The Berejiklian Government’s decision to enable digital hearings for two extremely controversial resource projects in NSW’s north west will prevent many people from having their say, according to Lock the Gate Alliance.
This morning, the NSW Government has confirmed via the media that it is amending the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation to permit the Independent Planning Commission to hold the digital hearings.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes had earlier directed the IPC to find a way to hold public hearings for Santos’ coal seam gas project and Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion, despite the coronavirus crisis restrictions on public gatherings.
In response, Lock the Gate Alliance wrote to the Minister and the IPC, warning them that holding public hearings online or on the phone would be unlawful and would restrict community participation due to lack of access to technology, computer literacy, and reliable phone and internet connections in regional areas.
The Narrabri Gas Project is the most controversial project to ever work through the NSW Planning assessment process, with more than 22,000 objections to the coal seam gas proposal.
“Many people living in north west NSW will struggle to participate in digital hearings because they live on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Lock the Gate NSW coordinator Georgina Woods said.
“These hearings remove the community’s legal rights to have the merits of any decision challenged in court, so it’s vitally important that they are thorough and inclusive.”
Eric Hannan, who lives in a rented house on the historic “Kurrumbede” property with his wife Carol, and owns land adjacent to the planned Vickery railway line, said the decision to hold digital meetings was “wrong.”
Mr Hannan, who is aged in his seventies and worked as a stockman on Kurrumbede for 40 years, said a public, in-person hearing would have provided him an opportunity to point out Whitehaven’s false claims about how the property would be impacted by the mine.
“We had a public meeting before and it was good because you could get up and have your say,” he said.
“You can look at the people, and you can see the IPC people listening to you.
“When Whitehaven’s employees got up, I was able to point out when they were lying. If it’s all digital we’ll have none of that. I’ve worked on this property for 40 years and I know it damn well better than they do.”
Tony Pickard, who lives adjacent to Santos’ proposed Narrabri gasfield, said he and other locals would now be restricted from having their say.
“There are many people in the north west who lack quality internet connection and I am one of them,” Mr Pickard said.
“I’m right at the front line of potential damage from this gasfield. I have a right to be heard and to hear what Santos, the Government and all speakers have to say at any public hearing about this project.
“By forcing the Planning Commission to go ahead with this process while people are locked in their homes, the Planning Minister is showing a deep lack of respect for people in this region that will be harmed by this gasfield. It’s a disgrace.”