Hunter Valley farmer takes on mining company – and wins

Published: April 2019 | By: Michael Sheather

Wendy Bowman's farm sits on a giant lump of coal, but she refuses to sell to Chinese-operated company Yancoal, saving the surrounding agricultural land.

Wendy arrives at dawn to feed her Droughtmaster cattle. Photography by: Nick Cubbin. 
ROSEDALE farm, not far outside the tiny hamlet of Camberwell in the NSW Hunter region, doesn’t look much like a bastion against corporate greed. In fact, it looks more like a peaceful sanctuary. 

From the crest of the ridge after you pass through Rosedale’s main gate, the 182-hectare farm and its irrigated pastures bloom vividly on the other side of the vale like a green oasis surrounded by drought-brown paddocks and a series of abandoned homesteads. And Rosedale’s owner, 85-year-old Wendy Bowman, doesn’t look much like an environmental warrior.

Wendy Bowman on her property, Rosedale, at Camberwell in the Hunter Valley.

And yet Rosedale might as well be a crenellated castle and Wendy a helmeted defender ready to do battle. Both Wendy and her property are at the epicentre of a long-running campaign to preserve the rich agricultural heritage and remaining farmlands of the Hunter Valley against the expanding interests of powerful coal mining companies that have devoured vast tracts of the arable valley floor during the past few decades.

“This is my home,” says Wendy, a proud member of NSW Farmers.
“I’ve been a part of this valley since I married a farmer and moved here in 1957. It’s in my blood.”

“I don’t want to see it destroyed. It’s as simple as that. And I won’t let them have it, not as long as I am alive. Not ever if I can help it.”

Her determination has stopped one large corporate miner, the Australian-based but Chinese-operated company Yancoal, dead in its tracks after a legal fight that led, via the Land and Environment Court, to the NSW Court of Appeal four years ago. 

In 2010, Yancoal – whose Australian operations include ownership of five coal mines in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia and management of five more – wanted to extend the operations of its existing Ashton South East Open Cut mine, an $83 million project to extract 16.5 million tonnes of coal over a period of seven years.

That planned expansion ran along the banks of Glennies Creek, a regulated waterway that runs directly into the Hunter River. Wendy Bowman’s Rosedale property sits on the banks of Glennies Creek, slap bang in the middle of the proposed mine extension. More than that, as much as eight million tonnes of the coal Yancoal wanted lay right under Wendy’s land.

Wendy on the bank of Glennies Creek, which flows into the Hunter River.

“This is rich, beautiful, productive land even though the coal companies like to spin the story that it’s not,” says Wendy. “You only have to look at what is growing in my paddocks to see that. It’s been productive since farmers first came into the valley not long after Europeans came to Australia.

“What motivated me more than anything to oppose the mine was that the expansion was happening on Glennies Creek. That waterway is vital for everyone – from farmers to towns to the wine industry at Pokolbin – downstream from the junction at which the creek joins the Hunter River. 

With Glennies Creek flowing through the middle of multiple mines, this map displays just how critical Wendy's stance is. Source: Google Maps.

“I wasn’t just thinking about myself. I was thinking about how it would affect all those other people downstream’, all those businesses, all that production,” Wendy says.
Commitment to farm land leads to significant win over mining company 

About 87% of property owners in the area agreed to sell to Yancoal. Despite lucrative offers, some as high as a reported seven figures, Wendy wasn’t tempted. “I got a call from their solicitor one day and he said I’d like to come over and discuss a price,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t bother, I’m not selling and don’t contact me again, please.’ He knew I meant it, because I never heard from them again.”

Instead, the company launched legal action to get its way. “They said they wanted to build a barrier to protect the creek and made all sorts of promises,” says Wendy. “But I’ve seen what happens when you start playing around with structure in the soil. Aquifers are broken up; soil structures and claypans are broken down. Sure, they put the soil back, but everything is all mashed up together and can never be the same again.”

The Droughtmaster herd in the irrigated paddock. 

By 2015, after a prolonged five-year legal battle, Wendy and Yancoal faced each other in the NSW Court of Appeal. The court upheld an earlier finding that the expansion could go ahead – but only if Yancoal bought all the land.

“At first, I was devastated,” says Wendy of the ruling. “I thought I’d been left hanging in the wind. I thought, ‘Here we go, they’ve got the green light’, but what I didn’t consider until later was the fact that it all hinged on whether Yancoal could buy all the land in question. My land was on top of a great lump of the coal that they wanted. I suddenly realised that the decision actually put me in the driver’s seat. It all depended on what I decided to do. Yes, the mine could go ahead, BUT – and that BUT was me.”

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Wendy knew what life was like having a coal mine on your farm doorstep. She’d experienced it before, after her husband Mick Bowman suddenly died in 1984, leaving her to take on running the farm.

Wendy feeds the horses at dawn on Rosedale.

“We lived on another property up the road then, and some of our neighbours had sold out to the miners. All I can remember was the blasting and the great big clouds of dust that covered everything,” she says. “There was noise all the time, day and night. No-one could get any sleep. That’s one of the reasons why people give up and sell in the end – because they are so worn down by it all.”

She clearly recalls the aftermath when a mine company tunnelled under a nearby creek. “We used the water for irrigation, just like other farmers did,” she says.
“Then we noticed that our lucerne was failing. It turned out that the tunnelling had released heavy metals into the water and it was contaminated.”

That was in January 1991, she says. That same year Wendy founded Minewatch NSW, a community group to help support farmers under pressure to sell their land to the mining companies. “The companies were playing a game we called divide and conquer,” says Wendy. 

“They’d try to identify farmers who were in financial trouble and make them offers that essentially they couldn’t refuse, but those offers depended on it all being kept secret. 

 “Farmers couldn’t even tell their wives about it. It broke up families, fathers stopped speaking to their sons, brothers stopped talking to brothers. It was horrible, an awful way to do business if you ask me.”

Wendy checking the hay bales.

Finally, mine dust contaminated the milk storage bins on her property. Wendy managed to convince the mine to purchase the land and finally moved out to another home. In 2005 she was served an eviction notice to make room for a coalmine. Wendy moved to take up residence on Rosedale, also owned by the Bowmans, but until then worked by a tenant.
Saving agricultural land earns environmental award

In 2017, some years after she began her legal stoush with Yancoal, Wendy became the surprising recipient of what she still regards as a great, if puzzling, honour. That year she received a phone call from someone in the United States who introduced herself as a representative of the influential environmental champion, the Goldman Foundation.

“This woman said, ‘If the Goldman Foundation was to offer you their annual environmental prize, would you accept it?’,” says Wendy. I said, ‘Well I don’t know what the Goldman Foundation is, but I guess I would.’ She said, “She accepts, and I could hear all this cheering in the background. It was astounding.”

So was the prize money. Wendy was awarded US$175,000 ($245,000), as well as the recognition of the international environmental community for her fight against Yancoal. “I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe that they’d heard what I was doing, let alone that it was worthy of an award.”

The Goldman Foundation described Wendy in these terms: “As one of the few landowners left in the area, Bowman became a key plaintiff in a public interest lawsuit to fight back the mine expansion. Given that more than half of the coal for the proposed mine is under Bowman’s property, her refusal to sell was a significant factor in the case.

Source: The Goldman Foundation.
“The Land and Environment Court issued its ruling in December 2014: The Ashton [mine] 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 NSW Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, effectively stopping the mine expansion in its tracks.”

Wendy donated the money she received to environmental agencies.

Yancoal mine thwarted by refusal to sell fertile farming land

Right now, Wendy and Yancoal are at an impasse. The company has approval for its mine, but needs her land. As far as Wendy is concerned, that’s not going to happen. She is determined to stay. 

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Everything she needs, wants and cares about is on Rosedale. She currently grows much of her feed and runs about 60-70 head of Droughtmaster cattle that are doing well despite the drought. The farm, and running it, helps to sustain her, she says. “It’s the best place in world and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

A timeline of Wendy's life with the homestead on Rosedale in the background.

Wendy has three adult daughters and six grandchildren. Her daughters understand her feelings for Rosedale and its future. She intends to leave the property in their care, and they are working on a plan to have it preserved in perpetuity, which means, if Wendy gets her way, the coal under her land will stay there. 

“I am 85, I’m not as active as I used to be,” she says. “I know I won’t be around for too many more years. I had a CT scan and it appears I have lost 20% of my lung function because of all the coal dust and I had a heart scare a few months back. But my daughters all understand how I feel and what I want. 

“I do see myself as an environmental warrior. If I am being honest then I have always felt like that. If you don’t have water, then you can’t have life. And that’s what this is all about – life not money.”

What is Yancoal?

Yancoal is Australia’s largest pure-play coal producer. NSW mines include Hunter Valley Operations, Mount Thorley Warkworth, Moolarben and Stratford Duralie.

Open-cut coal mines in the Hunter Valley have let scars on the agricultural landscape. Source: Getty Images.

The two largest shareholders are both based in China – Yanzhou Coal Mining Company with 65.5% and Cinda International with 16.7%.

According to its website, Yancoal was the first Australian coal company to successfully introduce the pioneering Longwall Top Coal Caving (LTCC) mining method in 2006, after its acquisition of the former Southland Coal Mine in the Hunter Valley. LTCC allows the excavation of thick coal seams of 5m-12m at one pass of the longwall machine, generating high productivity and economic returns.
Fast facts about mining

  • 85% of NSW coal is exported, with Japan and China the biggest markets.

  • $10.7 billion contribution to NSW economy by mining companies from 2017-18.

  • 22 potential new coal mines or expansions of existing coal mines are proposed for the Hunter region.

  • 88% of Upper Hunter coarse particle pollution is caused by coal mining.

  • 2,441 sq km of the Hunter region could experience groundwater drawdown due to potential new mines or mine expansions.

  • 37.3% of Australia is covered by coal and gas licences and applications.

Sources: NSW government, federal government (Hunter Bioregional Assessment), Lock the Gate Alliance, NSW Mining, NSW Minerals Council.

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