Fight to stop KEPCO's Bylong coalmine and preserve prime agricultural land nears the finish

Bylong farmer Graeme 'Tag' Tanner laments the purgatory that the fight over the proposed KEPCO coalmine has left the region in:
Bylong farmer Graeme 'Tag' Tanner laments the purgatory that the fight over the proposed KEPCO coalmine has left the region in: "Friday night we used to see 40 or 50 people down at the sportsground. But now there's just nobody here, I hardly see anybody," he says. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Graeme 'Tag' Tanner has lived in Bylong for 20 years and has seen it change from a thriving agricultural community to little more than a ghost town.

In the seven years to 2017, KEPCO, a South Korean energy company, purchased around 13,000 hectares, or nearly half the land in the valley, with hopes of building a new coalmine. Along with the land, KEPCO bought the Bylong General Store, local primary school and Catholic Church - all of which are now shut.

Tanner says the closure of the shop has left a hole in the Bylong community. It's now a 90-kilometre drive to Mudgee for bread and milk, "My social life is finished, you know. It's destroyed the valley," he says.

Most of the properties purchased by KEPCO have been left vacant, with industrial warning signs hanging where there were once farm names.

The Bylong Valley: A picturesque stretch of prime agricultural land situated between Mudgee and Muswelbrook in NSW. Flanked by the Goulburn River National Park to the north and the Wollemi National Park to the south-east, the area was heritage listed by the National Trust in 2013. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Bylong Valley: A picturesque stretch of prime agricultural land situated between Mudgee and Muswelbrook in NSW. Flanked by the Goulburn River National Park to the north and the Wollemi National Park to the south-east, the area was heritage listed by the National Trust in 2013. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Bylong Valley is a picturesque stretch of prime agricultural land situated between Mudgee and Muswelbrook in NSW, straddling the gap between the state's Hunter Valley and Central West. Flanked by the Goulburn River National Park to the north and the Wollemi National Park to the south-east, the area was heritage listed by the National Trust in 2013.

Tanner says that before the KEPCO property purchases, locals would gather at the community sportsground, across the road from the general store, for their weekly afternoon catch-up. "Friday night we used to see 40 or 50 people down at the sportsground. But now there's just nobody here, I hardly see anybody," Tanner says over a cup of tea in one of Bylong's few inhabited homesteads.

Taking a stand: Phillip Kennedy, president of the Bylong Valley Protection Alliance, and his partner, Merran Auland, standing in a field of wheat on their farm. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Taking a stand: Phillip Kennedy, president of the Bylong Valley Protection Alliance, and his partner, Merran Auland, standing in a field of wheat on their farm. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The annual Charity Mouse Races are a thing of the past, too. For 25 years, Bylong hosted the event, raising nearly half a million dollars in donations for local charities and causes.

Peter Grieve is a farmer born and raised in Bylong. He's seen ups and downs in Bylong's history, but has never seen the valley in this state of disrepair. "The country they [KEPCO] have now is well overrun with rubbish and weeds and a lot of decline in the standard of houses on the place," he says.

Grieve says the last decade of land acquisition and court cases between KEPCO and the Bylong community has left the valley with an overwhelming sense of fatigue. "You get physically and mentally tired eventually," he says. "This 11-year battle with this mob has been very, very draining on all of us that have been here through that period."

According to KEPCO, the proposed coalmine would be a combination of open-cut and underground operations and would operate for a total of 25 years, extracting 6.5 million tonnes of coal per annum.

Company land: An abandoned church in Bylong. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Company land: An abandoned church in Bylong. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Bylong Valley Protection Alliance was established by locals to combat the mine's construction and they've had success. Despite KEPCO owning nearly half the valley's land, the mine itself has been knocked back three times in the last three years by courts and the Independent Planning Commission (IPC), the most recent in September.

KEPCO keeps fighting, and last week the company sought leave to appeal to the High Court. "KEPCO believes that the NSW Court of Appeal made errors in its decision and has filed a special leave application to the High Court seeking proper legal interpretation" a KEPCO spokesperson says.

Phillip Kennedy has lived in Bylong for three years and for the last two has been the president of the alliance. He says the community's main concerns are about the water table and environment.

Shut down: The Bylong General Store closed in recent months. It's a 90-kilometre drive to get milk and bread now. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Shut down: The Bylong General Store closed in recent months. It's a 90-kilometre drive to get milk and bread now. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Most irrigation in Bylong comes from wells which tap into a series of underground rivers and aquifers. This unique water table exists due to large sandstone shelves a few metres below ground level. The concern for Bylong farmers like Kennedy is the impact a mine would have on this vital water source.

"When you dig a pit that's a couple of thousand acres in size in surface area at the top and 60 to 80 metres deep, I think anybody would be a fool to predict what would or would not happen."

Initial modelling for KEPCO's proposed mine acknowledged the likely impact on groundwater levels. A 2013 report by the Australasian Groundwater & Environmental Consultants stated that the mine "has the potential to lower groundwater levels in the adjacent Lee Creek and Bylong River alluvium" by more than 2 metres.

Local farmers are concerned by the fact that KEPCO refuses to guarantee groundwater and irrigation won't be affected.

The Bylong Valley has some of Australia's best agricultural land, according to the NSW government. The region is home to a large portion of the state's limited Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land and has a long history as one of the country's premier racehorse breeding regions. Locals say the agricultural potential of the area should be safeguarded.

Tarwyn Park: A historically and environmentally significant property in the Bylong Valley. In 1973 Peter Andrews bought the 1200-hectare property, over the decades developing a system of land management known as Natural Sequence Farming. It is now owned by KEPCO. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Tarwyn Park: A historically and environmentally significant property in the Bylong Valley. In 1973 Peter Andrews bought the 1200-hectare property, over the decades developing a system of land management known as Natural Sequence Farming. It is now owned by KEPCO. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

In knocking back KEPCO's proposal, the IPC mentioned concerns for Tarwyn Park, a historically and environmentally significant property in the Bylong Valley. In 1973 Peter Andrews bought the 1200-hectare property, over the decades developing a system of land management known as Natural Sequence Farming (NSF).

Stuart Andrews is the son of Peter Andrews and was raised alongside NSF. He explains the practice: "So it's looking at how water and fertility moved over and through the landscape prior to any of our interference and how you can get that function working again in the landscape, whilst at the same time creating productivity."

The United Nations has named 2021-2030 the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, with NSF as one of five globally sustainable models for agriculture. The CSIRO has also recognised the significance of Tarwyn Park and potential for broader implementation of Natural Sequence Farming.

Stuart Andrews didn't want to sell his family home to KEPCO, he wanted to continue the social and environmental legacy of Tarwyn Park. But after a couple of years of holding out, he eventually sold, feeling he had no other choice.

"The way it affects you mentally is crippling. I didn't want to put myself through that, and I definitely didn't want to put my family through that," Andrews says.

But Bylong is in Stuart Andrews' blood and he wants Tarwyn Park re-established as a NSF training institute.

Omnipresent: Coal trains pass through the valley, on their run from mines to the west to the Port of Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Omnipresent: Coal trains pass through the valley, on their run from mines to the west to the Port of Newcastle. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Tarwyn Park homestead still stands, unkept, in Bylong. Coal trains frequently pass each other at a loop behind the farm. The ornate signage is gone from the entrance, replaced by a warning to trespassers.

Regenerative agriculture is on the rise in Australia.

Martijn Wilder is the CEO and founder of Pollination, and a world leading climate consultant. Wilder says he sees a future for the Bylong Valley as an agricultural hub and a leader in regenerative farming practices.

"So how do we take what is in effect a stranded asset which KEPCO holds and turn it into something that's far more productive, economic and for want of a better term, climate friendly," he says.

Through his work, Wilder has seen a shift in Australia towards a form of agriculture that is "more in tune with the environment". By adopting these practices, he says, Bylong could be prospering, both economically and environmentally.

Graeme 'Tag' Tanner: "You just can't go and rip the guts out of a valley and then put it back together. It's not a jigsaw puzzle - it won't fit." Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Graeme 'Tag' Tanner: "You just can't go and rip the guts out of a valley and then put it back together. It's not a jigsaw puzzle - it won't fit." Picture: Jonathan Carroll

"You don't have to necessarily replace Bylong coal with other energy," he says. "You can create an agricultural food bowl in Bylong for the whole region."

For Bylong residents, this future can't be realised if KEPCO's coalmine goes ahead. Tag Tanner knows the fragile state of the landscape. He says that once qualities such as Bylong's water table are disrupted, there's no going back. "This would be gone, they'd destroy it forever," Tanner says. "You just can't go and rip the guts out of a valley and then put it back together. It's not a jigsaw puzzle - it won't fit."

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This story The ghost town abandoned for a mine that might never be dug first appeared on Newcastle Herald.