Gomeroi Elders and Traditional Owners have launched State and Commonwealth Parliamentary petitions to urge the Federal Environment Minister to urgently halt work at Whitehaven Coal's Maules Creek mine project.
In a statement released today, the group says it wants Environment Minister Greg Hunt to protect sacred sites from being destroyed as a matter of urgency.
“We will be taking our petitions to Gomeroi people and the general public as we simply do not believe that the average Aussie wouldn’t give us a fair go and would not support the destruction of our ancestor’s burials,” the group said.
“We are not about stopping the mine, we are seeking protection of these areas and the mine has the ability to do so and still get about their business of mining.”
The Traditional Owners wrote to Greg Hunt on more than two occasions 85 days ago asking for an immediate halt on the project’s work under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Heritage (Interim Protection) Act 1984 to prevent the potential desecration of burial sites.
Seeking the minister’s urgent intervention, elders say they have provided detailed documentation in relation to the areas of concern but say they have been largely “ignored and silenced by bureaucracy”, and instead of being granted an investigation to address their concerns, received a letter informing them to “work constructively with Whitehaven”.
“What we find extraordinary and disgusting is that Minister Hunt’s inaction is allowing Whitehaven to target the areas we have identified as needing protection,” the group states.
Gomeroi Elders say requests to salvage cultural artefacts have been met with refusal by Whitehaven, with bulldozers moving on to sacred areas.
“We are upset that Whitehaven treat our grave sites with disrespect and use the words "alleged burials "to further insult our families and increase the dispute between our people and Whitehaven.”
The company denies claims it has not done enough to protect Indigenous sites.
“Whitehaven has worked incredibly hard with all Registered Aboriginal Parties to ensure sites of cultural significance are respected and preserved,” a spokesman told Australian Mining.
“Whitehaven notes that the New South Wales Department of Planning and Infrastructure has advised the company that is entirely satisfied Whitehaven is in compliance with its obligations under the Aboriginal Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management Plan (AHMP).”
Gomeroi man Stephen Talbott says while the company is employing Indigenous representatives at the site, they were not elders from the local area, and this in itself had a caused a rift within the Indigenous community
“Once these sited are destroyed you can’t get them back,” he told Australian Mining.
“Calling elders a minority is just disrespectful.
“We just want to protect what needs to be protected, but it seems as though Whitehaven is being protected.
“Whitehaven is just demand and conquer.”
Last week Labor spokeswoman, Senator Claire Moore, said the stop-work order had been mishandled by the Federal Government.
"My understanding is that it went through to Minister Hunt who is the Minister for Environment; it was put, then, to Minister Scullion who's the Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs," she said.
"It has since been returned, apparently to Minister Hunt; we're talking November and we're now in January and the understanding is some of the sites have already had bulldozers in."
Moore says it's not enough for Whitehaven to say it has the support of a majority of traditional owners if no one knows who's involved.
"Exactly who are the majority? A majority of what? What constitutes the group? And who, indeed, are the authorised elders who can speak for that community and there does seem to be some confusion and some concern about that."
Elders have called on Minister Hunt to visit Maules Creek and discuss concerns with the group.
“Come and see for yourself with our Elders and community that the bulldozers have ripped up our sites and they are digging and disturbing our ancestors.”