In what could be a first for the Upper Hunter coal mining industry, a claim to protect Aboriginal heritage, is now under consideration by the Federal Department of Environment.
The claim covers the Ravensworth Estate and surrounding lands near Singleton. It is a high stake affair where both the Estate owner, mining giant Glencore, and members of the Wonnarua Aboriginal community are awaiting the outcome.
Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley has to determine whether she will accept a claim by Robert Lester and Scott Franks representing Plains Clan Wonnarua Peoples (PCWP) for protection of the Ravensworth Estate under section 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.
The claim came as a response to plans by Glencore to extend their existing Glendell open cut mine to include the historic Ravensworth Homestead and surrounding lands.
Known as the Glendell Continuation Project, the plan will extend the life of the mine until 2044 and extract 135 million tonnes of coal and provide ongoing employment of 600 workers.
To enable the extension to proceed Glencore have said they will either move the homestead to another part of the property or relocate it to the village of Broke.
Both proposals have been rejected by PCWP who argue the Estate is 'hallowed ground' of the Wonnarua people and the site of a series of massacres in the 1820s.
Federal Department of Environment spokesperson said an independent report on the section 10 application for the Ravensworth, Bowmans and Glennies Creek application under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, has been received by the department and is under consideration.
They added parties have been provided an opportunity to comment on the content of the report, and a significant amount of additional information has been received by the department, and is under assessment.
Speaking to the Singleton Argus in support of campaign to protect the Estate was Kevin Duncan, a cultural educator and Awaba and Gomeroi elder, whose family can trace their ancestry back to the earliest contacts between First Nations peoples and white settlers in Lake Macquarie and the Singleton and Muswellbrook districts.
"We continue to destroy our land and our culture and this must stop. Our family research and the records show we were hunted out of the Upper Hunter by the settlers and most likely members of my family were massacred at Ravensworth like they were at Myall Creek," he said.
"Enough is enough we need to protect that site and it must be protected."
The protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage gained national headlines following the release of the final report into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The final report titled, A Way Forward, emphasises that what happened at Juukan Gorge is not unique.
Rana Koroglu, NSW Managing Lawyer of the Environment Defenders Office said the final report into the destruction of Indigenous heritage sites at Juukan Gorge clearly demonstrates that the experience of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples is not isolated, and that there has been 'widespread destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage' across Australia.
"If the Federal Environment Minister does not make a section 10 declaration in favour of our clients concerning their application at Ravensworth, she would be allowing that destruction to continue under her watch," Ms Koroglu said.
"In determining the section10 application at Ravensworth, the Minister should take into account the Juukan Gorge Inquiry Report, and its findings about the unacceptable state of effective First Nations cultural heritage protection, the chronic disregard of the value of this heritage by State and Commonwealth governments, and the urgent imperative to both protect and recognise the value of this heritage."
If the claim is accepted it could result in a landmark ruling whereby Aboriginal culture is preserved. This would be one of the first times in the history of coal mining in the Upper Hunter that such a ruling was made.