The Rocky Hill Mine Has Been Refused — So What Will Happen to the Land?

Over the past decade, coal companies have been buying off land in Gloucester, fragmenting communities and pushing local residents out to make way for the proposed Rocky Hill Mine. Now that a landmark court case has terminated the mine’s future, social impact experts Dr Hedda Askland and Dr Rebecca Lawrence say that the fight is far from over.

Image via Shutterstock, ID: 138193166.

Just a few weeks ago, Gloucester Resources Limited notified the Land and Environment Court that it would not be appealing Chief Judge Brian Preston’s refusal of the Rocky Hill open cut coal mine, which was handed down in his landmark judgement in February of this year. The case has received a landslide of media attention, almost all of it being focussed on the judgement in terms of its climate change argument. The decision has been heralded as a win for climate justice, for community mobilisation and for the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) who defended the community. As the dust settles, and the possibility of appeal now redundant, the local community of Gloucester can now breathe a sigh of relief – or can they?

Despite the media furore around the climate change aspects of the judgement, there has been scant attention paid to the judgement in terms of what were actually the key grounds for refusal, namely, social impacts. While climate change was one reason for why the proposal was rejected, it did not constitute grounds for refusal on its own, whereas social impacts did.

The Rocky Hill judgement reiterates the emphasis placed by Judge Preston in his April 2013 rejection of the proposed expansion to the Warkworth mine close to Bulga Village in the Hunter Valley, NSW. In both these cases, Judge Preston emphasises the psychoterratic impacts of coal mining, recognising that local people have a strong attachment to place and that large scale open-cut coal-mining will adversely impact those connections and, subsequently, peoples’ well-being. The judgement also specifically addressed the adverse impacts of the proposed project on Aboriginal people and their connection to Country in the Gloucester area. In doing so, judge Preston meticulously applied the Department of Planning and Environment’s new Social Impact Assessment Guideline and found the project, and the social impact evidence presented by the proponent, seriously wanting and methodologically flawed. If the Coal Council of Australia is concerned about climate change arguments killing new mines, they would do well to pay equal attention to how the Rocky Hill case has now made the lived experiences of locally affected communities a key criteria for assessing the impacts of proposed mines.

When the media has paid attention to the Rocky Hill judgement in terms of social impacts, the emphasis has been on people who live in Gloucester and their concerns about what would have happened if the mine had been allowed to go ahead. These stories highlight how local residents have suffered from extended periods of uncertainty, stress and anxiety, due to a long and drawn-out planning and appeals process.  They also illustrate how mines have a significant social impact even before they materialise through construction and extraction.

There has, however, been no media attention at all regarding the Gloucester people who have already been displaced by the Rocky Hill project. In Gloucester, over the past decade, AGL and GRL have acquired dozens of farms and properties surrounding the Rocky Hill mine site.This has had significant social impacts for the people who have been displaced, and for the bare threads of the community that remain.

Local landholders in the immediate proximity of the Rocky Hill site express a deep sense of insecurity and distress when speaking about the process of land accumulation by the resource companies, describing this as a secretive and manipulative process. A common tactic of divide and conquer appears to have taken place, where people who have sold have often done so under duress. They have been bound by confidentiality agreements, further adding to social conflict and division and preventing community mobilisation.

The lack of transparency and collective planning around this process have added to the stress and anxiety of local community members. These experiences are not unique to Gloucester. The impacts of selective land accumulation by resource companies prior to the formal mining applications have had severe impacts on individuals and communities throughout the Hunter. In Gloucester, as in other small communities bought out by mining companies, community members mourn their lost neighbours, the loss of social networks and social support they once had. With many of the local residents bought out by resource companies there is no longer anyone to help them mend a fence, to store their hay, or to have a cup of tea with and discuss local matters. Others have told us about the friends they have lost, forced to sell under duress, too traumatised to return. There are also community reports that people have simply walked away from their properties, no longer able to deal with the insecurity that the proposal placed on their future.

What is worth noting is that this land acquisition takes place on the ‘free market’, well before any formal Voluntary Land Acquisition Process is required as part of the formal planning regime. While those in the immediate vicinity of the site are often bought out and displaced, there are also those who remain, left to navigate without any clear direction as to what will happen to their own properties, their community and their future. These social impacts do not get captured at any stage in the application process, nor are there approaches for mediation and recovery in circumstances, such as Gloucester, where proposals do not eventuate. It is paradoxical that throughout the development process of any new mine proposal, the environmental impacts are subject to significant measure, scrutiny and assessment before any construction can commence; yet, when it comes to communities, mining companies can exploit and extract the essence of sociality even before a proposal is submitted to planning authorities. Whilst minerals cannot be extracted without approval, sociality and community can.

Even though the Rocky Hill mine will not go ahead, its legacy and presence remain: the resource companies still own the site and multiple properties surrounding it, as a constant reminder to the community that they cannot yet take back complete control of the future of Rocky Hill.

Dr Hedda Askland was the social impacts expert for the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) and Dr Rebecca Lawrence was the social impacts expert for the NSW Minister for Planning in the Rocky Hill case.

Hedda Haugen Askland is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Newcastle, as well as Project Director for the Centre for Social Research and Regional Futures and Deputy Director of the Centre for 21stCentury Humanities. Hedda’s research centres on questions of exile and displacement, home, identity and belonging. She has explored these phenomena as they transpire within transnational, translocal and local contexts, working with refugees and asylum seekers from East Timor living in Australian metropolitan centres and mining affected rural communities in New South Wales.

Rebecca Lawrence is a Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.