September 20, 2013

Farmers vs Big Coal 2

Having heard much about the methods employed by big companies in addressing the concerns and rights of ordinary people trying to preserve their livelihoods in the face of large-scale resource development projects, I witnessed them first-hand yesterday. The landowners from the Galilee Basin came up against Hancock Coal's smooth operators in the form of Corporate Counsel with responsibility for negotiating make-good agreements and the company's lawyers in court.

I didn't get to the Land Court until after midday, and between then and the adjournment for lunch I didn't hear a single question of cross-examination by the landowners that wasn't objected to by Hancock's legal team. Most objections were sustained, of course, because the Galilee's graziers are not skilled at formal questioning without unintentional implication, and Hancock's men are adept at obstruction and obfuscation. It was soul-destroying to listen to the landowners struggling to make any headway with the negotiator in the witness box. He stated that their failure to reach a make-good agreement was because their demands 'exceeded the normal scope of the agreement'.

The inference that those who failed to reach agreement were being unreasonable was raised again. The grazier asked if those landowners who had reached make-good agreement with Hancock had signed confidentiality clauses, since information about those agreements might be helpful in resolving his own issues. I'm sure you can imagine how quickly the coal company's lawyer was on his feet with an objection to that one.

After lunch Hancock's hydrogeologist took the stand to discuss groundwater, this time in terms of numerical (computer) modelling*, especially in connection with the cumulative impact of several mines on water supply, and the continual monitoring of any drawdown**. Reference was made to different models, and several expert audit-reviews of those models, and the Joint Expert Conference that had produced the final hydrogeological report. The expert witness confirmed that the different models had not been combined. Adequate baseline data, and the generation of such data over time and relevant land area was again an issue. Federal approval of the Alpha mine is conditional upon the cumulative effects on groundwater of other mines being monitored, but there are four planned in this part of the Galilee Basin by different proponents using different modelling and at different stages of the approval process.

Hancock's expert witness expressed his confidence in the coal company's continual monitoring of bores once mining commences, another condition of approval. (My question is: who will monitor the monitoring?) He also outlined how water supply to the landowners would be made good should it be adversely affected by mining activity. New bores would draw on a deeper aquifer. He was confident there would be a deeper aquifer to tap.

As they say, the case continues...
* designed to predict what the affects of coal mining will be on groundwater
** the lowering of the level of an aquifer, in this case as a result of mining activity

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