Traditional owners lose Federal Court bid to protect culturally-significant sites at NSW coal mine

A NSW open-cut coal mine that an Indigenous woman says will destroy culturally significant sites can proceed after a Federal Court challenge failed.

Gomeroi woman Aunty Dolly Talbott

Gomeroi woman Aunty Dolly Talbott Source: Facbook/

An Indigenous-led challenge to federal environment minister Sussan Ley's decision to not protect culturally-significant sites at a NSW coal mining site has been dismissed by the Federal Court.

Gomeroi woman Dolly Talbott had argued Ms Ley made a legal error when deciding the potential economic and social benefits of the Shenhua Watermark open cut coal mine on the Liverpool Plains outweighed the heritage value of the significant Aboriginal sites.


Justice Wendy Abraham dismissed the application on Wednesday and ordered Ms Talbott pay up to $1000 of the government's legal costs.

The Environmental Defenders Office, which backed Ms Talbott's challenge, said the sites in the footprint of the mine include sacred places, significant ceremonial corridors and scarred trees irreplaceable to the Gomeroi people.

The protection of culturally-significant Indigenous sites within the environmental approvals process has come under the spotlight with recent incidents such as Rio Tinto's blasting of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. 

Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge, destroying a significant Indigenous site dating back 46,000 years.
Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge, destroying a significant Indigenous site dating back 46,000 years. Source: Supplied/Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Mining giant Rio Tinto apologised to traditional owners in Western Australia's north after destroying the Juukan site, which dates back 46,000 years.

A major review of Australia's environmental protection laws earlier this week recommended overhauling Indigenous engagement processes. 

Professor Graeme Samuel on Monday released an interim review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. 

The once-in-a-decade legislation review will continue over the next few months based on the areas highlighted in the interim report.

This includes Indigenous engagement, where Professor Samuel says there is a culture of "tokenism" - the practice of making only a small or symbolic effort to do a particular thing.

"The EPBC Act had failed to fulfil its objectives as they relate to Indigenous Australians," he said.

“Sustained engagement with Indigenous Australians is needed to properly co-design reforms that are important to them.

"Indigenous Australians want, and frankly they deserve, stronger protection of culture."

Ms Ley and Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt will soon start a national engagement process to modernise the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage.

The process will begin with a meeting of state Indigenous and environment ministers.

2 min read
Published 22 July 2020 at 10:58am
Source: AAP, SBS