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BY BIANCA BIRDSALL
A David and Goliath battle is raging in the Liverpool Plains as the rural community of Caroona continues to confront BHP Billiton in a struggle to protect their property and way of life. 

The Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG) is concerned that exploratory drilling and subsequent mining will damage the underground aquifers and reduce the productivity of the vital agricultural industry.  The CCAG has called for an independent catchment-wide water study, a claim recently supported by the Natural Resources Commissioner on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.
 
Caroona, located in North West New South Wales an hour south of Tamworth, includes some of the most fertile land in Australia, and is considered the food bowl of NSW. The SOS LP (Liverpool Plains), a group associated with the CCAG, is holding a forum on Wednesday July 16 at the Quirindi RSL to raise awareness and promote debate about the issue.
 
A five-year coal exploration license was awarded to Coal Mines Australia P/L, a 100 per cent owned subsidiary of BHP Billiton, in April 2006 at a cost of $100 million.  In earlier studies, the 344 square kilometre area was shown to contain up to 500 million tonnes of coal, more than twice the current yearly average Australian export total, and worth almost $50 billion at current prices.
 
To overcome initial community opposition, BHP established the Caroona Coal Project Community Fund, donating $5 million over five years towards local health care and skills development for mining and non-mining sectors.  The company is also offering scholarships for Liverpool Plains and Gunnedah Shire youths beginning study in undergraduate mining-related degrees.
 
Previously, the Mining Act provided farmers with certain safeguards regarding mining company access to mineral rights.  In 2005 comprehensive changes were introduced that removed many of these protections.