Ten years ago the Wilpinjong Coal Mine, owned by Peabody Coal USA began operating in the Wollar district, near Mudgee. During this time the Wollar community has almost been destroyed through the toxic environment created by the mine operations and by the purchase of local properties by Peabody. People have moved away, and with them the services they provided.
The final straw has been the successful application by Peabody Energy for a mine extension, which will enable expansion to within one and a half kilometres of the town.
The remaining residents are concerned about the impact this extension will have on their health and that of the environment. The few remaining private landowners will be left with worthless land, with no compensation offered by the state or the mine.
The residents have spent 10 years fighting. As a last resort, to draw attention to their situation, 25 members of the Wollar Progress Association and supporters staged a peaceful protest at the mine entrance.
The police intervened, resulting in the arrest of three of the protestors, Bev. Smiles, Bruce Hughes and Stephanie Luke.
The three protestors will be the first to face court charged under the new anti-protest laws legislated by the NSW Parliament in November 2016. If convicted, the ‘Wollar Three’, so dubbed by some media sources, could face a maximum penalty of seven years jail.
These people are not criminals. They are law-abiding citizens who were using peaceful protest as a last resort to protect their community.
Bev Smiles says: “we have reached a crisis point when the vested interests of mining companies are so favoured over communities that the state government not only removes our right to appeal unfair planning decisions but now threatens us with new draconian laws designed to prevent peaceful protest.”
The fate of the ‘Wollar Three’ will be determined on June 21 at the Mudgee courthouse. This is a test case, the result of which will set a precedent for future protests.
Some may argue that protest stands in the way of progress.
We must ask ourselves whether we should have progress in exchange for the destruction of our environment, community and basic democratic rights.