Bills: Statutes Amendment (Mineral Resources) Bill

Tuesday November 27, 2018

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:46): I rise to make comment on the Statutes Amendment (Mineral Resources) Bill 2018 and register my grave concerns with the imbalance of power between mining companies and farmers. In fact, listening to the member for MacKillop, I wholeheartedly endorse every aspect of his speech. I thought it was very well done.

One of the biggest threats to farming today is the loss of valuable farming land. This can be attributed to mining but also to the loss of landowners' legal rights in relation to this issue. It beggars belief that anyone in this room would tolerate a company coming onto their property without asking and not having any say in when and how that company operates or what is taken from their land. For the majority of us, this scenario is inconceivable, yet this is exactly what is going on in my part of the state, the seat of Mount Gambier.

Last week, the member for Narungga told us of a family farming couple in his electorate who went to court for two years over access to their farmland. I would like to make mention of a family in my electorate who are in this situation: Gordon Walsgott and his son Jason. The Walsgotts are fourth-generation farmers who have a long history in the Limestone Coast. Since 1992, a mineral lease has allowed a company to mine for dolomite on the Walsgotts' property at Compton. The lease has been renewed three times for different time periods of five and seven years.

The Walsgotts have engaged lawyers to battle the mining company over the lease being renewed again and again, arguing that multiple breaches of the Mining Act and the lease terms mean that the lease should not be renewed. They said that the quarry has been mined to five times the depth that was initially agreed upon. Mining has been carried out just 400 metres from the Walsgotts' home and just 150 metres from an underground well, which is supposedly exempt land. Piles of waste lie on their property, which has been taken over by noxious weeds and feral animals.

Since 2009, the site has lain dormant. The Walsgotts say that the site has not been remediated at all. I can confirm this because, going through my records, it was in 2014 that I wrote to the then minister for mineral resources and energy, the Hon. Tom Koutsantonis, highlighting their concerns and on 16 December got a reply.

At the change of party at the last state election, I wrote to the now Minister for Energy and Mining on 16 August 2018 and highlighted these same concerns. I just want to read through what was actually written:

Dear Minister

I am writing to you on behalf of a constituent Mr Gordon Walsgott.

Mr Walsgott has property on the edge of Mount Gambier that he leases out for the purpose of mining Agricultural Dolomite.

In accordance with the attached statement of proposed mining, [mining company] was approved to mine to a depth of 4 metres. Mr Walsgott is concerned that this site has been over mined to a depth of approximately 25 metres deep and mining has been undertaken in close proximity to the Walsgott residential home. There have been numerous breaches of the terms of the mining lease as per attached Independent Expert's Report. We understand the mining lease expired on the 2nd February 2018.

Due to the various breaches, lack of mining activity for the past seven years and the lack of remedial work to rehabilitate the land, Mr Walsgott requests that the mining lease not be renewed.

Unfortunately, after that letter, the Walsgotts came into my office and indicated that the department has approved a new licence for that mine. That is the imbalance that I am talking about. This family has been, with lawyers in courts, battling the mining company over the lease continually being renewed. Let me tell you that $2,500 is certainly nowhere near the cost that they have experienced due to no fault of their own, just wanting to farm their own land.

They are concerned about erosion and the safety of the walls of the quarry, which is now a quarry on their land. An independent expert said:

…works conducted are examples of some of the worst mining practices observed in over 50 years of [his] mining experience.

Despite all of this, just two months ago the lease was approved for an additional 10 years. A letter from the Department for Energy and Mining says:

In considering the application to renew ML5779, the Department took the view that, having regard to all the circumstances of this matter, the existing compliance issues did not warrant non-renewal of the tenement.

You can imagine how powerless the Walsgotts felt. A farmer's land is their pride and joy. Now the Walsgotts look out their window and all they see is an open quarry and damage to their property—their freehold property.

The stress and anxiety that this ongoing battle has caused the Walsgotts is significant. To make matters worse, they have no idea when the trucks are going to come rumbling through their gates again. As I said before, the Walsgotts first came to me about this matter in 2014, and I raised it with the then minister for mineral resources development, the Hon. Tom Koutsantonis. I would like to read the final paragraph of the letter that I received on 30 September, which says:

Consideration by the Department of an application for renewal of ML5779 is on hold until proceedings before the Warden's Court concerning access to ML5779 can be determined. If the Warden's Court confirms or grants access to ML5779, then the Department will consider whether the lease should be renewed.

On 16 November, I again wrote to the minister asking why this lease was recently renewed for a further 10 years when there have been ongoing breaches of the Mining Act. I have received no response to these questions as yet.

There are plenty of questions the Walsgotts want, and I believe deserve, answers to. When will they be able to access their own land again? How can they plan for the future? What impact will this have on their property's value? Most importantly, what are their rights? Stories like this are firm evidence that landholders need a voice in this process, independent of the minister or the developer.

The state government needs to act in the interests of landowners, and the balance of power needs to be restored. We have a duty to represent our electorates, and the people in my electorate are telling me they want the right to refuse mining or exploration on their land. The Mining Act was introduced in 1971 and, as it now stands, does not make clear the rights of farmers when it comes to exploration on their land.

The review process and amendments are a step in the right direction by the state government, but we need to ensure that this act represents the interests of and, above all, is fair to South Australian landholders. Our state's future farmers depend on it. Community consultation may have been conducted but certainly not in my electorate, and certainly not concerning the Walsgotts, who would love to sit down and have their input into this part of legislation.

Our farmers are facing an increasing number of issues, including weather, fluctuating commodity prices, urban encroachment and drought, just to name a few. They have a lot of things to worry about and, more so, they want to know whether a mining representative is going to walk through their door with an agreement in their hand. Most farmers I know would rather be out working the land and putting food on the table than dealing with legislation. That is our job as MPs, and the people of my electorate are telling me that they want the right to refuse a mining company access to their land.

In the case of existing leases, South Australian landholders should also have the right to veto the renewal of a mining lease on their property, particularly if conditions are not being met as agreed. Yesterday, I listened to an interview on the ABC's Country Hour with Grain Producers SA Chair, Wade Dabinett, in relation to this bill. His words really resonated with me. He said that the 'balance isn't right' and that 'there needs to be a greater consideration of the impact of agriculture upon this state' and the importance that it holds.

Last year, Australian Conservatives MP Robert Brokenshire attempted to introduce right-to-farm legislation. He said that the legislation was about South Australia 'making a statement that we see farming as paramount'. I wholeheartedly agree with that comment. We need to show our farmers that we value the conservation and protection of land for agricultural purposes and also to demonstrate how valuable farming is to South Australia.

People are very passionate and well educated about mining and exploration practices in our region of the Limestone Coast. Today, I speak for the rights of all Limestone Coast residents and all South Australian landholders. Agricultural land is a finite resource. It is vital to our state's economy. There is only so much of it, and once it has gone or eroded through mining activities it cannot be replaced or rehabilitated. On your land, you deserve the right to say no.