Community activist Bev Smiles doesn’t view the international coal giant Peabody Energy as just a faceless mining corporation. She calls Peabody her personal nemesis.

For more than 30 years Bev has lived in the picturesque village of Wollar, between Denman and Mudgee in the Upper Hunter. Once a thriving community, the town has changed irrecoverably since 2006 when the Wilpinjong coal mine was approved. In the intervening 12 years, the pit has expanded until it now has permission to mine 1.5km from the village of Wollar itself, and to operate until 2033.

Instead of the three properties the Wilpinjong mine originally sought to acquire, the sprawling open cut has now acquired more than 40, and driven away most of the people who lived in Wollar. There are now only four properties in the village that the mine has not bought, creating a ghost town in the shadow of a noisy, hungry beast.

From a rural haven to ‘like living in war zone’, Bev has seen her village decimated and neighbours vanish, but it’s only strengthened her resolve to stand up against the relentless onslaught of the mine.

Sadly, Wollar’s fight is not the only one in the Hunter. It’s a similar story with other mines across the valley.  

The Hunter is home to more than 30 underground and open cut coal mines that feed the world’s biggest coal port, and supply electricity to NSW and beyond. Coal is dug up, loaded into uncovered railway wagons 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and freighted to the port of Newcastle for export, and to stations to generate electricity.

In doing so, Hunter coal mining uses massive amounts of water and draws on groundwater supplies, reducing stream flows for farmers. It creates a toxic cocktail of air pollution, including nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, diesel fumes and huge volumes of mine dust, noise pollution from mine operations and blasting and water pollution from runoff and overflows ensure every part of the environment is affected.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in the region. Massive storm events causing flash flooding in the Lower Hunter have drowned elderly people in their aged care units in Dungog, closed down the city of Newcastle, left large areas without power, water or sewerage for several weeks. Meanwhile in the Upper Hunter drought is biting hard again with all the implications of water shortages and dead pastures.

“Wollar Progress Assoc hasn’t taken all this lying down,” says Bev. “While our numbers have dwindled dramatically because many people could not cope with the health impacts from the mine and have sold up, we continue to give Peabody grief in whatever way we can.”

“In April 2017 we blockaded the mine entrance at shift change and three of us  – myself, Stephanie Luke and Bruce Hughes were arrested. We were the first people in NSW to be hit up with the new amendments to the Crimes Act – brought about at the behest of the fossil fuel industry.”

“We were facing up to seven years jail for interfering with a mine and a mine road. We appeared in Mudgee local court on 5 June, and the judge dismissed the charges against us and recorded no convictions.”

“This outcome is a huge relief that justice can still prevail in NSW.”

“We have also taken the NSW government and Peabody to the Land & Environment Court contesting the poor decision to expand the mine without considering the climate change implications.  We are currently waiting for that judgement too.”

“People asked me if I was I worried about having a 7 year jail sentence hanging over my head and it has been stressful. I have to say that the ongoing impacts of the Peabody coal mine on my community, my family and my home not to mention the looming threats from climate change are far more stressful than any threat of a stint in jail.

Mass civil movements are the only thing that have caused real change. I think it’s time to stand up and fight harder for our future.”

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Read more stories like this in 350 Australia’s report, Heroes building Australia’s low-carbon economy. This report celebrates the heroes of Australia’s low-carbon economy, telling the stories of the renewables sector, the businesses, communities, and individuals who are taking matters into their own hands, creating opportunities and building a sustainable energy future.