This week’s launch of EDO NSW’s Mining Law in NSW guide has turned out to be an incredibly timely reminder of a critical but often little understood role that the Environmental Defender’s Office has played for decades.
We provide a relief valve for communities and individual landholders who feel beset by powerful forces like government agencies and big mining companies, and who contemplate more extreme action if they can’t get help under the law.
For the launch of the mining law guide we invited representatives from three different communities who are grappling with coal and coal seam gas (CSG) development projects to join us in Sydney and tell their stories.
Unlike us lawyers, who can be more guarded in our public commentary, these are people who say exactly what they think. It reveals the depth of emotion that exists when people are confronted with a danger to their community and their natural environment.
Space doesn’t allow me to do justice to all of what was said when our panel guests, Julie, Peter and Scott, described their communities, their challenges and their frustrations. But let me share a taste:
- Scott Franks, one of the Registered Native Title Claimants for the Plains Clans of the Wonnarua people in the Hunter region. Scott talked about how the planning and heritage laws seek to protect cultural artefacts like spear heads and bones, but can fail to take into account the land itself: ‘The bigger picture is being missed. It’s the environment that sustains our people … we are still in the embryonic stage of understanding this land. How can we destroy something that we don’t totally understand? We all have an onus to protect the environment of this country … One thing the EDO did for me personally was to take the emotion out of it and focus on the law.’
- Julie Lyford, one of the organisers of the recent CSG conference in Gloucester. Julie described her Gloucester community as having the second lowest socio-economic standing in NSW, while facing major coal and CSG projects and grappling with the implications locally and globally. ‘Rural communities are doing it extremely tough … the EDO is the only thing that communities such as ours can rely on. The rise of community activism across NSW is huge and it’s going to get bigger.’
- Peter Martin, a semi-retired Sydney businessman with a farm in the Southern Highlands. Peter critiqued the role of politicians and successive governments across the political spectrum, and he condemned the mining laws as a ‘complete travesty’ for communities, highlighted a community role for ‘non-violent civil action’, and also questioned the independence of the legal profession itself. ‘All the big law firms are conflicted … and will only act for mining companies. Even if we can pay for them we can’t get them. Without the EDO, we’d never be able to take these people on. Communities don’t have enough money to do all of this on their own.’
As professional lawyers, the EDO NSW team deals every day with community representatives like Julie, Scott and Peter who are looking to protect the environment, their communities and their assets. Our telephone advice line takes 1,500 calls a year from across NSW.
Emotions can run high, but our job is to help our clients and their communities to navigate within the law, when a clear public interest environmental law issue arises. Our Mining Law in NSW guide is for everyone who looks to the law to give them and the environment a fair go.
NOTE: The guide was funded by the NSW Government through the Environmental Trust, and includes input from the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. This has allowed EDO NSW to address a notoriously complex area of the law and we are extremely grateful for this support.
*Jeff Smith is the Executive Director of EDO NSW.