Contributed by Ugly
Wollar environmental activist Bev Smiles is prepared to go to jail after becoming one of the first people in NSW to be charged under tough new anti-coal protest laws.
The 62-year-old is standing up to the new section of the New South Wales Crimes Act, that outlaws interfering with the operation of the local Wilpinjong coal mine. Also charged were Bruce Hughes and Stephanie Luce. They had picketed the mine over the pending approval of an application to expand operations. Locals say it will destroy Wollar and their community.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail and is widely regarded as the state government’s reaction to the success of the anti-fracking and coal industry campaign.
Bev Smiles has not had previous brushes with the law. She sees her stand as an important test for this draconian law.
“We go through the motions but we know they’re going to approve it. The Government has taken away the right of communities like ours to take these cases to court. I presented the PAC with a 32-page submission on the impact the expansion of this mine has had on this community, but I doubt if it will even be read,” she said.
“Neither the PAC assessment report nor the Department of Planning recognise the depth of the social impacts that have already occurred, so there’s nothing left but to stand at the gate and protest what’s happening.
“I’ve always said I won’t go down without a fight. We just upped the ante on that. I’ve got nothing to lose. My message is you can put me in jail. Do what you want. I’m prepared to go to jail over this, because what else is there left for me to do? Facts and evidence mean nothing in the way these things are dealt with. I’m happy to be a martyr to the cause.”
Bev Smiles said Wollar village 20 years ago, before Wilpinjong was approved in 2006, was a thriving community.
“The school had two teachers, there was a hall committee, a CWA, a progress association, a fire brigade and an annual fire brigade ball. There were dances and art and cultural events, and Wollar was famous for the Wollar Cricket Association matches because we always had a bar and barbecue after it where people would stay for hours,” she said.
“We had a monthly newsletter and auctions to raise money for the things we needed. When things happened in the village, people pitched in and helped. That’s all gone.”
Only three homes in Wollar remain privately owned. East of the village, where Bev, her sister and brother in law live, they are the only remaining residents and their homes are surrounded by land owned by Peabody Energy, which owns Wilpinjong mine.
Bev Smiles said another highly controversial coal mine proposal, in the Bylong Valley, would also have significant impacts on Wollar because mine traffic would be through the village.
“I certainly don’t want to move anywhere else, but the impacts of the mine as it is are significant, and we know that’s going to get worse. The Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Planning are trying to sneak in new industrial guidelines to this mine, before they’ve even been approved, and if they apply to this extension then I’m probably going to have to just walk away from this place for the sake of my health.”