OPPONENTS of Whitehaven Coal’s controversial coalmine at Maules Creek are claiming a significant victory after the company volunteered to suspend clearing of the Leard State Forest during winter.
Whitehaven Coal yesterday negotiated the agreement with lawyers representing the Maules Creek Community Council (MCCC) shortly before a judgement was to be handed down in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The community group had sought an injunction to force the company to immediately cease all tree-clearing activities associated with its $767 million Maules Creek coalmine on the grounds it allegedly breached the mine’s conditions of consent.
It claimed that changes to Whitehaven Coal’s biodiversity management plan made last month – approved by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment – to allow clearing during winter posed an unacceptable risk to hibernating animals.
The winter clearing sparked a fresh wave of protest activity against the mine, with numerous people arrested after entering the forest – from which the public, but not miners, are excluded – to raise awareness of the clearing.
“This outcome today is a huge relief for the Maules Creek community and everyone that loves the wildlife of Leard State Forest,” said MCCC spokesman Phil Laird, whose group was represented in court by the NSW Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO).
“This outcome today sends a strong message to coalmining companies across NSW and to the NSW government – if they will not enforce the law, then the community is prepared to step up and do it themselves.”
Whitehaven Coal chief executive officer Paul Flynn said the company had made a “pragmatic and sensible” decision and it would vigorously defend the litigation when the matter returned to court in September for a full hearing.
He said the voluntary undertaking ended clearing only two weeks earlier than originally planned and it would have no impact on the company’s stated goal of producing its first coal from the mine in March next year.
In light of the decision, made just hours before Justice Peter Biscoe was due to hand down his ruling on the injunction, Mr Flynn called on the protesters to end their campaign against the mine, which has both federal and state government approval.
“This is a fully approved project and, sooner or later, even the EDO and its client must accept the inevitability of the outcome,” he said.
“We have negotiated in good faith with the EDO. Protesters at Maules Creek should show a bit of integrity themselves and stop engaging in unlawful trespass and protest activity at the site.”
EDO solicitor Sue Higginson said it was a terrific result for “the forest, the animals and the people”.
“There was clear evidence in the court that clearing has been undertaken ... and what we were arguing over was an amount of forest that if we had to wait for a hearing, it would all be gone,” she said.
“In September, we will be looking at the validity and legality of that biodiversity management plan. Is the new plan a valid plan? Has proper process and legal procedures been adhered to in the making and implementing of that plan?”