Bulga Holds Its Breath
By Bernard LaganAugust 16, 2013
Mining giant Rio Tinto’s ongoing appeal to resuscitate its approved, then nixed, Hunter Valley coal-mine expansion, is over for the week. The people of Bulga again wait on a court to decide their fate.
Margaret Joan Beazley is an intense woman with a carefree mop of blonde hair that tumbles around her face and wide-framed glasses. When she speaks, it is deep-toned and rapid fire – belying her small stature.
Her interruptions to the robed barristers who appear before her in the grand, theatre-like New South Wales Court of Appeal are infrequent and, usually, reverent. But one Neil Williams SC – a lean, serious man who speaks in a slow, faint tone – caused a whiff of arch exasperation from Justice Beazley in her Court on Thursday.
“I could never accuse you of flourish, Mr Williams,” she said, gazing across her papers. “I think what is of concern to me is that there is a certain amount of flourish in this submission.”
The barrister stared quizzically.
Mr Williams was representing Rio Tinto – the global mining giant – in its efforts to salvage an enormous and now highly controversial coal mine expansion project which threatens to destroy the tiny village of Bulga in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. The case has become emblematic within the tide of opposition to further mining in small communities across eastern Australia’s coalfields.
On his feet for a full day, Williams SC was trying to persuade Justice Beazley and her fellow judges on the Court of Appeal why they should toss out April 2013’s historic ruling from the Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court, Brian Preston, that blocked the Bulga mine expansion – a decision that infuriated Rio Tinto and stunned the NSW Government.
But Justice Beazley wasn’t, on this occasion, buying one of the 14 grounds Rio presented for finding fault with Justice Preston’s judgment. The cause of her intervention was Williams’ assertion that Preston had failed to properly consider Rio Tinto’s assurances that unique woodland – to be destroyed by the expanded mine – would later regenerate.
Justice Beazley, however, said she believed Rio’s assurance had been properly considered – even if rejected – by Preston.
Williams SC, quietly elected to move on. If their small smiles were evidence, the Bench approved.
Of course, these exchanges telegraph little about how the Court of Appeal will ultimately rule when it brings down its decision – perhaps three months hence – on whether the Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court was wholly correct to do what no other judge in Australia has done before: block a big coal-mining project that had been previously approved by a State Government.
That decision alone was enough to make Preston’s judgment a cause célèbre throughout the Hunter’s farmers, horse breeders, retirees and environmentalists, now arrayed against more coal mining.