 Whitehaven admitted to stealing water during the drought, for it's Maules Creek Mine. The coal giant pleaded guilty to taking one-billion litres of water from the Maules Creek Water Source between 2016 and 2019 despite not having a licence to do so. The company was fined two-million-dollars, but actually maintains that it had been an accident. Sally Hunter says Whitehaven Coal doesn't have a good standing in Boggabri.
Sally Hunter 21:25
You know, there are people employed in Boggabri for these coal companies. So, you know, there were some people that are keen for the contracting roles and things that might come from that project. But certainly from the agricultural side of things, there was a lot of opposition and a lot of concern about the water and the agricultural impacts. You know, it's sort of the fact that Whitehaven owns a number of coal mines in the district. And the level of social acceptance of that company in particular, in this district is not good. And so a lot of that was introduced as well, you know, why should this company be given more opportunities when they've got such a terrible track record?
Laura Corrigan 22:07
Two years ago, the New South Wales Land and Environment court refused a new open-cut coal mine near Gloucester in the state's mid coast region. One of the key reasons cited for rejecting the proposed Rocky Hill mine was its contribution, through indirect or downstream emissions, to climate change. That mine was expected to contribute 38 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the environment. The Vickery Mine and Expansion would contribute an estimated 370 million tonnes of C02. Ten Rocky Hill mines. Dave Watt, again.
Dave Watt 22:41
Look it it is our backyard that's the center of this. And, you know, it sucks, really, we're trying to farm here in a changing climate. And these politicians want to keep pushing for these fossil fuel projects around us that are causing the harm that we're suffering. It's, you know, it's a real punch in the guts. We've got, we've got Vickery, we've got Maules Creek, we've got all these mines here. But then we also have Santos on the other side of us with the Narrabri gas project. So you know, it's pretty hard to swallow.
Laura Corrigan 23:09
That Rocky Hill case was brought by locals in Gloucester who didn't want another mine in their backyard. The Sharma Ruling is just another example of people holding the government and coal companies responsible for minimising the harm of climate change. Bella Burgemeister again.
Bella Burgemeister 23:24
I think the ground is shifting about these kind of things, now. I think more people are realising that we can use the legal systems to stop these deadly mines from being put in. And that it's such an important way to do that, you know, because we now have a ruling that says that the minister has a duty of care to protect young people's futures. And that's incredible. So we'll definitely be using that argument in the future.
Laura Corrigan 23:45
What would be a message that you'd send to anybody who's interested in taking on a giant like the government, or a mining company?
Bella Burgemeister 23:53
I would definitely say go for it. When you have good people surrounding you. And there's a good group of you, I think, doing something like that is scary, but it's worth it, you know, because it shows them that we're, we care about these issues, and that we don't want these things to go ahead. It shows that we have an opinion about these things, especially young people stepping up and saying, you know, I don't agree with this, because we can't vote obviously. So we need to share our opinions some way and stepping up. And taking that action is a great way of doing that.
Laura Corrigan 24:21
Lawyer Jack Mclean says the Sharma Ruling shows kids want to play an active role in determining the future of this country.
Jack McLean 24:27
It's been very inspiring, I think, to a lot of adults, myself included, to see young people stepping up and really taking to the streets, taking to social media and traditional media, and now taking to the courtroom, to have their voice heard. This is a group of people who we must remember, can't vote, is quite marginalised when it comes to our electoral system, and our legal system. But they are the people that are going to be most affected by climate change. They're going to be around the longest. They're after a livable future, and I think that's a very reasonable thing to ask.
Laura Corrigan 24:59
Sister Brigid says she hopes the case will create a space for more community climate action.
Sister Brigid Arthur 25:04
It's hard to know what actually sparks, I mean, I'm more involved in the whole asylum seeker issue and I'm always wondering what will be the thing that will make enough people feel outraged about what is being done on their behalf to actually make a difference? So that's a question that stays with me all the time, so I guess it's what do we have to have happened before the catastrophic harms of climate change are actually so evident and so accepted that governments will be forced to make changes?
Laura Corrigan 25:41
But on the ground there's anxiety over what's next for communities built on coal. All parties agree coal has an expiry date and it's fast approaching. Sally Hunter says communities can't be left behind.
Sally Hunter 25:53
Boggabri is kind of at the coalface if you like to use that expression, because, you know, this is not the only new development, new coal mine, proposed for this region. We really are sort of a microcosm of all that activity and in which way it will be resolved. You know, we don't know. But I would like to see more effort and more policy direction and more leadership shown for our little town of Boggabri and this Namoi region, because coal is declining, it will come to an end, and we need to keep our communities alive and keep the best elements of our communities thriving. So yeah, it's crucial times really,
Laura Corrigan 26:37
Dave Watt again.
Dave Watt 26:38
Well, we want to see a transition we we want to see something in the works to to move away from coal we, you know, where's some foresight this should have been done 15-20 years ago, but you know, it's not too late to start now. We need to start on a transition.
Laura Corrigan 27:12
That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thanks for listening. We want to hear from you. Please take part in our listener survey. The link is in our show notes. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. If you like the podcast please tell your friends and give us a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts. It really helps. If you'd like to share your story, email voice at aust community media dot com dot a-u... that's voice at aust "a-u-s-t" community media dot com dot a-u. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash voice of real Australia. This podcast is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by me, Laura Corrigan and your regular host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Ethan Hamilton is our intern. Special thanks this week go to Ian Kirkwood and Jamison Murphy. This is an ACM podcast.