Erin Jones, Regional reporter, The Advertiser
JACKIE Harrop spent months away from her family undergoing treatment for bowel cancer – but nothing could prepare her for the fight to protect the family farm.
“Cancer was a walk in the park compared to this,” Mrs Harrop told The Advertiser.
“I could deal with cancer but this has been 10 times worse.”
The Harrop family last month settled an almost two-year court battle with a mining company, initiated after they refused access to their Yorke Peninsula property so it could be explored for copper.
“We chose right from the start to make a stand because we didn’t believe that they should be allowed to come in,” Mrs Harrop said.
“I don’t think farming families should be put in a position like this – it’s our land and we should have a right to say we don’t want you here.”
But as far as the law is concerned, it’s not that simple.
Under the Mining Act 1971, land that is used for cultivation is exempt from mining, unless a mining operator applies to waive the exemption in court.
Farmers say they don’t stand a chance once a case gets to court, and they want the law changed.
Jackie Harrop says dealing with cancer was a walk in the park compared to the fight to save her family’s farm. Picture: Tait Schmaal
The Advertiser spoke to the Harrop family after a community meeting last month to urge the State Government to rewrite changes to mining rules to protect prime farming land.
“We were given as much of a hearing as the law allows,” Mrs Harrop said of her family’s court battle.
“Because of the way the law is written, the judge had no other option but to let them in.”
Despite 22 court orders, the mining company failed to rehabilitate the land, drilled more holes than planned and refused, until the last moment, to pay compensation.
There were 89 holes drilled and about 80 tonnes of earth removed from 200ha of cropping land belonging to the Harrops and their neighbour.
Drilling samples at the proposed mine site near Ardrossan. Picture: Tait Schmaal
“It cost us just as much emotion as anything,” Mrs Harrop, of Paskeville, said.
“At its worst, I don’t think there was a day that we didn’t talk about mining.
“You’d go to bed at night thinking of mining and wondering if there was going to be anything here for my kids – are they going to be able to survive.”
Their story is not isolated. A growing number of families, on the Yorke Peninsula especially, are living in fear they will receive a “knock at the door” from a mining firm.
About 90 per cent of the Yorke Peninsula is under exploration licenses. It means at any time a landholder may be approached by a mining company to gain access to their land. If they refuse, they risk being taken to court.
The former Labor Government last year launched the first review of the Mining Act in 46 years and made 82 recommendations.
Farmers were hoping for more consultation, but the new Liberal Government tabled the Bill with minor amendments in Parliament in August.
The move caused uproar along the Yorke Peninsula, and more than 300 people last month attended a farmers’ forum in Maitland demanding change.
A sign protesting Rex Minerals’ plan for an open-cut mine south of Ardrossan. Picture: Tait Schmaal
They want the Government to remove the ability of mining companies to apply to the courts to overturn a farmer’s refusal to access their land. They are also calling on the Government to appoint a mining ombudsman and consult further on the Bill.
Energy and Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan attended the Maitland meeting and said he was approached afterwards by people in support of mining.
“The first people to approach me in the room … were farmers saying they support mining in their district, but felt uncomfortable to speak up at the meeting,” Mr van Holst Pellekaan said.
He said the Government would continue to consider opinions from the agriculture and resources sectors and investigate ways the two industries can coexist for the benefit of the state.
“Agriculture continues to be our strongest industry and mining is our state’s best growth opportunity, so it is critical we ensure both sectors succeed,” he said.
SA Chamber of Mines & Energy chief executive Rebecca Knol said introducing a “right to veto” would have damaging affects.
“The resources sector employs over 26,000 people, contributes a third of the state’s exports and provides $214 million in royalties to South Australians,” Ms Knol said.
“The right of an individual to veto land access would undermine the rights of the State Government to develop mineral resources on behalf of the people of South Australia and for the economic benefit of our community.
“SACOME does not support a right to veto and believes the state has a sovereign responsibility to manage access to minerals.”
Fourth-generation farmer Brenton Davey disagrees.
Yorke Peninsula farmers Brenton and Sue Davey, whose property is within the mining lease of Rex Minerals. Picture: Tait Schmaal
His family is in “limbo” living under the threat of losing 400ha of cropping land to ASX-listed Rex Minerals, which holds a 3000ha mining lease encompassing his land.
The mining giant plans to build an open-pit copper mine, south of Ardrossan at Hillside, and has acquired neighbouring farming properties for the project.
This includes the original Davey family farm, Clifton Park, founded in 1847.
“I’ve been served with a paper to say that I’m within their mining lease and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Mr Davey said.
“I haven’t let them on though – they haven’t set one foot on this property.
“It’s spurred something on in me that I want to fight for my land because of my forefathers, who could see we would be set up for life here.”
His property would look on to the 450m-deep mine and rock storage facility, should Rex Minerals receive funding for the $480 million project.
“We know the Yorke Peninsula is the most viable cropping land in the state, and in droughts, much like we’re having now, the Yorke Peninsula will probably be the only ones delivering the silos,” he said.
“If Hillside goes ahead, the Yorke Peninsula as a reliable cropping land will become extinct.
“If this Bill goes ahead the way it is – without the protection of farmers’ rights – come next election there won’t be a Liberal Party.
“Why should another industry be allowed to force another one out?”
Under the Hillside proposal, the Yorke Highway would need to move closer to the Gulf St Vincent to allow for the project’s waste rock storage.
Project director Greg Hall told a conference in Adelaide in July the earliest they could see production start was late 2021.
“I support the comments of SACOME, we don’t support the taking away of the sovereign right of access to minerals,” Mr Hall told The Advertiser.
“The broader community on the Yorke Peninsula want jobs and support for their businesses.”
BY THE NUMBERS
?SA’s agricultural production was worth $7.2 billion in 2016-17.
?Important commodities included wheat ($1.2b), cattle ($609m) and sheep ($579m).
?Farming land covers 522,343sq km, or about 53 per cent of the state.
?The agriculture, forestry and fishing sector employees 39,900 people, or about 5 per cent
of the state’s workforce.
?There were 9371 farms in SA, in 2015-16, according to ABS data.
Source: The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources
?SA’s mineral and petroleum production was worth $5.2 billion in 2016-17.
?Energy production was worth $2.8 million.
?Mining generated $214 million in royalties in 2016-17.
?The sector employed 28,300 people in SA.
? About $188 million was spent on mineral exploration across SA in 2016-17.
? SA is a globally important producer of copper, uranium and zircon, and is stepping up production of iron ore.
Sources: Department for Energy and Mining, South Australian Minerals & Petroleum Experts Group
In South Australia, minerals are not owned by landowners but are vested in the Crown.
The categories of exempt land under section 9 of the Mining Act, include land within 400m of place of residents, or land that is used as a yard, garden, cultivated field, plantation, orchard, vineyard or as an airfield. If parties cannot negotiate an agreement to waive the exemption, the Environment Resources and Development Court may determine the mining company’s right of entry.