EDO NSW: standing up for communities and the environment

By EDO NSW Outreach Director Jemilah Hallinan

17 December 2014

2014 began with major government funding cuts, later a landmark victory in the NSW Court of Appeal to stop a coal mine expansion by Rio Tinto, then a legal action which made coal seam gas company Santos hand over water testing data to farmers, another which stopped Whitehaven’s bulldozers from winter and spring clearing at Maules Creek and finally we received an amazing $500,000 donation.

Despite the funding cuts, which were announced a year ago today, EDO NSW provided more than 20 community workshops across NSW, 1,000 free legal advices, ran 10 public interest law court cases and made over 40 policy submissions to the NSW and Federal Governments.

The resilience and hard work of EDO NSW was rewarded later in the year with a $500,000 donation from former Greens MP Sylvia Hale, the most generous single donation EDO NSW has ever received.

 “With State governments weakening environmental laws and the Federal Government planning to hand over its environmental approval powers to the States, the role of EDO NSW has never been more important,” Ms Hale said after making the donation.

Ms Hale’s donation was emblematic of increasing public support for EDO NSW and an acknowledgement of the crucial role it plays in levelling the legal playing field between the public and big developers and miners. 

Your support will help us continue to protect the environment.

The role of EDO NSW in maintaining a fairer legal system has also been acknowledged by the Productivity Commission, the Federal Government’s own advisor on economic policy. In its Access to Justice report, released in December, the commission recommended the reversal of last year’s pre-Christmas decision by Federal Attorney General George Brandis to remove all Federal funding to the EDOs around Australia.

During the year EDO NSW had a landmark victory for the residents of Bulga, who have been fighting off a coal mine expansion which threatens the Hunter Valley village, near Singleton. In April. the NSW Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Bulga residents, upholding the refusal of the Warkworth coal mine expansion by the NSW Land and Environment Court last year.

Bulga residents after their legal victory in the NSW Supreme Court

However, following the Bulga court decision, the NSW Government changed  the rules to prioritise the economic benefits of mining projects over environmental and social considerations such as dust, noise, pollution and impacts on threatened species. Mining giant Rio Tinto is now making a third attempt to get the project approved. EDO NSW is advising the Bulga residents on their legal options.

EDO NSW is also acting for a local community group, Friends of Tumblebee, in a challenge to Cessnock City Council’s approval of a steel fabrication and workshop facility to be constructed on land which is habitat to the critically endangered bird, the Regent Honeyeater. Unless stopped, the proposed development will clear 3.2 hectares of habitat critical to the survival of the Regent Honeyeater. The case will return to court in April 2015.

Earlier this year Whitehaven Coal was forced to halt its winter and spring clearing operations for its Maules Creek open cut coal mine in the Leard State Forest following legal action by the Maules Creek Community Council (MCCC), represented by EDO NSW. Restricting clearing to summer and autumn ensures threatened species are not hibernating or breeding, and gives them a fighting chance of survival. Whitehaven plans to clear 1664 hectares of forest which provides habitat for numerous threatened species, including bats, birds, koalas and reptiles. An area of 544 ha of this forest is the nationally listed critically endangered ecological community, Box Gum Woodland, which is facing an extremely high risk of extinction.

Coal seam gas and its potential impacts on water resources has been a major concern for rural communities. A local farming group, Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord (MGPA), represented by EDO NSW, took legal action to require Santos to provide any information relevant to potential groundwater contamination of a farmer’s freshwater bore in the Pilliga forest near Narrabri. EDO NSW also made submissions on a range of NSW Government changes to the regulation of the CSG industry following the release of the Chief Scientist’s report which recommended a regulatory overhaul and the implementation of world’s best practice.

Another focus of EDO NSW’s policy work was the Federal Government’s proposed handover of its environmental assessment and approval powers to the States and Territories. We have consistently raised concerns about the inadequacies of State laws to address national environmental issues. The handover would mean States and Territories will approve mines, coal seam gas and other development projects which impact World Heritage Areas, the Great Barrier Reef, wetlands of international significance, migratory species, threatened species and water resources. The States will also be responsible for approving uranium mines.

Soldiers Point, photo by Colin Howard

The Outreach Program continued to respond to high community demand for information on how to use the law to protect the environment. A free community workshop was held at Soldiers Point on the southern shores of Port Stephens which provided the community with the legal guidance they needed to oppose a 50 berth marina expansion. The development was subsequently refused by Council and the habitat of the critically endangered wading bird, the Beach Stone curlew, has been saved.

“Without the assistance of EDO NSW we believe that the outcome of the development application would have been very different,” said Colin Howard, President of the Soldiers Point Community Group.

After another difficult year, EDO NSW has managed to record a number of significant achievements in court cases, law reform and community education. In the coming year EDO NSW will continue to hold governments and corporations to account and help communities to use the law to protect the environment. The support of the community is fundamental to our ongoing viability, in both standing up for our efforts to protect the environment through law and getting behind us financially. With continued resilience, professionalism and passion, we are well-equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead.