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Why the tension in north-western NSW has turned toxic

Date

Christopher Harris

Glendon Turner was shot dead on a property near Moree.

Glendon Turner was shot dead on a property near Moree. Photo: Supplied

This week, 51-year-old Glendon Turner, an environment and heritage officer, was shot dead in Moree. It was a tragic act of violence that shook the local community. His alleged killer, Ian Turnbull, had been given a notice for clearing vegetation on his land illegally.

The event is the latest to mark the lines being drawn between environmentalists and their opposition.

Moree mayor Katrina Humphries said "[Violence has] always been going to happen. I thought it would happen over coal or gas or water. The frustration is so great , but obviously to have an outcome like this is so horrible, it shouldn't get to this."

The week before, Jonathan Moylan, from Newcastle, was handed a two-year suspended sentence in the NSW Supreme Court for sending out a fake ANZ media release and disseminating false information about a Whitehaven Coal project at Maules Creek.

The two events crystallise oppositional attitudes to environmental and mining interests. On the one hand, Moylan's act has stressed the importance of civil disobedience, while alleged killer Turnbull's has underlined a feeling of disenfranchisement with government bureaucracy and arbitrary rules instigated by environmentalists.

We shouldn't be surprised. After facing declining global coal prices, Australian mines have been subjected to adverse conditions. The mining boom is slowly sputtering to an end. Many mining companies looking to diversify, maintain a profit and avoid bankruptcy, have all been effectively strip-searched by teams of management consultants looking to streamline operations and identify growth areas, amputating where necessary.

The result, in broad strokes, has been the expansion in contentious geographical locations, such as Whitehaven's plans for an open cut mine at Maules Creek, where a large, diverse and vocal protest group has set up camp. It's a somewhat unlikely alliance of environmentalists, farmers and professionals.

The protesters claim the open cut mine will destroy 1665 hectares of forest, which contains 34 threatened species, as well as putting an end to farming in the region.

It was Moylan's now infamous stunt of impersonating an ANZ staff member that got the protest into mainstream discourse. He said he didn't realise the unintentional consequence of wiping $314 million off the company's share price.

"Civil disobedience is needed because politicians are not standing up for the public interest," he said.

Moylan represents a growing number disenfranchised with the actions of government and the shirking of environmental stewardship by mining companies. His court battle is also indicative of the number who are turning to alternative pathways to get their message across, albeit illegally.

In Moree, there is frustration at what looks like arbitrary rules and big government telling farmers what they can and cannot do on their own land.

I empathise with his frustration to a degree. In NSW, farmers own only the surface (the first 15 centimetres)  of their land; after that it can be the property of mining companies. Perhaps it would be advantageous if the government could take the same level of scrutiny to the environmental impact before it grants mining leases, which so often leave people unhappy.

Accidents and negative environmental impacts have been met with little consequence. A fortnight ago, Orica was fined a mere $750, 000 in the Land and Environment Court for extensive water and air pollution in Botany, and Stockton near Newcastle.

It is realities such as these that make me understand where environmentalists get their motivation, and find people sympathetic to their cause.

Realists, on the other hand, know a strong renewable energy industry will not happen overnight. The federal government seems resistant to it so far, but it is happening globally and market forces show us it will inevitably happen here.

This increasing polarity between environmentalists, and mining companies and the government, is having deleterious outcomes in the medium term. The refusal of leading banks around the world to support new coal mines is encouraging, but it's not happening here.

Australia needs to look at ways to reduce carbon emissions in the medium term. Coal seam gas is the obvious choice. An Origin Energy report found that replacing coal for liquefied natural gas would reduce carbon emissions by 13.7 per cent.

Critics are quick to point to the harmful chemicals used in the process, but this is a changing industry with increasingly better technology.

They will also point to an incident in May this year in north-western NSW, where a coal seam gas project operated by Santos had contaminated a local aquifer, causing uranium levels to rise 20 times higher than safe drinking water guidelines.

Santos was fined $1500, described as relative to the environmental impact.

Mining magnates are hesitant to embrace a form of energy that isn't as lucrative and easy as a coal mine. But if we can undo the schism between mining and environmentalist camps, and foster cooperation and constructive dialogue, better outcomes will prevail.

Christopher Harris is a journalist with City Hub. He covered the Jonathan Moylan case in the NSW Supreme Court.

0 comment

  • Probably most people today think govt represents big mining, big banks and govt itself. Especially in rural areas people are really hurting and then these government people on huge secure salaries turn up on your property in a brand new Landcruiser bristling with laws, rules, fees, fines.
    And then something bad like this happens and the ignorant uncaring bureaucrats are amazed.
    There's too much government, too many rules, too many cameras, too many fines- and too much despair.

    Commenter
    Ted
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 6:08AM
    • Ted, I do not know of any civil servants (apart from police) who have threatened or killed another citizen. Your farmer mates obviously think their private property rights more important than peoples lives. At the same time, miners don't threaten with rifles, but with civil law suits and character assassination. I know - I have seen public servants vilified, sacked and told never to apply for a job in New South Wales again after opposing some of the more stupid ideas mining operators come up with.

      Commenter
      Ex-Muswellbrook
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 7:41AM
    • Except that the 'government people" aren't bureaucrats on 'huge salaries' - they are ordinary wage and salary earners. The rush to remove red tape by this present government has failed to acknowledge why the rules existed in the first place. We've seen government boards stacked, environment stakeholders excluded from consultation and community legal representatives like the environmental defenders office muzzled.
      The officer concerned was doing his job, nothing more. The murderer had a long history of blatant breaches of legislation. Time to stop blaming the environment and those charged to protect and uphold laws relating to it.
      No one deserves to die because they work for a government department.

      Commenter
      Jaycee
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 7:54AM
    • When it comes to mining projects, there are not enough rules, cameras and fines. Farmers can't clear anything and mining companies can destroy whole forests forever.

      Commenter
      Bruiser
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 8:11AM
    • Dear Ted,
      Someone has been murdered here, an unarmed man with a family of young children has been cowardly shot in the back. I have just read a similar excuses for the perpetrator in another paper. Some observations you make- this heritage officer was on a 'huge' salary (How much? How do you know?), He was driving a 'brand new landcruiser' (like police, doctors, firerys and council workers) - From what I have read, this farmer was given several warnings about his practice of clear-felling semi-arid land. No doubt when such properties are turned into dustbowls in the next drought, the taxpayer will yet again be asked for another bail out.

      Commenter
      Distopia
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 9:11AM
    • Ted
      Too much shock jock radio and sensationalism in newspapers.
      Many Farmers - especially those who own their own land - want to stop land clearing.
      Tree cover protects their land from wind erosion and salinity.
      Rogue farmers who clear the land for short term gain are destroying other people's future.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 9:17AM
    • I didn't say this person 'deserved to die'! Sheesh! I'm saying the problem is perception. Govts make rules for the benefit of the powerful, including themselves from on high, and then are amazed that there is anger and resentment from people who get hurt by their directives from on high.
      Govts have to be fair, transparent and should have some understanding of the problems on the ground. I bet the NW of NSW and other places has had its services stripped, trains stopped, hospitals close and the same govt who push CSG and big coal onto communities then sniff around to impose 'environmental compliance' on the small fry and hopefully get some money in fines and fees.
      There's a huge disconnect out there.

      Commenter
      Ted
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 1:47PM
  • You are right about the despair Ted.
    Despair that the Federal government has appointed an ignoramus advisor who thinks wind turbines are dangerous when they could be providing employment in coastal rural areas.
    Despair that coal miners are massively subsidised to pollute the atmosphere.
    Despair that the coal seam gas industry can destroy bore water sources and get away with it.
    Despair that land can be cleared when we desperately need more forest to remove carbon dioxide.
    Despair that we have a parliament of thugs, yokels and self-seving carpet baggers.

    Commenter
    Alan
    Date and time
    August 01, 2014, 6:31AM
    • Well said!

      Commenter
      Johnny
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 7:28AM
    • Hear Hear Alan, you've nailed it

      I heard the other day that the NSW Govt are going to go hard on Renewables - put Solar panels on all government buildings and ease the way for more wind farms - this is very good news and if they live up to their promise here I will be directing my preferences to Baird in the next State election

      Commenter
      havasay
      Date and time
      August 01, 2014, 11:53AM
Comments are now closed
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