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News for nerds

As he stands on Gamilaraay and Red Chief land, Gomeroi man Mitchum Neave speaks about the promise he broke 14 years ago.

“When I grew up, my elders told me to never reveal anything because people are greedy. They sell it for money, or they destroy it,” Mr Neave said.

“So I made a promise back to my ancestors that I will not show or say anything about anything sacred.”

But when his ancestral land was slated to become the site of a 10-million-tonnes-a-year Chinese-owned open-cut coal mine, he decided to speak up.

“I’m broken-hearted because some things I have said, maybe I shouldn’t have said,” Mr Neave said.

“… At the end of the day, things have got to come out.”

Land conceals sacred country
To travel through the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales is to drive through paddocks of yellow sunflowers, white bolls of cotton and green rows of wheat, occasionally passing under shady groves of river red gums that guard the banks of the Mooki River.

Hidden off the beaten track, the land also conceals the sacred battlegrounds of the Gomeroi people, who can today point out grinding grooves and scar trees dating back tens of thousands of years.

“When the European people came up the river, from Sydney area, this is where all the clans and tribes all joined together and fought these people. So, it’s a sad thing, a sad place,” Mr Neave said.

“They were right in the middle of the [mine’s proposed] second pit, these massive [weapon] grinding grooves, the size of the double-decker bus out there, so I had to do some speeches, just to voice that.

“I brought it in modern terms so that everybody understands — that’s my ancestor’s Gallipoli site.”

How do you defeat a mine?
“We were just shocked that [the state government] would give a mining exploration licence in this area,” said Susan Lyle, who grazes cattle on the land bordering the proposed Shenhua Watermark mine site.

“And then we were thinking, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’.”

While the thought of having a 35-square-kilometre mine pit as their neighbour wasn’t appealing, local farmers and environmentalists were more concerned about the damage it could do under the ground.

The Liverpool Plains sit atop a number of aquifers that link and interweave in a complex maze, watering local rivers, creeks, wildlife and crops.

The fear was that the mine would breach this underground system, contaminating or lowering the freshwater level.

“We knew that water was going to be an issue. We just had to prove it,” Ms Lyle said.

But this knowledge, gained from generations of living and working on the plains, wasn’t recognised by the state government.

While speaking at a conference in 2015, then-premier Mike Baird assured concerned residents and landholders that Shenhua Watermark had “been through the most significant and exhaustive review” done on “any mining project”.

“The [environmental] impacts aren’t there,” he said.

But UNSW emeritus professor Ian Acworth had some questions.

For his entire working life, Professor Acworth has been a hydrogeologist — someone who studies natural water resources.

Living in Sydney, the Liverpool Plains was a place he had last visited in the 1990s, travelling the 300 kilometres a couple of times to complete fieldwork for his research projects.

Yet, when he heard about the proposed mine, his reaction was “one of horror”.

“I saw some of the modelling which had been proposed and carried out, and I just fundamentally disagreed with the conceptual model that was being used,” Professor Acworth said.

It bothered him enough to bring him out of retirement , and he began to do his own research.

Down Mystery Road to unlock data
A few kilometres away from Shenhua’s proposed mine site was the proof professor Acworth had been searching for.

“My colleague Doug Anderson had identified these boreholes on Mystery Road, these five piezometers that BHP had drilled decades ago [when they had proposed to mine there],” he said.

Today, that land is owned by the state government and locked off to the public.

“We tried and tried, but we couldn’t get access,” said Ms Lyle, who by this time in 2019 was chair of the Caroona Coal Action Group.

“Until Professor Acworth rang somebody in government, and they said, ‘Just cut the locks’.”

They were there the next day, standing together in the mid-February sun.

“I remember it was 40 degrees in the middle of a drought, and Ian Acworth had come out from Sydney,” Ms Lyle said.

“And we cut the locks, and we got the [data] loggers out.”

Land reveals indisputable evidence
What Professor Acworth found was a wealth of data from the past decade, tracking the movements of water within the underground aquifers, enabling him to create a map of what he calls “the old Mooki River”.

“Possibly 50 million years ago, there were channels about 100 meters deep running through here,” he said.

“They would have been moving quite fast and cutting down through the formations.

“And then when the climate changed in the ice ages, about 25,000 through to say 13,000 years ago, there was lots of dust and claiming silt being blown over the top, and erosion still coming off the Liverpool Ranges, and that’s covered over the entire sequence.”

Professor Acworth said he was able to put the picture together to show that the original channels were cut down into the coal measures (coal-bearing strata).

“[They] have been left connected under the surface, and that’s not in the models,” he said.

Pro bono work to help community
It was this proof of the interconnected aquifers that lawyer Andrew Beatty says allowed the government to finally understand the “tremendous deleterious effect [the proposed mine would have] on their water resources”.

Like Professor Acworth, Mr Beatty and his partner Ballanda Sack gave much of their time and services pro bono to help the Liverpool Plains locals win the fight against the mine.

“I’ve been in practice for 35 years, and this is probably one of the most important matters I’ve ever worked on,” Mr Beatty said.

In April 2021, the Berejiklian government announced it had paid $100 million to withdraw its lease application for the mine, adding that there were plans to legislate to prevent any future mining on the land.

“It’s something of which I’m immensely proud of, and working with Ballanda to have a small role in securing the outcome here today has been a complete privilege,” Mr Beatty said.

But for the two lawyers, the case is not closed.

Not over until sacred areas safe
“There’s currently an application that the area be declared an Aboriginal place or be placed on the State Heritage Register,” Ms Sack said.

“That is something that we’re still working with the Gomeroi traditional custodians on so that they can get recognition of and protection for the sacred areas.”

For Mr Neave, they have won the battle but not the war.

“We are still governed by white people,” he said.

“We still have to ask the Local Land Services for permission to go on [our sacred sites] today. So we are overruled by white people again.”