Just over an hour’s drive from Newcastle, the second largest city in NSW, lies the village of Bulga. Bulga is a historic village in the Hunter Valley, characterised by immense natural beauty and the fierce devotion of its residents. Yet the natural beauty of Bulga is not what the village is most renowned for.
Driving into the village requires passage through the gaping ravines of the Mt Thorley and Warkworth open-cut coal mines, operated by Rio Tinto. These mines, barely concealed by flimsy roadside foliage, are utterly incomprehensible in their scale. There is no statistic, no image, no account that can capture the experience of standing in the presence of these open-cut projects. For years, mines have encroached upon the village of Bulga, and their ongoing intrusion represents a troubling precedent for others who find themselves in the wake of large-scale resource extraction.
Things began to unravel for Bulga in 2010, when Rio Tinto first applied to expand its Mt Thorley-Warkworth operation. This expansion included the mining of the last major physical division between the village and the mine, known as Saddle Ridge. Crucially, in 2003, Saddle Ridge had been designated as a biodiversity offset for the Mt Thorley-Warkworth project, and a deed of agreement signed under the NSW Carr government had promised its long-term protection.
Nevertheless, the expansion was approved, and the community of Bulga famously challenged this decision in the Land and Environment Court in 2012, and won. Upon this decision, the NSW government and Rio Tinto appealed the Land and Environment Court ruling in the NSW Supreme Court in 2013. Remarkably, the original decision was upheld, and the NSW government and Rio Tinto lost the appeal. As many in the village of Bulga have asserted, this should have been the end of the story.
[Coal is amazing — amazingly insignificant to our economy]
Despite this immense legal victory for the community of Bulga, changes in legislation made by the NSW government undermined these rulings. The application for the project’s expansion was then resubmitted under this new legislation, and approved. While this can be explained away in a number of ways, there is a simple summation that can be made of all this: the government lost, so the government changed the rules. In the wake of these changes, the consequences for the community have been dire.
Right now, Saddle Ridge is being destroyed. As a site of significant biodiversity, the ridge has also been home to an array of sugar gliders, lizards, quolls and other unique animals. This also follows a legacy of ongoing destruction of habitat and wildlife brought about by these open-cut projects. A former wildlife aid volunteer remarked: A former wildlife aid volunteer remarked: “I do remember being called to the Warkworth admin building one day to pick up an owl. It was a Boobook, you know … It was a bit stunned, but it didn’t seem to have any blood on it or anything. I couldn’t look after him because you have to have a special carer to look after an owl, because they’re birds of prey. I rang the lady that the owl went to later on, and she said ‘oh no, that owl, we had to put it down. It must have been in a mine blast, because it was blind’. The blast had sent it blind.”
Yet this destruction is also not the end of the story. Bulga continues to face enormous opposition, enduring compromise after compromise from both the NSW government and Rio Tinto. Just before entering the village, a vigil has stood for more than 60 days to protest the impending destruction of Wallaby Scrub Road. Part of the Great North Road, this historic road was first built by convicts on the outskirts of the village in the 1830s.
Having collected nearly 2000 signatures, community representatives will soon travel to NSW Parliament to once again make their case for the protection of their community. What may appear at first glance as a minor altercation over a small road marks just the latest instalment in a saga that should be at the forefront of our attention as a state, and perhaps as a nation.
[Dear Scott, coal’s a dud investment]
Suggestions of physically moving the village of Bulga made by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission highlight the seriousness of the impacts that are taking place here. It is one thing to talk about Bulga, but it is another altogether to physically stand in this community, to breathe the dust, to hear and feel the blasts from the mines that reverberate day and night. As one member of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association recently remarked: “We feel a sense of absolute worthlessness, which is horrid. A lot of us feel connected to the land, and it is something that is very strong within us”.
There is more at stake here than the physical road itself. Saving Wallaby Scrub Road is not just a local issue. In the wake of decisions made by the NSW government over the last six years, Wallaby Scrub Road could be any road, anywhere. It is inconceivable that a community in NSW can win in the Land and Environment Court, withstand challenges in the Supreme Court, and yet, somehow, still lose.
In one of the world’s most prosperous nations, are we comfortable with the notion that people can be robbed of their communities? To lose one’s home, to lose one’s community, to lose one’s place — is this something that we can be at peace with in this nation? Bulga reminds us that this is a very real question, and one that we must face with urgency.
*This piece was prepared with invaluable guidance from the remarkable women of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association. I remain indebted to their generosity and support.