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By Bianca Birdsall
More than 100 farming families have blocked access to Rossmar Park, near Caroona, since July 18, stopping mining giant BHP Billiton from gaining entry.

The blockade in south west New South Wales began when owner Tim Duddy blocked access with farming equipment, before BHP took him to court to force entry on August 7.

The Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) is calling for an independent catchment-wide environmental study to assess the impact of proposed long wall coal mining in the area.

The group has gained momentum in its fight against BHP Billiton. Since the blockade began, many politicians have joined local federal MP Tony Windsor, including State MP Peter Draper and federal Parkes MP Mark Coulton.

The area is a vital part of the Murray Darling system but Environment Minister Peter Garrett rejected Mr Windsor’s questions in Parliament last week, arguing it was a state issue. ‘It’s like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank,’ said Windsor.

At an SOS Liverpool Plains public meeting Dr Pauline Roberts said if the mine got the go ahead, 6.2 million litres of water per day would be extracted by BHP without payment. Roberts said the industry provides less than 1 per cent of the NSW GDP, and pays 7 per cent of income in royalties and tax, but ‘receives more than this from the Government in diesel rebates’.

Speaking in June, Parkes MP Mark Draper said it seemed clear the NSW Government was putting BHP’s economic wellbeing ahead of the very valid ecological concerns.

An interim report released by BHP in August concluded that areas for further exploration included land beneath the Doona State Forrest where coal could be ‘efficiently extracted by underground long wall mining’.

The NSW Government awarded BHP subsidiary Coal Mines Australia a coal exploration licence in April 2006 at a cost of $100 million. Previously, landowner rights were somewhat protected regarding mineral exploration, but the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 2005 now allows for significant critical infrastructure projects to fall under ministerial control.

This removes many former privileges of appeal, including the right to petition the Land and Environment Court. The new Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, has yet to comment on the issue.

Mr Coulton is throwing his support behind the farmers. ‘There is a very real fear that mining in the area could cause irreparable damage to the high quality underground alluvial aquifers, which not only provide a source of irrigation for the local farmers, but are also the main water supply for some 20,000 households in the region,’ he said.

Caroona, situated in the Liverpool Plains, produces one third of Australia’s grains and cereals. It continues to support crops, even during droughts, and is considered to be of worldwide agricultural significance.

Media reports last month claimed the State Government was considering another exploration licence for the Liverpool Plains.

China Shenhua Energy Company has reportedly bid $600 million for the rights.