Australia

Coal mining devastates villages and cultural heritage in Australia’s Hunter Valley

In Australia’s Hunter Valley the coal mining industry is devastating local villages and precious Aboriginal heritage, and three people who have been campaigning against mine expansion in the area face possible seven-year jail sentences under New South Wales’ new anti-protest legislation.

The valley is a stunningly beautiful area that is one of Australia’s main wine-producing regions, with a viticultural history dating back to the early 1800s, but the local town of Mudgee now has three coal mines on its doorstep – Wilpinjong, Moolarben, and Ulan – and one more mine is planned at nearby Bylong.

The local landscape is now dominated by mine pits and mining infrastructure. The ecosystem has been irreparably damaged, local wildlife have lost vital habitat, and the owners of Wilpinjong have run roughshod over local people’s lives and livelihoods.

The village and district of Wollar, where there used to be a thriving community of several hundred people, have been nearly emptied of their residents, and the few that remain are suffering serious health problems because of noise and dust, mostly from the Wilpinjong mine, which has been operating for about ten years.

Wilpinjong is owned and operated by Wilpinjong Coal Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Peabody Energy Australia Ltd. The Peabody parent company, which is based in the United States, is the world’s biggest private sector coal producer.

Wilpinjong Coal now owns most of Wollar village. Only three properties remain in private ownership. The four residents, who include two brothers in one property, are holding out and refusing to sell.

The three people who now face jail sentences and/or a 5,000 AUD (about 4,000 $US) fine, are the convener of the Central West Environment Council Bev Smiles, Bruce Hughes, and Stephanie Luke. They have all entered a plea of not guilty.

Smiles and Hughes, who are both in their sixties, live on properties on the edge of the land owned by Peabody outside Wollar village. Luke, aged 52, lives in Bathurst, but has been so shocked by the effects of the Wilpinjong mine that she joined the protest. The three refused to move on when asked to do so by police.

Bruce Hughes

Smiles, Hughes, and Luke (pictured left) were in a group of about thirty demonstrators who picketed the entrance to the Wilpinjong mine and stopped incoming traffic during the shift change on April 12 this year. They were protesting against the expansion of Wilpinjong, which would bring the mining operation to just 1.5 kilometres from Wollar.

“The police directed us to move off the road and the majority of people did, but three of us had decided that we were prepared to get arrested because this was all that was left for us to do to raise the profile of what government decisions have done to our community,” Smiles said.

Bev Smiles being arrested. Photo courtesy of the Newcastle Herald.

The protesters thought they would most likely be charged with obstruction under the Roads Act, but they have also been charged under new legislation in the Crimes Act.

The Act already included a section about interfering with mines, but this was originally about workers’ safety rather than protest. It has now been amended and ramped up to cover protests against coal mining and gas exploitation.

It refers not only to land owned by a mining company, but anything associated with the company’s mine, and carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment and a 5,000 AUD fine.

“The fact that they’ve decided to charge us under the Crimes Act, is, in a way, helping us to get the story out even further because it’s just so dramatic what they’ve done to us. So many people are now even more outraged,” Smiles said.

“This is again demonstrating how this government has been totally captured by the mining industry.

“It’s hard to believe how short-sighted they are, but they’re captured by the industry myth – that it creates jobs and wealth long term.”

Photo courtesy of Green Left.

Greens MP David Shoebridge, says people’s rights to protest peacefully have been stripped from them and the case of the Wollar Three will put the new legislation to the test.

“What this case will show,” Shoebridge said, “is the deep illegitimacy of laws that seek to criminalise protests. This is three citizens of New South Wales who are standing up and protecting their homes and now they potentially face seven years in jail for it. That’s an illegitimate law that needs to be scrubbed off our statute books.”

Shoebridge said there would be an overwhelming community backlash if the Wollar Three were sent to jail for protesting.

“If ever these laws end up taking someone’s liberty because they were doing nothing more than expressing their right to oppose a poor law or to oppose a community-destroying coalmine, that will be a very sad day for New South Wales, and it will be one of the last days for a government that would see someone in jail for that reason.”

The Wollar Three are due in court tomorrow (Wednesday) for a mention in the case. They expect to then be given a hearing date.

Bev Smiles outside an abandoned propety in Wollar.

The NSW government has removed the right of the community to appeal the merit of Department of Planning decisions about coal mines in the Land and Environment Court, and this is what drove the protest in April.

“There’s been an ongoing local and state-wide campaign to have our merit appeal rights reinstated,” Smiles said.

“If the planning minister sends a project to the Planning Assessment Commission with a directive for them to run a public hearing on a project, the public hearing is what extinguishes your legal right for a merit appeal in the Land and Environment Court.”

Community campaigners decided to boycott the public hearing about Wilpinjong so as to raise awareness about the loss of appeal rights.

“We protested outside and had a concurrent protest in Sydney,” Smiles said. “A lot of people were shocked that our appeal rights had been removed.”

One of those people is Stephanie Luke, who says the new law is being used like a sledgehammer to silence people.

“The mantra that’s used all the time is ‘jobs and growth’, no matter how short-term and how lunatic the vision, and I just don’t think that approach is working for the local landscape.”

Coal mining, Luke says, is outdated and she is stunned that Australian governments are still relying on “old-fashioned, dangerous technology that is about to die out”.

Department of Planning approval for the Wilpinjong extension was given two weeks after public submissions closed and there were public holidays over that period.

“They had already made up their minds,” Smiles said. “Their report was pretty basic, and they didn’t change a thing in the conditions.

“There was absolutely no justice for us anywhere in this entire process.”

In a statement issued in response to the NSW Planning Assessment Commission’s approval for the mine extension, Peabody said that the project would secure the ongoing employment of the current workforce of four hundred, create up to another 75 operational jobs, and secure the supply of high quality coal to domestic and export customers.

“The mine is a significant contributor to the local economy and generated approximately AUD $800 million in direct and indirect economic benefits in 2016,” the company said.

 

In its determination report, published on April 24 this year, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) acknowledged that the expansion had “the potential to further exacerbate the existing decline of Wollar”, but it said that the most significant impacts had already occurred and the proposed extension was unlikely to have significant additional impacts.

The commission said it was satisfied that the impacts, including social impacts, and the mitigation methods had been appropriately assessed. It concluded that only properties within the village of Wollar were exposed to impacts that would justify granting acquisition rights.

Having acquisition rights means a resident has the right to go to the mining company and ask to be bought out, and they can negotiate a price.

“The rest of us left on the periphery of land that isn’t owned by the mining company have not been given that right,” Smiles said.

Campaigners against the mine extension decided that they would blockade the entrance to the mine at shift change the morning after the final public meeting on the project.

“We wanted to highlight how much this mine had disrupted our lives and how we had lost our right to appeal,” Smiles said.

“As we lost more and more people from our community, it became dysfunctional.”

The protesters were not on Peabody property when they were arrested; they were on the public road. They were nevertheless charged with interfering with the mine’s operation.

The Wollar Three, as they are now known, are the first people in NSW to be charged under the new legislation, which was introduced in March 2016.

Smiles is a long-standing and dedicated community activist. She’s extraordinarily knowledgeable about the history of mining in the Hunter Valley and the effects of coal extraction on the local area and its ecosystem.

When the mining started, she says, Peabody promised huge benefits for the local community. “The exact opposite has occurred. Because of the topography of the area, the noise has been far greater than ever predicted or imagined.

“They got a set of conditions based on their noise management operation and the only way they could keep operating was to buy out more and more and more people.”

The more local properties the mining company owns, the fewer the complaints.

“The company was looking to future possible expansion so they also bought large properties where they knew there was a coal resource,” Smiles told Changing Times. “And they started buying up some of the houses in Wollar for worker accommodation.”

Coal mining companies are not allowed to open-cut on land they don’t own.

The cumulative impact of all the buyouts has never been researched, Smiles says. “Peabody Energy now even owns the Wollar general store.”

The mining company also bought both of the local churches, which have now closed down, and the school is close to closing down as well.

“The company bought the church buildings so that no-one else could buy them and move into them and live in them,” Smiles said.

In addition to Wilpinjong, Smiles says, another neighbouring mine was approved and the existing one that had been in the area since the mid-1980s got approval to double its size and production. “All of this happened in a very short period of time.”

Smiles says the economy in Mudgee, and in nearby Gulgong, overheated.

“The place was full of construction and mine workers and you couldn’t rent or buy a property in Mudgee or Gulgong for love nor money.”

In the boom period, local people were drawn out of other trades and professions to go and work at the mine, Smiles says. “People flocked to the mine to get the big money. They were getting 110,000 dollars a year for driving a truck round in circles for 12 hours.”

The Wilpinjong mine was originally intended to secure a supply of coal to the large coal-fired power station in the Upper Hunter Valley.

“The government was looking for more deposits of relatively poor quality coal to put through the power station because all the good quality coal was going to the export market,” Smiles said.

“The mine was established by a small Australian-owned company, which did the initial exploration and assessment, and got the approval. Peabody was standing on the sidelines, waiting to buy it once it was approved.”

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At the time of the coal boom, Smiles says, numerous small exploration companies with friends in government would get licences, then, once they had mine approval, they sold their operation on to a big multinational company; and became millionaires.

Initially, the Wilpinjong mine was to produce seven million tons of coal at a very cheap domestic price to supply the Bayswater power station for 19 years.

“They had approval to produce an additional two and a half million tons for export, which they could then sell at the going rate, which was up to 100 dollars a ton,” Smiles explained.

“What Peabody purchased was – at that domestic supply price – an economically unviable mine so they immediately started to apply for expansions of the volume that they could produce and export. So we had this expanding mine on our doorstep.”

The mine expansions were just called modifications, Smiles points out.

A total 14.1 million tons of coal were sold from the Wilpinjong mine in 2016.

If the new mine extension project is approved, Peabody will be authorised to extract up to 16 million tons of coal per year and extend the life of the mine for an additional seven years to 2033.

“They are not renewing the contract to the power station, so the last seven years will all be pure export,” Smiles points out.

The expansion will require clearance of about 354 hectares of native vegetation, including 9.5 hectares of box gum woodland that is listed as a “threatened ecological community”.

Peabody says there will be 1,100 hectares of offset areas, comprising approximately 996 hectares of native vegetation.

“The offset areas are strategically located next to Goulburn River National Park and Munghorn Gap Nature Reserve, with the potential to increase the extent of these existing protected areas,” the company states.

Impacts on the community

Smiles says that many more people are being impacted by the Wilpinjong mine than was ever predicted.

“We are talking about 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week mining; between four and five different pits being operated concurrently.

“You’ve got big mining fleets in each pit. There are excavators, graders, bulldozers, dump trucks, water trucks, drilling equipment, and blasts.”

Blasting is only allowed during daytime, but the amount authorised has increased, and blasting happens even when wind conditions should preclude it.

During blasting a haze of toxic smoke shrouds the area, stretching across towards Wollar, and shocked kangaroos race across the landscape to escape the fumes. If the extension is approved, the blast clouds will reach the village.

The number of coal trains is also increasing all the time.

“They predict wrongly,” Smiles said, “as they have done for the past ten years, that none of us will be impacted, whereas we are all being kept awake now with the current operation.

“We know that, when it moves into this next area, it’s going to be worse for us, particularly in winter, because noise carries further when the weather is very cold.”

Smiles says that when there is what is called a “temperature inversion”, and there are frosts and fog, noise carries a very long way and there is no other background noise to mask the noise of the mine. And, during blastings, people’s whole houses shake, and things fall off the walls.

She says the industrial noise policy in New South Wales doesn’t protect remote rural communities. “The decibels we are getting are below the required level to trigger them having to do something about it.

“They’ve got separate assessments for train noise, traffic noise, and mine noise, and they don’t add them up. It’s not a cumulative noise assessment. Because they know if they did add them all up, they’d have the real story about the noise.”

The noise from the trains is as annoying as the noise from the mine, Smiles says. “We’ve now got three mines with approval to produce, between them, more than fifty million tons of coal a year. That’s a lot of trains.”

Hughes is particularly disturbed by low-frequency noise. “It’s a hum; a vibration. It wakes me at night-time and then, once I’m awake, I actually hear it then, even more so.

“The general noise is below what they’re allowed to emit, but the low-frequency noise has never been tested.”

Hughes says he is seriously affected “nervously and mentally” by noise and other impacts. He has been diagnosed with early Parkinson’s disease.

“The last few years, life’s been a living hell dealing with what’s been happening with this mine, I think that could have triggered it.”

Smiles says she has had high blood pressure since Wilpinjong began operating.

If Wilpinjong expands as proposed, the noise from the mine will be above acceptable limits in Wollar, Hughes says, and this is why people in the village have been given acquisition rights.

“But we have been given none, and the noise will be five or six decibels louder than it is now.”

Hughes points out that the noise policy comes from overseas studies in places like Denmark, and isn’t based on conditions in rural Australia.

His wife Denise says that, oddly, more mine noise is allowed at night-time than during the day.

Smiles says the low-frequency noise “rattles around in your brain”. It wakes her at night, she says.

“You can be in a deep sleep and suddenly you’ll find yourself awake and you’ll wonder why you are awake, then you realise there’s this rumbling going on in your head, which is this low-frequency noise.”

Low-frequency, or C-weighted, noise travels much further than higher frequency, or A-weighted, noise. The A-weighted noise attenuates more quickly and it can mask the lower frequency noise.

“Because remote rural areas are very quiet, there’s nothing there to mask the low-frequency noise,” Smiles said.

“Peabody says the low-frequency noise is not an issue with their mine, but the assessment studies were inappropriate and insufficient.”

Smiles talks about one woman in Wollar, Kate Batey, who suffered from neuralgia. “The low-frequency noise was just so painful for her. It was sending her insane, the pain, so in the end they just had to get out.”

Sharyn Munro tells the story of Kate Batey and her husband Lance in in her book “Rich Land, Wasteland; How coal is killing Australia”. Ironically, the couple moved to Wollar seeking peace and quiet. As soon as the Wilpinjong mine was proposed, they had concerns, Munro writes.

Munro tells how Lance Batey had his tank water analysed just five months after Wilponjong started operating. “Articles about the lead content appeared the next day and suddenly the school kids were supplied with bottled water.” The water was also polluted with volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Munro writes about the serious effect of infrasound/low-frequency noise (ILFN) on the Bateys. Kate was rushed to hospital in 2007 with a suspected heart attack. She had extremely high blood pressure and a very low pulse rate. “She had to go away somewhere every few weeks to get some respite.”

After protracted negotiations, the Bateys sold to Peabody, Munro writes, and left for separate destinations.

Another of the numerous troubling stories that Munro recounts is that of Meg and John Kattau, who used to live in the Cumbo Valley near Wollar, and became extremely ill because of ILFN.

“They had fought for three years, but had been so consistently denied, baulked and now beaten down by Peabody that they could fight no more,” Munro writes. “They accepted $400,000, and after fourteen years left Cumbo … At 71 and 81 they couldn’t start again, and were unable to afford to buy in Mudgee or nearby.”

 

Smiles also talks of marriages breaking up because of the pressure people are under.

“We’ve seen people end up on their knees just accepting a pittance for their homes because they could not stand being in Wollar any longer.

“There has been a huge amount of bullying from Peabody. They wait until they know people are close to breaking point, then they’ll turn up with a final offer and tell them they have 24 hours to accept it or it’s off the table.

“People’s lives have been ruined by this project. They have had to leave Wollar under duress.

“One of the things that annoys me the most is that the government just distances itself from all this, and leaves us there, and it’s just between us and Peabody Energy.”

At exploration stage, mining companies rapidly identify the people in a locality who are likely to support the project, Smiles says. “Those people get the best deal, and then stand up in public meetings and say how great the company is.

“The companies also hire a community liaison person, whose role is to get into the community, understand it, and then divide it, and they do this quite effectively, fairly quickly.”

The government should recognise all of the social impacts that have occurred as a result of the Wilpinjong mine, Smiles says.

“They should recognise the effect on those of us who are left, who are basically stranded. We are not going to be able to sell our places on the open market to anybody. We no longer have a functioning community, which is what attracts people to a place.”

Wollar has lost most of the services that were provided at the general store and no longer has a local mechanic.

“The shop used to have basic produce like stock feed, hardware, building supplies, and groceries,” Smiles said. “There was a bottle shop and you could pick up your mail. The family that ran the shop was an integral part of our community. Once they left, all of those services left with them.

“We used to get a five-day-a-week mail service at the store, but now it’s down to two. Some of us in outlying areas still get mail delivered to our roadside mail boxes two days a week; it used to be three.”

Wollar’s volunteer bushfire brigade was closed down because there were no longer enough volunteers, and it was amalgamated into another brigade that is more than forty kilometres away from Wollar.

Smiles talks about the community activities that used to enliven Wollar before the Wilpinjong mine went into operation. “We had a very active community. We had sporting associations so there was a cricket team, and we’ve got a fabulous community hall, but all the regular activities that we had as a functioning community, like dances and concerts and fairs, they have all gone.”

With only four people left in the town, and other volunteers living outside of Wollar, it is very difficult to maintain the community infrastructure, and too little support to make community activities viable.

“We’re displaced in our own homes now,” Smiles said. “It’s a quite critical social impact that’s just not being recognised. We’ve lost our social structure and are at a huge economic disadvantage.”

 

In an opinion piece in the Newcastle Herald, senior lecturer in anthropology at The University of Newcastle, Hedda Haugen Askland, writes: “The depopulation and resettlement of the community have happened without any proper planning.”

While there has been a rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment for the project, the issues of property acquisition, resettlement, and displacement have never been adequately addressed, Askland says.

“This breaks with the primary underlying assumption of international safeguard standards, which states that risks associated with displacement and resettlement should be predicted and mitigated.”

The disaster that has struck Wollar residents has been slow and the disruption, dissonance, and distress they are experiencing are almost indiscernible to those living beyond the border of the village, Askland writes. “They have become invisibly displaced.”

In a paper published in Australasian Psychiatry in 2007, Glen Albrecht from the University of Newcastle writes about “Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change”.

Solastalgia, Albrecht says, is a new concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress.

“Solastalgia,” he writes, “is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.”

Albrecht’s paper focuses on two contexts: the experiences of persistent drought in rural NSW and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley.

“In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process,” he writes.

Many of the people in Wollar who were bought out didn’t actually want to leave, Smiles says, but they had reached the end of their tether and accepted whatever money they could get.

“Part of the buyout contract is that you will never speak against the project in public; that you won’t complain, or write objections, or go to the media. It’s a gag clause.”

Hughes says local residents have been left high and dry. “We’ve been completely forgotten. We’ve lost everything we had in Wollar. This is my last desperate ditch attempt to prove to the government and the local council that Wollar still exists.

“My property is a stranded, worthless asset. If I had to move on, I would never get the money that I would want for it.”

The few Wollar locals who remain now have to drive to and from Mudgee for day-to-day business that they used to be able to do in the village, and it is a 70-kilometre trip each way.

Hughes said: “If something breaks down at home and I can’t fix it, I have to drive to Mudgee to buy the part. When Wollar was a community, I could just go to the shop. If they didn’t have what I wanted, they would get it in for me so I wouldn’t have to go to town to get it.”

The fire brigade that’s taken over the Wollar district is at least one hour and three train crossings away from Hughes’ home.

Smiles says there used to be a regular monthly medical service. A nurse would be available at the community hall, and she also did home visits.

“There aren’t enough people now, so that’s been canned. And the possible closure of the school means that no-one with a family would be attracted to move to the area. There are only a couple of families with children in the area now.”

There also used to be a weekly veterinary service in Wollar, and fuel trucks used to do deliveries. “There are not enough properties now for the fuel trucks to come out to deliver,” Smiles said.

“There are a whole heap of major economic disadvantages that are just not being recognised by any of the decision makers.”

Wollar used to be self-sufficient for its entertainment, Hughes says. “When we first moved here, it was a very rough dirt road to Wollar. So we had to entertain ourselves. I’m living on the edge of society and I’ve always looked on Wollar as my life line. It’s gone for me now.”

Hughes is a member of the Community Consultative Committee, which he says is another “tick-the-box” government requirement. “Every three months, the mine management is obliged to have a meeting with community members.”

He talks of the powerlessness and frustration he feels in face of the mine management. “I come home from those Triple C meetings cranky and wound up and that’s not the person I was before.”

Smiles says all those living in the vicinity of the Wilpinjong mine should be given acquisition rights so that they then have control over their futures again.

Hughes says that, even if the couple don’t manage to get acquisition rights, if the noise gets too bad they will keep their property, but will have to find somewhere else to live.

He says it’s heart-breaking to see what the government has allowed Peabody to do in such a short period of time.

“They’ve just swept through and destroyed our community. It’s a crying shame.”

Another major impact that Peabody predicted wouldn’t be a problem for local residents is spontaneous combustion.

Reject coal is put into “overburden piles” and, when it rains, the combination of oxygen and water causes the coal to start burning spontaneously.

“We had these major spontaneous combustion events where entire stockpiles of coal waiting to go through the coal handling plant caught on fire,” Smiles said.

Raw burning coal gives off sulphur dioxide, which has the smell of rotten eggs.

“An absolutely nauseating stench was permeating all the houses in the village. It was obnoxious; totally obnoxious,” Smiles added.

“The original assessment said spontaneous combustion wouldn’t be a problem with this coal and the exact opposite happened. They’re now having to manage their stockpiles and they’ve been using a drone that picks up hotspots around the mine.”

Peabody did air-quality monitoring in Wollar, Smiles says. “The report indicated that the levels of pollutants in the air were below Australia’s limits, but it was the company that paid for the report. Meanwhile, kids were vomiting, getting headaches, and being woken up at night.”

Destroying cultural heritage

Peabody vaunts the Native Title Agreement that it has signed with a group of Aboriginal people and says it “includes the establishment and joint administration of a business trust for Native Title claimants”.

However, the group that has just registered a native title claim that covers the new Wilpinjong extension has already registered eight other claims, and the claims always match up with mining and exploration leases.

The current claim also covers the proposed Bylong site, and the site for a proposed silver mine at Lue.

The chairwoman of the Mudgee Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC), Aleshia Lonsdale, says that, even when a group’s title claims get rejected because they can’t demonstrate that they have maintained native title, any deals they have made in the period prior to the claim getting thrown out still stand.

All this, Lonsdale says, has disempowered the local community and caused division within it. When the land council challenges or questions Peabody about mine issues, it is simply told that the native title group has given its agreement.

“Money has gone to individual claimants,” Lonsdale says, “but there has been no benefit for the general community; the people who actually live here and have the cultural knowledge.

“Some people wouldn’t take anything from the mine; they see it as blood money, and they wouldn’t want to work out there. But there’s not even been the opportunity for that to be put to people.”

Aleshia Lonsdale

Lonsdale says that, even with regard to the Aboriginal sites that are recorded and the information that is then put into reports, the land council has no control.

“We have people out there recording sites and some people might give cultural information, but, at the end of the day, it’s a non-Aboriginal archaeologist, who is employed by the mine, who writes the report; who determines whether something is of low or high significance.

“Our cultural perspectives and heritage are not considered to be as significant as the economic or scientific value of a place, or what is there.

“They always seem to override our opinions or our values.”

Lonsdale says that when mine managements talk about habitat rehabilitation, they talk about “making it the same as it was before”. This can’t be done, she says.

“You can do all your rehabilitation, and plant all your trees and place all your rocks, but it’s not the same.

“In the case of our cultural heritage, you might give us the opportunity to collect those artefacts or those scarred trees1 and put them in a keeping place under lock and key that we have to get permission to visit.

“But you can’t teach our kids. You can take them out bush and show them something in its place and show them the place. Taking them to a shed and showing them the same thing in a plastic bag; it’s not the same thing. The mine managements don’t understand that.”

The area around Mudgee – which is Wiradjuri land – is a very significant area because it’s on the edge of a trade route.

“There are a lot of cultural and ceremonial resource places along there that are really important,” Lonsdale said. “They just don’t realise what they’re destroying; things that have been there for thousands of years.

“The families that have gone out to Wilpinjong for generations can no longer go there and access sites. There are families that would go there every year for cultural, ceremonial reasons and now they can’t access those places.

“Once this extension goes ahead those places won’t exist anymore. The next generations won’t have that experience or that opportunity to be able to learn from those places, because they’ll be gone.”

People get angry, depressed, and unwell because of the loss of their cultural heritage, Lonsdale says.

“Some people have got spirit sick because of sites being destroyed; people can get physically sick because they can’t access a place and can’t take care of their cultural obligations and responsibilities.”

It’s frustrating and upsetting for Lonsdale to hear members of the local business community talking about economic benefits in a way that places that above cultural, social, and community values.

Sometimes people in the wider community think the land council has more power than it does, she says. “They don’t realise we’ve probably got less power than someone like Bev or Bruce.

“We respond to the things the mining company sends us, but, at the end of the day, we have no control over what they do.

“I’m 37 and I’ve been watching this happen at these different coal mines since I was a kid. When I was a kid I used to think ‘why can’t they just stop it; why can’t they understand how important it is?’

“When you actually then get into dealing with the mines, you realise that we don’t have any control. We’re just as disenfranchised as the residents who live there.”

Company archaeologists just look at the bones and stones, and base their scientific assessment on that, Lonsdale says.

“They don’t take into consideration what is intangible, or the whole cultural landscape. It’s just about the artefacts.

“You can chop down a scarred tree and put it in a keeping place, but it doesn’t have the same significance; it’s not on country, in its place.”

Lonsdale says there are occasions when the land council staff will simply not participate in removing artefacts.

“There are axe grinding grooves that they wanted to cut out of the rock and place in the garden at the mining complex. We refused to send our staff to do that; it’s not a culturally safe activity or environment for them to be involved in.”

Typical axe-grinding grooves, located on a sandstone outcrop.

Tourism is the biggest industry in the Mudgee area, Lonsdale says, not mining. “We’re just a few hours’ drive from Sydney, in a prime position for cultural tourism. There are a wide variety of Aboriginal cultural heritage sites here.

“They think the mines are the ‘get rich quick; make our town prosperous’ solution. What happens when the coal’s gone and they move on? What are you going to be left with? Working with the community on cultural tourism would be sustainable in the long term and would benefit more people than just those working at the mine.”

Lonsdale says there are Aboriginal people in the Mudgee area who are so disillusioned that they will no longer engage in the native title process. “They think the process has been tainted and sullied, and has that reputation of being dodgy, and they wouldn’t want to be part of that.

“Where native title is legitimate and people do have that, you should support them, but there needs to be a stronger test.

“If your claim gets rejected because you can’t demonstrate its validity, the agreements that you made shouldn’t stand.”

In its own executive summary about the new extension, Peabody states that a total of 293 tangible Aboriginal heritage sites are located within and around the mining area.

In addition, members of the registered Aboriginal parties identified three key cultural areas.

According to Peabody, “no registered historical sites of state significance are listed within, or adjacent to, the project open-cut extension and infrastructure areas”.

It accepts, however, that four sites of “local historical heritage significance” were documented as having some potential to be impacted by the mine.

The Drip and other significant sites

The community campaigners, who were supported by local National Party MP Andrew Gee, have succeeded in protecting one important local site, a groundwater-dependent ecosystem on the Goulburn River that is known as The Drip. The sandstone cliff, dripping with groundwater, stretches for about a kilometre.

The management of the Moolarben mine had wanted to do longwall mining2 right up to the edge of The Drip, but they will now only be able to mine up to eighty metres from the edge.

The campaigners wanted the mining to be stepped back by at least a kilometre, Smiles says, but they did succeed in getting The Drip into the national park.

“National Parks now have management of that land, but we didn’t succeed in getting national park protection for the groundwater system that feeds The Drip. That’s another battle we’ve still got on our plate. And we still have to save the river and The Drip from more mining to the north.”

The Drip. Photo courtesy of Rivers SOS.

The Drip’s groundwater has been designated as a conservation area, which means that there can still be mining activity in and around it.

“The next stage of the campaign is to get that area lifted up to National Park status,” Smiles said.

The Mudgee District Environment Group, which works closely with the Aboriginal land council, had hoped that an entire cultural reserve area could have been created that included a ridge line that has been declared a conservation area, the Aboriginal Hands on Rock site, which is part of a women’s songline3, and The Drip, but the government rejected the proposal.

The Hands on Rock site has deteriorated, Smiles says. “It is nowhere near as vibrant as was forty years ago.

“And the mining companies are still being given approval to destroy arts sites. Peabody have been allowed to destroy an arts site and an ochre quarry, which are nationally significant places.

“Some of the people working in the government are arguing that this shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but the Department of Planning is just bulldozing these officers into changing their written reports so that there’s agreement that this damage be done.”

Longwall mining is currently the main method of underground coal mining in Australia. All of the coal from the longwall face is removed, and the roof and overlying rock are allowed to collapse into the void that is left behind.

The system is devastating for the brittle sandstone ridgelines and clifflines above the coal seams.

“There are really significant clifflines in this area,” Smiles said. “There are biodiverse habitats and cultural heritage areas that are collapsing as part of this subsidence. When the sandstone subsides, it just all falls to pieces.

“This whole landscape is being sacrificed for what’s being taken out from underneath it. And it’s on a huge scale.”

The Moolarben mine is operated by Yancoal, which is 78 percent owned by the Yanzhou coal mining company in China. Yancoal operates five mines and manages five others across New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia.

Smiles describes Yancoal as the “real wild card” in the industry. “It’s very hard to tell what they might do. They have become an aggressive purchaser of mines in the Hunter region.

“The falling price of coal will hopefully be the thing that saves us in the end.”

Moolarben mine.

Rehabilitation

The environment group has had a degree of success in its battle to get the Ulan coal mining company, which has been operating in the Hunter Valley since the mid-1980s, to rehabilitate the Goulburn River.

Ulan Coal Mines Ltd’s operations are owned and/or managed by the Australian company Glencore. Ulan was open-cut, but is now mostly underground.

Smiles says that when Ulan Coal began its operations, the mine was small. “There were impacts, but, from a regional perspective, everyone coped with living with that mine. But then it got approval to double its size.”

The company was allowed to divert three kilometres of the Goulburn River, which is the main westerly tributary of the Hunter river system, and the environment group ran a major campaign, pushing for the river to be rehabilitated.

“One of the conditions when they were given approval to double their production was that they had to rehabilitate the river diversion,” Smiles said. “They are now having to invest in rehabilitating and battering back. There were mine rejects falling into the river and the diversion was eroding backwards. The sides of the river were collapsing.

“In under the backfilled4 open-cut, there’s a toxic jelly that is leaching into the river and into groundwater systems.”

The environment group says that comprehensive groundwater investigations by the management of the Ulan Coal Mine in 2008 indicated that mine subsidence was cracking the overlying strata and draining upper aquifers.

The water being pumped from the mine was creating a regional drawdown, effectively diverting natural flows of underground water that normally provided the base flow to the Goulburn River.

Ulan Coal now have to replace the lost base flows to the river, Smiles says, and, in their biodiversity offsetting, they have had to create better corridors across the landscape.

In the case of Wilpinjong, Smiles says, the assessment for the original mine was done in 2004, which was the driest year on record in the area. “They predicted that the mine would need water and got approval to set up 19 bores along the creek.

“What’s happened instead is that we’ve had some really big rainfall events and the whole mine has filled up with water. They ended up having to get a discharge licence to put water into the creek, not take it out.”

Mine water has to be treated before it is discharged into the creek.

“It’s the total opposite of what the original assessment predicted for this mine,” Smiles said. “The creek has lost a percentage of its base flow, so, in dry times, it’s drier for longer than it would naturally have been.

“The whole nature of the way this creek system functions has been changed.”

Endangered habitat

The location of Wollar and its surroundings, at the western end of the Hunter Valley, is ecologically important. The area is the most westerly edge of several geographical and biophysical areas, including the Sydney sandstone basin.

“We are at the crossroads of four different bioregions,” Smiles said, “so this is a very important crossover area in terms of its biodiversity.

“This is also one of the lowest parts of the Great Dividing Range and the Goulburn River was a main trading route from the coast into inland Australia and all the way up to the Northern Territories.”

Smiles points to the threat the mine extension poses to wildlife; not only to koalas, but also to the already endangered bird, the regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia).

The regent honeyeater. Photo by Jessica Bonsell.

“Every mine in this area has had approval to remove critically endangered habitat for this species, and conditions for mitigating this are getting worse and worse and worse,” Smiles said.

“They are now funding breeding in captivity. They are releasing birds into the wild at the same time as they’re removing their habitat. It’s total madness.

“The whole ecosystem – the ecological community – in the area is critically endangered.”

One particular ecosystem that the mining companies say they will rehabilitate in the Hunter Valley has evolved on thousand-year-old windblown sands and perched aquifer systems that are being open-cut to access the coal sitting underneath.

“You’re not going to get that ecosystem growing back on rehabilitated mine land,” Smiles said. 

“And all of the species, particularly threatened species, that are dependent on that ecosystem because of the food sources it supplies; it cannot be guaranteed that they’ll get that same set of food sources back in twenty or thirty years’ time.”

Smiles says that Peabody has reneged on 2.7 billion US$ worth of rehabilitation liabilities in the US so she is concerned about what might happen in Australia.

Holding out in Wollar

Colin Faulkner is one of the four remaining people in Wollar. If the new extension goes ahead, he says, he’ll no doubt complain about the noise and the dust, but he won’t sell.

Faulkner says he can’t drink the rainwater in Wollar anymore. “There’s black dust up there in my gutters.”

He says he doesn’t hear the noise from the mine all the time. “Some mornings you can, mainly when it’s frosty, and they have training on Sunday mornings and that can be noisier than usual. You can hear the rocks being dropped into the dump trucks, and the rattle of the bulldozer tracks.”

The impact for Faulkner is more social. “There’s no liquor licence at the shop and you’ve got to go to the pub 22 kilometres away to get a beer, unless you bring it home when you go shopping in Mudgee.”

Previously, people used to drop in to his house regularly with a six-pack of beer, and he misses the social conversation.

“We used to have community meetings over at the fire shed on a Friday afternoon, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Faulkner also mentions the spontaneous combustion.

“First thing of a morning, when you wake up, it just turns your stomach; it’s worse than a sulphur smell. It comes and goes, but when it comes, it usually sticks around for a couple of weeks. And there’s the smell of diesel fumes.

“They had one stockpile out there burning from spontaneous combustion and it took them eight years before they finally flattened that hill and processed the burning coal. There were flare-ups every couple of months, or after it rained.”

Faulkner, who is 65, also misses the barter system that villagers had in place; people would exchange vegetables and other food and help each other with building work.

But he remains invested in his life in Wollar and is building a mud brick house at the back of his property. He talks about the trees he has planted, the swimming hole down at the creek, and the good beetroot and spinach that grows on the salty soil.

The new legislation, he says, is just the MPs “bending over backwards for the miners”.

“I’m going to persevere and look after the infrastructure around Wollar and hopefully the mine will go away one day and we’ll have another village again.”

Smiles’ sister, Alison Smiles-Schmidt, works in the Wollar nursery, which has been bought by Peabody and will move to Mudgee.

She says that she gets harassed by mine employees. “They are kind of sent in undercover because I’m under the gag clause.

“Under the original gag clause, I wasn’t allowed to say anything derogatory about the mine 24/7. We got that changed to refer to just working hours. So I can only speak to people about the mine outside of the nursery.”

Smiles-Schmidt has also been left with a stranded asset.

“The land around us is owned by Wilpinjong so we’re totally surrounded by them. We’re just a little dot in the middle and who would want to buy that?”

Bylong

The Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) is proposing to build an open-cut and underground coal mine at Bylong, northeast of Mudgee.

Approval has not yet been given, but the company has already bought up most of the properties in the village and most of the gates, including the one to the local church, are chained and have security signs on them.

KEPCO has bought up more than 13,000 hectares of Bylong Valley land since 2010 and imposed gag clauses as part of the purchase contracts.

The corporation’s acquisitions include Bylong Public School, the Tarwyn Park stud and natural sequence farm, and the village’s general store.

The corporation is, however, being investigated by the NSW resources regulator.

There have been serious international fraud and corruption allegations against the company and the NSW regulator is investigating whether KEPCO is fit and proper to hold a NSW mining licence.

In 2013, there was a major investigation in Korea into alleged widespread corruption and bribery in KEPCO’s nuclear power supply chain.

More than one hundred people were charged and power stations were closed down because of concerns about safety.

In 2015, American regulators probed kickbacks paid by US companies to KEPCO officials.

In NSW, KEPCO has been accused of providing false or misleading information about local property in a drilling application. The NSW government dropped the case and demanded only an “enforceable undertaking” from KEPCO. This meant the company was not taken to court, and avoided a possible AUD 110,000 fine.

In its report about the KEPCO proposal, published in July this year, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission said there was “uncertainty and incomplete information” about the risks and benefits of the project.

The commission concluded that, “for a greenfield proposal in a location recognised for its agricultural capacity, exceptional scenic value and heritage importance, caution and great care will be required in weighing the benefits and costs of the project.”

It said there was “insufficient evidence” that the mine needed to be an open-cut operation.

KEPCO’s cost-benefit arguments “lack the rigour and transparency” needed to evaluate them, the PAC added.

The commission also said that noise and traffic impacts, and impacts on air quality needed to be clarified, and the effect on Aboriginal cultural heritage alo needed investigating.

It found that the groundwater assessment highlighted “persistent uncertainty about the availability of water resources for the project, and for agriculture and other land uses”.

It also said there was uncertainty about the agricultural mitigation strategies, particularly in relation to the restoration of disturbed land to sustainable agricultural uses, and the provision of make-up water to potentially affected properties.

The commission found that the landscape of the valley would be substantially and permanently altered and the proposed landscape treatments would be “at best, long term in their execution”, with few examples of successful implementation elsewhere.

It also said there was potential for greater heritage significance than previously assessed for the Tarwyn Park and Iron Tank properties.

If approved, the Bylong Coal Project would extract about 110 million tons of coal over a 23-year operating period.

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment has received more than 380 submissions about Bylong. Locals are concerned about noise disturbance, impacts on water, and heritage impacts.

KEPCO responded to the submissions and revised its commitments, which include plans to bolster its Farm Management Plan to ensure agricultural land is rehabilitated.

It has also proposed expanding its monitoring of groundwater impacts on neighbouring properties.

The company has also defended the methodologies used to determine land value after several groups argued that the Environmental Impact Statement understated the area’s agricultural value.

It was originally predicted that the Bylong mine would create 800 jobs during the peak construction period, but the company has now revised the figure to 665.

“All the traffic from Bylong is going to come through Wollar,” Bruce Hughes said. “And it will go through the Munghorn Gap Nature Reserve. That’s the road we have to use to go to Mudgee.

“When the Wilpinjong mine traffic had to divert to that road because of a highwall collapse at Moolarben mine, it was a living hell, there was so much traffic. In addition to the cars, you had fuel trucks and cranes. That was for six weeks so imagine what that road’s going to be like if the Bylong mine goes ahead.”

In June 2015, a highwall at the Moolarben coal mine failed. A section measuring 160 metres by 55 metres collapsed and a large part of it fell into the pit, bringing it to within 12 metres of a public road.

Smiles says that when initial mine construction was going on at Ulan, the road between Mudgee and Ulan had more traffic on it than the Brisbane-to-Melbourne highway. “The road fell to pieces. People were getting killed in accidents. The traffic assessment reports failed to deal with the cumulative impacts.

“What’s going on in my community is the perfect example of a lack of ability to look at cumulative and social impacts.”

The story that was told to people in Wollar by Peabody is now being told by KEPCO to those living around the proposed Bylong mine, Smiles says.

“They’ve got people in Kandos believing that the Bylong mine is going to be the saviour of their town.”

Corruption and revolving doors

Smiles points to the “revolving door” that exists between government bureaucracy and the mining industry, and other extractive industries in Australia.

“They just feed off each other and move from one arena into the other. Retired politicians are now on the board of directors of mining companies, and former government bureaucrats are paid employees in mining companies.”

The project officer who was working for the NSW Department of Planning while the assessment and approval of Moolarben Mine was happening, Michael Moore, is now working for Yancoal.

The experts who review mine assessments are not independent, Smiles says. “The government has a couple of pet experts who sometimes work for the government and sometimes work for mining companies. They never give a truly independent critique.”

In September 2016, former NSW Labour politician Eddie Obeid, who was found to have acted dishonestly in a Hunter Valley coal mine deal that netted the Obeid family AUD 30 million, lost his Supreme Court case against the finding.

The court upheld the finding of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in 2013 that Eddie Obeid and fellow minister Ian MacDonald engaged in corrupt conduct in a deal involving a coal mining exploration licence on land owned by the Obeids at Mont Penny in the Bylong Valley.

The commission also found that Obeid’s son, Moses, acted corruptly.

Eddie and Moses Obeid and Ian Macdonald have been charged with conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office in relation to the deal.

Eddie Obeid and three of his five sons, Moses, Paul and Edward Jr, sued for damages in a civil action against the ICAC and others, but lost their case.

Obeid was jailed in December last year for a maximum of five years for lobbying a senior bureaucrat about his family’s secret business interests at Circular Quay in Sydney.

Macdonald was jailed in June this year for a maximum of ten years for giving a coal exploration licence to a company linked to a political associate.

On September 13, five judges siting at the Court of Criminal Appeal, which is the highest court in NSW, rejected Obeid’s appeal against his conviction and sentence for criminal misconduct.

A “toxic legacy”

A report by the research organisation Energy and Resource Insights, released in June last year, provides an audit of coal pits that will remain unfilled across NSW.

The report’s author, Adam Walters, says that, in the past five years, 36 open-cut coal mines have been in operation in NSW, 16 of which are located in the Hunter Valley.

In Australia, when mines cease production, their owners are not required to fill in the pit that remains. These “final voids”, Walters says, may be hundreds of metres deep and kilometres in length, and their impact and scale is poorly understood.

A total of 45 final voids covering 6,050 hectares have been identified as either planned or approved for NSW coal mines. Walters states. This, he says, is a total area that is greater than all of Sydney Harbour, and is a conservative estimate.

Walters talks about “the legacy of toxic final voids”.

He writes: “Modern coal mines have pits that may extend 150 metres or more below the natural water table. This means water impacts are a key issue with final voids. In most cases, lakes will form in the voids.

“These will draw down local groundwater and take significant periods of time to fill with water, often centuries. Water quality in these final void lakes is typically poor and will worsen over time. These lakes will become increasingly saline.”

Walters says a scientific study estimated that, after a period of 500 years, one large void in the Hunter Valley may contain about one million tons of salt.

Legal challenges

The Wollar Progress Association, which is spearheading the Wollar Three’s defence and a campaign to raise money for a fighting fund, filed for a judicial review5 of the Wilpinjong approval in the New South Wales (NSW) Land and Environment Court on August 14. At the first directions hearing, held on September 15, hearing dates in the NSW Land and Environment Court were set for February 8, 9 and 12, 2018.

The association, represented by the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, is challenging the decision by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission to allow the extension of the Wilpinjong mine.

The progress association is arguing that the approval of the extension is invalid because, among other things, the PAC hasn’t considered climate change impacts.

The NSW government introduced a State Environmental Planning Policy in 2007 that requires decision makers to consider the greenhouse emissions of mines, including downstream emissions.

Under its 2016 Climate Change Policy Framework, NSW currently has a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The progress association says that, in light of government objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the PAC should have considered emissions from Wilpinjong coal burning.

The association is also arguing that the approval is invalid on other grounds: that the PAC was not properly constituted in accordance with legal requirements, that it did not undertake a proper assessment of the impacts on biodiversity, and that the Wilpinjong mine will clear endangered ecological communities.

The group says it will continue to fight against the mine expansion. “We are also going to defend our right to take non-violent direct action. When the planning system fails, when profits are put before people, what choice do we have?”

NSW’s new legislation is aimed at frightening and silencing people who wish to protest, the association says.

Smiles lays blame on the NSW government for the decisions it has taken about Wilpinjong over the past ten years, and its acceptance of all the poor assessments that have been done. “It’s the government that has caused the outcomes.”

In the battle against the ravages of coal mining in Australia campaign and media focus has been on the Adani coal mining project in Queensland. This is understandable, and the anti-Adani campaign is vital, Smiles says, but she points out that the increase in coal mining in the Hunter region over the past few years is equal to the scale of the Adani project.

Goldman prize winner

One of the best known campaigners against coal mining in the Hunter Valley is Wendy Bowman, who earlier this year won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which honours grassroots environmental heroes.

Bowman, who is in her eighties, was a key plaintiff in a public interest lawsuit against the proposed extension of the Ashton open-cut mine, operated by Yancoal, which would have brought mining operations onto Bowman’s grazing lands and the banks of one of the Hunter River’s most important tributaries.

Bowman’s refusal to sell to Yancoal was a significant factor in the case.

In December 2014, the Land and Environment Court ruled that the Ashton expansion could proceed, but only if Yancoal could get Bowman to sell them her land.

It was the first time an Australian court placed this kind of restriction on a mining company. The New South Wales Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, effectively stopping the mine expansion in its tracks.

Bowman refused offers of millions from Yancoal. She continues to be an advocate for the community’s health and environment, and has worked with the local health department to place air monitors near coal mines.

She has also recently installed solar panels on her property, and envisions an future in which the Hunter Valley is powered by its abundant sun and wind.

Nearly two-thirds of the Hunter Valley floor has been given over to coal concessions. There are now more than thirty coal mining operation sites in the valley, including 22 open-cut and 17 underground mines (eight sites have both), and five coal-fired power stations. These mines currently produce about 160 million tons of coal per year.

A survey by a local physician, Dr Tan Au, indicates that one in five children in the Hunter Valley have lost about 20 percent of their lung capacity; asthma, heart disease, cancer, and mental health problems are on the rise.

“Coal is dead”

The mining industry, Smiles says, is not prepared to acknowledge that it has had its day and it’s time to move on. “Coal mining makes no real economic sense anymore. We’re going to have stranded assets everywhere.

“We have the technical ability to move on from fossil fuels, but the industry itself is not yet prepared to let go, and it has still managed to capture the key power players, particularly in Australia.

“The industry’s key political champions are just blindsided by the companies and are being completely irrational.”

The global head of the infrastructure investment group at the US company Blackrock, Jim Barry, told the Australian Financial Review in May this year that he believed that any new investments in the fossil fuel industry were pointless and bad business.

Barry (pictured left) told the review that Australia was “denying gravity” by continuing to encourage coal investments because renewable energy was now competing “head to head” with coal on cost.

“Coal is dead,” Barry said. “That’s not to say all the coal plants are going to shut tomorrow. But anyone who’s looking to take beyond a ten-year view on coal is gambling very significantly.”

Barry, who is based in Ireland, also pointed to the negative environmental impacts of coal mining.

He said no board directors in the US would make a thirty-year commitment to coal.

Smiles says the coal industry is now moving into much more remote areas. “We’ve seen the march of the industry further up the Hunter Valley and further into the northwest. They’re going for coal seams now that they’ve never accessed before.”

Hughes says it’s ironic that he’s been arrested protesting out in front of a coal mine that provides coal-fired electricity to people and it’s been more than forty years since he’s had coal-fired electricity anywhere near his home.

“I’m not a criminal, but I could end up being a criminal for standing up for my home; for my rights.”

  1. Scarred trees are trees that have had bark removed for the creation of canoes, shelters, shields, and containers.
  2. Longwall mining is a mechanised underground technique in which a long wall of coal is extracted in a single block. The machines used consist of multiple coal shearers mounted on a series of self-advancing hydraulic ceiling supports. The mined panels are typically three to four kilometres long.  As coal is excavated, the weight of the overlying ground originally supported by the coal is then only held up by the remaining pillars or walls. The mine void walls compress and the overlying rock cracks and tilts into the void. In longwall mines, the rock immediately above the void typically collapses into the void as mining progresses.
  3. Songlines are the Creation story lines that cross Australia and put all geographical and sacred sites into place in Aboriginal culture.
  4. Backfill is mine waste or rock used to support the roof after coal removal. 
  5. A judicial review can only contest the process of the decision to approve the mine.

Campaign to Save Wollar

Changing Times has asked Peabody for a response to several of the issues raised in this article and is still waiting for a reply.