AN “Eddie Mabo style native land claim” in the Hunter Valley has been sparked by an open-cut coalmine proposal near Camberwell, a planning assessment commission meeting in Singleton was told yesterday.
A spokesman for the Plains Clans of the Wonnarua People, Scott Franks, said he requested the Federal Court of Australia on Monday to determine indigenous title over 60 hectares near Camberwell.
The site coincides with land the China-based development company Yancoal has proposed an $83million expansion of its Ashton open-cut pit.
The state government’s assessment commission rejected the proposal five months ago but began reassessing the decision yesterday in response to a Land and Environment Court appeal by Yancoal and support from the government’s planning department officials.
The rejection was based on numerous wide-ranging community objections and opposition from New South Wales Health officials who said its noise, dust and cumulative impacts were unacceptable.
New South Wales Office of Water officials were also concerned the pit would impact on water flows, particularly in Glennies Creek and the Hunter River, potentially causing long-term salt water problems.
Mr Franks told commissioners Neil Shepherd and Gabrielle Kibble that this week’s Federal Court motion was an escalation of a claim which his group had unsuccessfully been trying to negotiate with Ashton officials for two years.
Eddie Mabo was responsible for a 1992 landmark High Court of Australia decision on indigenous land rights.
Mr Franks told The Argus outside the commission meeting that his Federal Court claim identified 2000 square kilometres of the Hunter Valley which traditional Aboriginals used.
“The effects, if this claim gets up, and I’m extremely confident of that, will be wide ranging and mean the state government, not Ashton, face a massive compensation bill,” Mr Franks said.
“This is about protecting our heritage, our culture and country, it’s not about Ashton getting a cheque book out.
“We oppose the mine because it will destroy something that’s significantly important, the environment and the water, it will cause 8.4 metres of subsidence yet the mine will only operate for seven years.”
Mr Franks was among 12 people who addressed yesterday’s meeting and only two of them supported the mine’s expansion, Ashton Coal operations general manager Brian Wesley and an Ashton employee, Darryl Watling.
Mr Wesley said the project had been thoroughly assessed by planning officials over two years and twice recommended for approval.
The project would make a significant contribution to the local, regional and state economies in terms of jobs and government royalty revenue, he said.
And he was “absolutely confident in effectively implementing the project whilst ensuring all environmental impacts are minimised and managed”.
Ashton’s “thorough assessment has been independently reviewed by several leading experts” who supported the view that groundwater impacts were predictable and would not have any significant impact on Glennies Creek.
Dust and noise had also been evaluated to be at levels which could be managed and mitigated, he said.
Mr Watling was pleased by employment the project would generate, said Ashton officials had a good land rehabilitation record and believed there was no concrete evidence to prove mining had adverse health impacts
Singleton Shire Healthy Environment Group spokeswoman Lyn MacBain tabled two New South Wales Health Department letters supporting its opposition to the mine.
One, by environmental health branch director Professor Wayne Smith said reports on air quality that supported the open-cut substantially underestimated some particulate pollution which should be readjusted.
“NSW Health is therefore of the opinion that any approval for proposed Ashton coalmine development is deferred until such time that other coalmines in the region cease to operate, leading to lower cumulative particulate matter impacts,” Professor Smith’s letter said.
Representatives of Singleton Council, the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association, Nature Conservation Council, Hunter Environment Lobby and the Camberwell Common Trust also expressed extensive concerns about the open-cut.
Dr Shepherd hoped to make a final decision by the end of June.