The University of Newcastle, Australia

Anthropologist Dr Hedda Askland plays part in unprecedented anti coalmine case win

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Centre for 21st Century Humanities Deputy Director, Dr Hedda Askland, has played a significant part in an unprecedented court case that has put a stop to the proposed Rocky Hill Coal Mine in the Gloucester Valley.

The town of Gloucester.

The Rocky Hill case was heard in in the NSW Land and Environment, where Chief Judge Brian Preston delivered a landmark judgement refusing to approve the Rocky Hill coal mine because of the impacts the proposed green-field mine would have on climate change. Dr Askland was the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) of NSW’s social expert witness in the court case and says climate change was only one of the reasons why the mine was refused. Dr Askland has published an opinion piece regarding the case in the Newcastle Herald.

“The Rocky Hill coalmine case is being hailed as a landmark in climate litigation. However Chief Justice Brian Preston’s conclusion that the coal mine would be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ and would ‘cause significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts’ is significant as it’s the first time that the social impacts of a coal mine and the lived experience of the local residents of the area have been taken into account in this way,” Dr Askland said.

As a social anthropologist who has worked with local communities in mining affected areas for the past four years, Dr Askland has come to know people and places that have both thrived and suffered in their interactions with coal.

“At the ‘coal face’, local communities speak about the social impacts of coal in a far more expressive way than how they are discussed and measured within policy and industry circles. They speak about the everyday impacts of noise, dust, vibrations, blasting and combustion on their families’ health, lifestyle and relationships, they discuss the changes to their landscape and community that have left them feeling alienated and despairing in their own homes,” she said.

Dr Askland says that in most cases, residents’ concerns are often dismissed, with technical measurements of variables such as noise and dust taking precedence. This, she explains, reduces the experiences of local residents as ‘perceived’ and they gain a secondary status to the technical measurements in the assessment process. A key argument in her evidence to the court was the importance of recognising people’s lived experiences of place as a matter for measuring impact. This cannot be reduced to the technical impacts but requires a holistic approach, a matter picked up by the Chief Judge in his rejection of the mine.

“Justice Preston asserted, for example, that although, in the case of noise and dust, the project will comply with recommended amenity and intrusiveness guidelines for industry and with the development standards of the Mining SEPP, these variables will have real impacts on people’s lives that cannot be ignored,’ Dr Askland said.  “Noise and dust impacts, then, whilst not a ground in itself to refuse the development application for the Rocky Hill Coal Project, nevertheless do contribute to adverse social impacts that are a ground for refusal”.

The judgement on social impacts in this case is unprecedented. “Not only is it the first judgement that is based upon the NSW Department of Planning and Environment’s new Social Impact Assessment Guideline, it is also a judgement that positions how we think and act on social impact of State significant projects beyond its conventional scientific framework and recognise the lived experience of those living most closely to a proposed project,” Dr Askland said.

On most of the measures of social impact, Chief Justice Preston found that the Project would have ‘likely’ ‘major’ impacts resulting in ‘extreme’ social risks.

“His reading of the social impact testimonies—by experts and local residents—adopts a holistic approach to social impacts that sees the environment and community as interconnected in both material and temporal terms; it is a judgement that incorporates people’s lived experience of place. Essentially, the judgement states: place matters. And local people are key in defining and understanding what their place is and should be.”

Dr Askland will be presenting at the Sustainable Futures Convention to be held in Gloucester 30-31 March. The convention aims to find solutions that lead to a just and sustainable future.  Dr Askland’s workshop on rural communities in time of change, in which notions of rural localities as spaces for collaboration and cohesion, conflict and contest will be explored.

“I’m really looking forward to the convention as it will be a chance to bring together members of the community, as well as people from outside of Gloucester, to discuss how local rural communities can be envisaged in an era of significant pressures, including those presented by climate change.”

Dr Askland’s workshop focusses specifically on the nexus between globalised forces and localised experiences of change and, as such, the court case and the past few years of community tension and debate in Gloucester can provide fertile ground for discussion about how to (re)vision Gloucester, as well as other small rural communities, as a community in change.

“One of the findings of my research underpinning my expert testimony was that the residents of Gloucester, regardless of their position on the Rocky Hill proposal, are all passionate about their town and want to see it flourish into the future.  I hope my workshop will enable conversations of localised experiences of change, and that we can start envisioning a way to bring a community divided together in a hopeful future.”

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