Two Australian coal companies have been exposed for hiring former soldiers and intelligence officers to spy on anti-coal protests in New South Wales, according to revelations published by the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.
In an episode reminiscent of the Canadian government’s use of spies to sabotage environmental groups, mining companies Idemitsu Australia Resources and Whitehaven Coal allegedly hired private spies to infiltrate a network of local farmers, aboriginal groups, and environmental activists that has been actively protesting the Boggabri mine and blockading construction sites near Maules Creek since December, where Whitehaven Coal is currently in the process of building a $767 million open-cut coal mine.
A little over 200 miles northeast of Newcastle, Australia, the Maules Creek mine is the largest coal mine currently under construction in the country. When it’s finished, it will emit the same amount of carbon pollution per year as the entire nation of New Zealand. The mine is expected to operate for 30 years.
In interviews with Fairfax Media, the undercover agents revealed they were employed by the Centre for Intelligence and Risk Management (CIRM), a private intelligence firm run by Tony Groves, a former Australian military intelligence officer. The Idemitsu mining company openly admits it contracted CIRM in order to gather information about protesters. For five months, the firm’s undercover operatives pretended they were anti-coal activists and used fake names, secretly sending detailed field reports back to CIRM relaying sensitive information about protest leaders and plans of action.
The spying “could fall foul of provisions in the corporations, consumer and privacy laws,” Barbara MacDonald, a law professor at Sydney University, told the Sydney Morning Herald, particularly if “someone had acted on the deception to the material detriment” of those being spied on. Given the information that has recently come to light, Idemitsu and Whitehaven Coal could be charged with seriously violating Australian law.
Both the Boggabri and Maules Creek mines have stirred up considerable controversy among locals and international environmental groups alike, who claim the large scale mining projects will exacerbate already intense effects of climate change in Australia. The past few years have seen record high temperatures and several extreme weather events in the nation, such as droughts and increasingly severe wildfires in the Australian bush.
Despite these warning signs, the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has dismantled much of the country’s progressive environmental legislation and, as leader of the G20 summit, argued that climate change should be excluded from the meeting’s agenda. Greg Hunt, Abbott’s Minister of the Environment since 2013, gave the green light to Whitehaven Coal to proceed with construction of the Maules Creek mine despite mounting evidence that the coal industry is endangering public health.
The Hazelwood coal mine fire in Victoria, which burned for 45 days starting in early February, forced residents to evacuate 750 homes due to toxic coal dust, and trains carrying coal have caused communities to suffer increased health issues. If the Maules Creek mine is finished, it will release nearly 20 thousand tons of dust into the surrounding area, causing severe health problems and destroying fields of crops.
A coalition of local farmers and aboriginal groups, concerned that the Maules Creek mine will bring a similarly devastating tide of environmental degradation to their communities, have actively resisted the construction project for over six months. Farmers fear the impact of drought on their livelihood, as the mine threatens to drain up to seven meters from the water table in the area. The Gomeroi people, an aboriginal group and the traditional owners of the land, will see destruction of sacred sites and historical artifacts if the mine is completed.
Over the months, a group of doctors and medical students, dubbed Medics Against Coal, and religious leaders from several faiths joined in the protests as well. Since December, police have made over 120 arrests, even detaining a 92-year-old World War Two veteran for his participation in the protests.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.