Helping Maules Creek farmer Pat Murphy access justice
By EDO NSW CEO/Principal Solicitor Sue Higginson
27 June 2016
You may have seen news reports about Pat Murphy, a farmer whose land is within 2km of the Maules Creek Open Cut Coal Mine near Boggabri in Northern NSW. Since Pat called our environmental advice line in September last year, we’ve been helping him understand his legal rights.
Since the Maules Creek Coal Mine started up in 2014 Pat says it has taken over his life. Pat lives and works on his farm next door to the mine. His entire livelihood is derived from farming his property at Maules Creek. Farming is how he supports his wife and four very young daughters.
Pat featured on the ABC's Australian Story on Monday 27 July 2016.
Normally when the Government approves a mine, it puts noise and dust limits on the mine’s operations to limit the impact on nearby properties that haven’t been purchased – or agreed to be purchased – by the mine’s operators.
These property specific limits are an important protection for landholders because if the mine hasn't bought the property before it starts mining the landholder can hold the mine to account to the limit that applies to their property and enforce their rights to be as safe from the harm of dust and noise impacts as the law provides. That’s why mine companies tend to prefer to purchase properties that will be significantly impacted before a mine is approved.
"Pat had no idea how badly the mine would impact him and his family, nor how bad it would be for his farm and the local environment."
In Pat’s case, the usual approval process appears to have proceeded without proper consideration for Pat and his family. When Whitehaven Coal's predecessor was granted approval for the Maules Creek Coal Mine in 2012, it was considered that the noise and air quality impacts on Pat’s property would be significantly above acceptable limits, so he was given voluntary acquisition rights and no limits were applied to his property. This means that when the noise and dust gets too much for him and his family, he can ask Whitehaven to buy his land. But he can’t seek to hold Whitehaven Coal to account to operate at levels safe to him and his family.
Whitehaven Coal has claimed that the mine is subject to noise and dust restrictions. However, the point of injustice here is that there are no acceptably safe enforceable limits that apply to Pat’s property. This means that Pat himself has no legally enforceable protections, and is reliant on other property holders in the area holding the mine to account. Pat and his property slipped through the cracks and the mine's operations trumped the safety of Pat and his family to live and work at his property.
Pat had no idea how badly the mine would impact him and his family, nor how bad it would be for his farm and the local environment. He is now in an extremely difficult position, caught between the public interest of seeking to hold the mine to account, and the private interest of seeking the best outcome for his family.
Pat Murphy is just one of the thousands of people who contact EDO NSW every year looking for help in understanding their rights. Environmental law can be very complex. For community members wanting to know their rights, information can be hard to find, and can differ depending on who they contact. That’s why our environmental law advice line is so important: we offer independent, expert legal advice to guide people through the labyrinth of laws and policies that regulate development and environmental protection.
Although this part of our legal work is not as visible as our court cases, it is just as important in helping individuals like Pat gain access to justice.
About our advice line
Every year we deal with more than 1,000 telephone inquiries, most of them from people in rural and regional NSW. You can support our advice work by making a tax-deductible donation.