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Coal protests flare up as spying revelations break in New South Wales

Protesters occupy heavy machinery at the Maules Creek site. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace, 2014.

Protesters occupy heavy machinery at the Maules Creek site. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace, 2014.

The fight to protect Australia’s forests, farmland, and rural communities from destructive coal mining is heating up with new efforts to block a Whitehaven Coal project in New South Wales.

A crowd of about 200 farmers, activists, and environmentalists gathered outside of the New South Wales government offices Wednesday to deliver a petition to Planning Minister Pru Goward and Environment Minister Rob Stokes.

The petition, signed by over 30,000 people, urges the government to halt the destruction of the Leard State Forest, which is being bulldozed to make way for Whitehaven’s $767 million Maules Creek coal mine—currently the largest coal mine under construction in Australia.

The project faces opposition on several fronts. Farmers and other community members fear that water supplies will be contaminated by industrial activity, or simply that access to surface water will be squeezed by Whitehaven’s mine, which already has license to access a three billion litres of water—much of it from the nearby Namoi river.

At the same time, the mine is yet another symbol of the Australian government’s backwards climate policies. At a time when many of the world’s largest economies are mulling or instituting strong emissions cuts in the lead up to the critical 2015 Paris talks, Australia is planning to slash its $1.3 billion clean technology innovation fund while maintaining support for mining and road infrastructure. Many in the Australian government unrepentantly support increased coal mining, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who recently attacked the country’s carbon tax and said that it is Australia’s “destiny… to bring affordable energy to the world” in the form of cheap—but deadly—coal.

When completed, the Maules Creek mine will emit as much carbon pollution per year as the entire nation of New Zealand.

Outrage surrounding the Maules Creek project has reached its high water mark, however, thanks to a controversial decision by the NSW government to allow Whitehaven to conduct winter clearing. Because many species that inhabit the forest hibernate during the winter, local wildlife populations—which include several endangered species—will be even more vulnerable to injury or death at the hands of bulldozers. The company plans to clear approximately 1660 hectares of woodland to make room for the open-pit mine.

Many Australians have had enough. Since January, 171 people have been arrested in Leard State Forest for non-violently protesting the mine. In May, a group of medical doctors blocked the entrance to the project to raise awareness of the mine’s health impacts. Since then, protests affiliated with the group Front Line Action on Coal have periodically halted clearing operations in the forest.

On Thursday, two protesters chained themselves to machinery used to clear the forest were removed by police. Kwame Tsey, one of those arrested, said:

The winter clearing could not be a more horrible thing. It’s a time when animals are defenceless. Enough is enough. It’s time we preserve what is all of ours, instead of destroy it to line the pockets of a greedy few.

Earlier this week, authorities also arrested at least thirteen people who were demonstrating at the Maules Creek site. Five of these protesters had climbed into the forest’s canopy and had to be removed using cranes.

New revelations that two Australian coal companies hired spies to infiltrate the anti-coal protests have only served to inflame tensions further.

According to an account published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Whitehaven Coal and Idemitsu Australia Resources allegedly hired former soldiers and intelligence operatives to infiltrate the anti-coal activists’ network.

The espionage activities— which included unearthing information on actions and gathering information on the movement’s leadership—are likely connected to the Centre for Intelligence and Risk Management (CIRM), a firm run by a former Australian military officer.

Through interviews with individuals directly involved with the espionage operations, Fairfax Media discovered that CIRM operatives assumed false names, penetrated activist groups, and prepared detailed reports on plans of action for five months. Further details have emerged showing that CIRM was itself contracted by a security firm known as C5 Management Solutions.

The full extent of the spying is not yet known. However, Barbara MacDonald, a law professor at Sydney University, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the espionage could fall foul of provisions in corporations, consumer and privacy law, “particularly if someone had acted on the deception to the material detriment” of those being spied on.

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