Originally published in issue #125 of Chain Reaction Magazine.

Aidan Kempster and Phil Evans

The Shenhua Watermark Project near the quiet township of Breeza in the Liverpool Plains of NSW has captured the attention of farmers, environmentalists and traditional owners from across the political spectrum. The plan for the 35 sq km Watermark open-cut coal mine consists of three pits and intends to extract up to 10 million tonnes per year of both coking and thermal coal for export over 30 years.1 Shenhua Watermark, a subsidiary of Shenhua − the largest coal company in the world and a Chinese state-owned entity − has already paid $300 million to the NSW (then ALP) government to secure its exploration licence and looks set to do whatever it takes to see this project come to fruition.

The strong local-led campaign that has emerged, which has seen the Liverpool Plains Youth and Gomeroi Traditional Custodians take a lead role, claims that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place. But more than that, it is the wrong fuel in the wrong time. For decades, coal has dominated the economic and political domains in Australia, but thanks to a strong divestment movement (including Friends of the Earth affiliate Market Forces) and strong on-the-ground opposition and direct action, the power dynamic has changed. And for the first time in Australia for over two centuries, the end of coal is in sight.

With that in mind, the Liverpool Plains is fast gearing up to be the new flashpoint in the fight against coal exports. The movement, which came into maturity in Maules Creek and had a phenomenal win in the courts over the plan to mine the Galilee Basin, is now itching for the fight – to protect land, water and culture.

The land

The Liverpool Plains are one of Australia’s food bowls, producing beef, sorghum, barley, wheat, corn and soybeans on land that is rated “the best cropping land in NSW”.2 The soil is so rich that many crops can survive a rainless growing season and the life-giving aquifers underneath connect all the way to the Murray-Darling basin. It’s no wonder two separate polls both found that 96% of the public are against the mine approval.3,4

Local farmers are angry and worried because the mine will kill their productivity. Tim Duddy of the Caroona Coal Action Group has called the mine “agricultural genocide”, adding: “We are not talking about a coexistence model, we are talking about mining coming and farming going and it’s as simple as that.”5

The Shenhua project will open the door for another proposed massive coal mine – BHP’s Caroona project, slated to open up shop right next door. Pollution from coal dust, drawdown of the water table and massive land buys threaten to bring existing agriculture to its knees. Shenhua has downplayed this by claiming there will be no impact on the surrounding agricultural properties outside their project boundary.1 But the evidence contradicts this.

Several cotton producers exist downwind of the mine, and the going local rate for discoloured cotton is $50−$65 − 17% less than market price per bale.6 The idea that these farms would be unaffected by coal dust during the three months of growing, with five blasts a week, is preposterous.

If the farmers, who know the area well, are right, and the mine creates an expanding agricultural dead zone, there is growing fear the Liverpool Plains will become a bigger, uglier version of the Hunter Valley as more mining projects will become easier to approve with less farmers.

The water

There are many allegations that the modelling done by Shenhua in order to obtain approval for the project was based on flawed science and a severe ‘knowledge gap’ in regards to how the aquifers in the area work. According to the local farmers in the Caroona Coal Action Group, Whitehaven Coal’s Werris Creek mine has seen water drawdowns 4000% greater than in the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Farmers hold grave fears that the Watermark project will just mean more of the same. They also point to the massive differences between modelling done for the neighbouring Caroona coal project and say that they are very hesitant to trust any modelling that Shenhua puts on the table.

Stated in Shenhua’s EIS is a condition not to disturb the black soil floodplains. Shenhua claim to be upholding that statement1, but it’s not to be taken at face value. For the purposes of the Watermark approval, former Liberal Minister for Mineral Resources Chris Hartcher endorsed a definition of a floodplain different from the one contained within the NSW Water Act. It is acknowledged in Shenhua’s own documents that without this change in definition, the mine would not be able to proceed.1

The culture

The Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, a committee of the local indigenous population fresh from the Maules Creek fight, are also up in arms over the mine. The proposed development site contains scores of highly significant indigenous cultural sites including a set of massive groove stones that were used for sharpening spears and axes. Shenhua has publically stated that they intend to honour and respect the culture and heritage of the Gomeroi and as such would not destroy the site but ‘gently relocate’ it and then return it 17 years later.1

Gomeroi spokeswoman Dolly Talbot disputes the idea of ‘gentle relocation’, stating that the grinding grooves site is too large and not strong enough to survive that process: “The truth is that Shenhua wants to carve them up – like a jigsaw puzzle – forever destroying them. The aquifer providing the water which keeps the grinding grooves in their state will also be destroyed and the landscape Shenhua wants to return the grooves pieces to will be forever changed and the meaning and purpose of the area lost.”7

Shenhua Watermark have pulled out the standard economic arguments for why the mine should go ahead – local jobs, state revenue – but the numbers just don’t add up. The economic benefits of the project are touted by politicians and the miners, but an independent review found the numbers were exaggerated.6 The economic assessment Shenhua relies upon is based on a sale price of $142/tonne for semi-soft coking coal and $99 for thermal coal, which is substantially higher than the current price, about $80 for both.8,9 There is a good chance that, due to the continued decline of the coal market, the mine may never meet its own costs of production, and the state of NSW will not receive anything like the royalties promised.

The groundswell begins

“This isn’t over. It hasn’t even begun. And, frankly, any government that doesn’t see the stupidity of this doesn’t deserve to be in government.” − radio broadcaster Alan Jones.10

A court case has been launched by the Mooki Landcare Organisation against Shenhua and the NSW Minister for Planning due to improper and inaccurate assessment of the mine’s impact on koalas. Mooki Landcare claims Shenhua’s Environmental Impact Assessment failed to properly investigate the risk of koala extinction in the area. Shenhua used population estimates of 12,753 animals for the entire Gunnedah Local Government Area, however the Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are only 800-1,300 animals in the area. The case was heard from 31 August to 3 September in the NSW Land and Environment Court. The result is still pending at the time of writing.11

The consistent public outrage over the project, which currently only has conditional federal approval, is causing political shockwaves. Many Greens MPs and unlikely ally Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) have already travelled to the local area to meet with community, hear their concerns and join resistance to the mine. Lambie took part in a tractor rally organised by the Caroona Coal Action Group and the Liverpool Plains Youth. The real surprise is Barnaby Joyce’s vocal opposition to the mine. However, without action Joyce’s words ring hollow and seem to be a cynical ploy to sure up slumping Nationals support in rural NSW.

With final approval from the federal government still pending, and the mining lease still to be granted by the NSW government, the fight has only just begun. Hundreds of people will soon converge on the small town of Breeza – city and country united in voice to say ‘never again’, and to cry out in unison against this disastrous project. This unlikely alliance of traditional owners, greenies and farmers has learnt valuable lessons from Maules Creek and in the battle for the Galilee Basin. Shenhua should expect a formidable fight.

Check out http://liverpoolplainsalliance.com to keep up with the campaign.


1. “Environmental Impact Statement” Shenhua Watermark

2. “Fact check: Is the proposed Shenhua Watermark coal mine located in the middle of Australia’s best agricultural land?” ABC, 1 Sep 2015

3. www.nvi.com.au/story/3199974/shenhua-mine-approval-poll/?cs=374

4. www.2gb.com/poll/poll-closed-shenhua-mine

5. “7:30 Report: Farmers promise legal action and civil disobedience in face of Shenhua coal mine approval,” ABC, 13 July 2015

6. Economists at Large, Review of Watermark Coal Project Environmental Impact Statement, Economic Impact Assessment 2013. www.ecolarge.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Ecolarge-2013-Watermark-subm…

7. Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, “Preserving Gomeroi grinding grooves lost in translation,” Press Release, January 30, 2015

8. www.platts.com/latest-news/metals/singapore/japan-mills-settle-q2-semi-s… 1 April 2015

9. www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=coal-australian&months=60 (accessed 11 October 2015)

10. Jones, A. “The Alan Jones Breakfast Show,” 2GB, 15 July 2015

11. www.edonsw.org.au/upper_mooki_landcare_group_v_shenhua_and_the_nsw_minis…