How this Liverpool Plains community came together to defeat the Shenhua Watermark surface coal mine

As he stands in the lands of Gamilaraay and Red Chief, Gomeroi man Mitchum Neave speaks about the promise he broke 14 years ago.

“When I was growing up, my elders told me never to reveal anything because people are greedy. They sell it for money, or they destroy it,” Mr Neave said.

“So I made a promise to my ancestors that I would not show or say anything sacred.”

But when his ancestral land was to become the site of a Chinese-owned surface coal mine, with a capacity of 10 million tonnes per year, he decided to speak out.

“I’m heartbroken because some things I said, maybe I shouldn’t have said,” Mr Neave said.

“…In the end, things have to come out.”

Mitchum Neave says the proposed mine was located on a sacred site.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

The earth hides the holy land

Traveling across the plains of Liverpool in New South Wales means passing paddocks of yellow sunflowers, white bolls of cotton and rows of green wheat, sometimes passing under shaded groves of red gum that guard the banks of the Mooki River.

Hidden off the beaten track, the land also harbors the sacred battlefields of the Gomeroi people, who today can point to grinding grooves and scar trees dating back tens of thousands of years.

“When the Europeans came up the river, from the Sydney area, that’s where all the clans and tribes all got together and fought these people. So it’s a sad thing, a sad place,” said Mr Neave.

“They were right in the middle of the [mine’s proposed] second pit, these massive [weapon] gritty grooves, the size of a double-decker bus there, so I had to do a few speeches, just to express that.

“I’ve brought it in modern terms so everyone understands – it’s my ancestor’s Gallipoli site.”

How to defeat a mine?

“We were just shocked that [the state government] would grant a mining exploration license in this area,” said Susan Lyle, who grazes cattle on land bordering the proposed Shenhua Watermark mine site.

“And then we were like, ‘Well, what are we going to do?'”

Susan Lyle stands in front of people gathered at Breeza Hall, celebrating the defeat of the mine proposal.
Susan Lyle fought against the Shenhua Watermark mine project for 13 years.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

While the idea of ​​having a 35 square kilometer mine pit as a neighbor was unappealing, local farmers and environmentalists were more concerned about the damage it could cause under the ground.

The plains of Liverpool sit atop a number of aquifers which link and intertwine in a complex maze, watering local rivers, streams, wildlife and crops.

The fear was that the mine would break through this underground system, contaminating or lowering the level of fresh water.

“We knew the water was going to be a problem. We just had to prove it,” Ms Lyle said.

But this knowledge, acquired over generations of living and working on the plains, was not recognized by the state government.

While speaking at a conference in 2015, then-Prime Minister Mike Baird assured concerned residents and landowners that Shenhua Watermark had “undergone the most significant and exhaustive” carried out on “any mining project”.

“The [environmental] the impacts are not there,” he said.

But UNSW Professor Emeritus Ian Acworth had some questions.

Throughout his professional life, Professor Acworth has been a hydrogeologist, someone who studies natural water resources.

Rapeseed
A canola crop on the plains of Liverpool where the proposed mine was to be located.(Provided: John Hamparsum)

Living in Sydney, the plains of Liverpool was a place he had last visited in the 1990s, traveling the 300 kilometers a few times to carry out fieldwork for his research projects.

However, when he heard about the mine project, his reaction was “a reaction of horror”.

“I saw some of the modeling that had been proposed and done, and I basically disagreed with the conceptual model that was being used,” Professor Acworth said.

This disturbed him enough to bring him out of retirement and he began to do his own research.

Down Mystery Road to unlock data

A few miles from Shenhua’s proposed mine site was the evidence Professor Acworth was looking for.

“My colleague Doug Anderson had identified these boreholes on Mystery Road, these five piezometers that BHP had drilled decades ago [when they had proposed to mine there],” he said.

A green instrument with a slanted front and a wire fence on a metal pole in the middle of a field.
An old government-owned piezometer is locked on Mystery Road. (Provided: John Hamparsum)

Today, this land is owned by the state government and closed to the public.

“We tried and tried, but we couldn’t get to it,” said Ms Lyle, who at that time in 2019 was president of the Caroona Coal Action Group.

“Until Professor Acworth called someone from the government and said, ‘Just cut the locks.’

There they were the next day, standing together in the mid-February sun.

“I remember it was 40 degrees in the middle of a drought, and Ian Acworth was out of Sydney,” Ms Lyle said.

“And we cut the locks, and we got the [data] loggers outside. »

The Earth Reveals Indisputable Evidence

What Professor Acworth found was a wealth of data from the last decade, tracking the movements of water in underground aquifers, enabling him to create a map of what he calls “the ancient Mooki River”.

Older man with gray beard, hair, black hat, white shirt points to document on wall while another man in patterned shirt, cap watches.
Ian Acworth talks about his discoveries about the complex natural aquifer system.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“Maybe 50 million years ago there were channels about 100 meters deep that ran through here,” he said.

“They would have moved quite quickly and reduced the formations.

“And then when the climate changed during the ice ages, about 25,000 to 13,000 years ago, there was a lot of dust and silt supposedly blown over it, and the erosion kept coming out of the chains. from Liverpool, and it’s covered on the whole footage.”

Professor Acworth said he was able to put the image together to show that the original channels have been reduced in the coal measurements (coal strata).

“[They] were left connected below the surface, and that’s not in the patterns,” he said.

Pro bono work to help the community

It was this evidence of interconnected aquifers which, according to lawyer Andrew Beatty, allowed the government to finally understand “the enormous deleterious effect [the proposed mine would have] on their water resources.

Man in panama hat, brown t-shirt, blue jeans stands next to woman in cap, shirt, jeans, dark glasses in park, both are smiling.
Andrew Beatty and Ballanda Sack did a lot of pro bono work to support those who opposed the mine project. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Like Professor Acworth, Mr Beatty and his partner Ballanda Sack have given much of their time and services pro bono to help the people of Liverpool Plains win the fight against the mine.

“I’ve been practicing for 35 years, and it’s probably one of the most important subjects I’ve ever worked on,” Beatty said.

In April 2021, the Berejiklian government announced that it had paid $100 million to withdraw its lease application for the mine, adding that there were plans to legislate to prevent any future mining on the land.

A group of smiling people in a circle formation stand on a field and raise their hands.
The community celebrates after the government shut down the coal mine.(AAP Image: Kate Ausburn)

“It’s something I’m extremely proud of, and working with Ballanda to play a small part in delivering the result here today has been a complete privilege,” Mr Beatty said.

But for the two lawyers, the case is not closed.

Not over until the sacred areas are safe

“There is currently an application for the area to be declared an Aboriginal place or listed on the state heritage register,” Ms Sack said.

“It’s something we’re still working on with the traditional custodians of Gomeroi so they can gain recognition and protection for the sacred areas.”

For Mr. Neave, they won the battle but not the war.

“We are still ruled by white people,” he said.

“We still need to ask local land departments for permission to continue [our sacred sites] today. So we are again dominated by the Whites.”

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