In February 2019, a landmark ruling by the NSW Land and Environment Court rejected the proposed Gloucester Resources Rocky Hill open-cut coal mine on the grounds of climate change amongst other reasons. The judgment stopping the mining project near Gloucester in the Manning Valley on the mid-north coast of NSW was met with much excitement from the local opposition group Groundswell Gloucester, who had been mobilising against the proposed mine and other extractive projects for many years .
In 2010, Gloucester Resources Limited (GRL) started its exploration and project planning works on the Rocky Hill mine and two years later lodged its development application for the mining area  . The first environmental impact statement was made publicly available in 2013 and amended the year after to clarify issues mainly related to the processing and transport of the coal . With thousands of submissions against the mining project, the New South Wales Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) rejected GRL’s proposal in December 2017, stating that the project both contravened local zoning areas, had significant visual impacts and was not in the public interest . GRL appealed the decision in the NSW Land and Environment Court, and the court proceedings were later joined by opposition group Groundswell Gloucester, represented by the Environmental Defenders Office NSW . Together with PAC, they argued that the mine was incompatible with current and preferred land use and would have adverse social impacts on residents with close proximity to the mine, including noise and visual impacts  . This led to the court ruling in February 2019 upholding the initial rejection of the mining proposal on the grounds that the economic and social benefits of the project did not outweigh the public costs of the mine . Furthermore, it concluded that the project was not in the public interest given its negative impacts on climate change, including the mine’s projected carbon emissions from operations and later coal burning . GRL announced they would not appeal the decision but would carry out further assessment of its current exploration license area .
Community divisions put their mark on the rural town Gloucester leading up to the decision on the Rocky Hill project and both proponents and those opposing the mine wanted a rapid decision on the project . Some members of the community in favour of the mine, including farmers and business owners who formed the ‘Advance Gloucester’ group, saw it as an opportunity to bring jobs and boost the economy of Gloucester . The decline of other traditional industries including timber, dairy and beef has meant that Gloucester is in need of more economic and social security, according to the deputy chairman of Advance Gloucester . For those opposing the mine, the mental stress of campaigning and many years of not knowing has taken its toll, according to residents of Gloucester . Former Gloucester mayor and member of Groundswell Gloucester described the high level of community division around the proposed mine and the stress experienced by residents who for many years had been mobilising against the mine as well as another CSG extraction project in the area, describing experiences of bullying and receiving threats . Alongside mobilising against the Rocky Hill project, Gloucester residents were also actively campaigning against a coal seam gas project proposed by the energy company AGL, resulting in one resident describing the Gloucester community as ‘collateral damage’ in the processes around both extractive projects .
Another crucial issue that received less attention in the media was the failure of the company GRL to properly assess the social impact on Aboriginal heritage and engage in a thorough consultation process with Aboriginal stakeholders . Descendants of the Worimi elder Jack Cook and Jessie Brummy, First Nation people of Gloucester and the surrounding area, made comprehensive submissions during the mine’s assessment procedure regarding Aboriginal heritage in the Gloucester area . They raised concerns that GRL’s Heritage Assessment failed to meet the appropriate standards and that there had been a lack of effective consultation . Amongst the concerns regarding GRL’s Heritage Assessment was the fact that GRL had inadequately focused almost exclusively on archeological heritage, ignoring the broader cultural and historical issues, including the mine’s impact on ‘Country’. Worimi Elder Ken Eveleigh explained the spiritual and sacred relevance of the Gloucester valley in the submission: “If you belong to Country you feel the spirit and hear the rivers flow and you know that your Ancestors are still here with nature and it is not just in one spot; it runs through the valley (…) and its history needs to rest in peace” . During the court proceedings, Groundswell Gloucester succeeded in highlighting these submissions, thereby including the mine’s negative impact on the Gloucester Aboriginal community and heritage as critical reasoning against the mine .
In the court ruling, the chief judge Preston upheld that the open-cut coal mine would have negative impacts on the scenic and cultural landscape in the Manning valley near Gloucester, causing “significant planning, amenity, visual and social impacts”, including impacts from noise and dust  . Worries expressed by local residents included the nearby Avon River’s yearly proneness to flooding and the risk posed by having an open-cut mine nearby . With 111 houses within three kilometres of the mining site, consequences of any unplanned emissions in case of accidents such as a blast fume would be significant, despite the low likelihood . Furthermore, the mine would have had negative impacts on the “existing, approved and likely preferred uses of land in the vicinity of the Project”, referring to uses such as farming and tourism in the area . Ultimately, the court judgement ruled that altogether these impacts of the mine, including the issues related to Aboriginal heritage and consultation, overpowered the positive social impacts . Meanwhile, ‘Advance Gloucester’ argued that farming and mining could successfully co-exist as it had in the nearby Stratford mine . Beyond this, the argument regarding the mine’s Greenhouse gas emissions played a crucial role in the verdict against the project . The judge’s decision included the consideration of the negative impacts of climate change resulting from export and coal burning down the line, arguing that this was not the right time nor place for another coal mine .
The local opposition group Groundswell Gloucester were the most active in the mobilisation against the mine and contributed to the court proceedings, which ultimately rejected the mine. Representatives of the descendants of the Worimi Cook family supported Groundswell Gloucester in court hearings and were part of the Groundswell Gloucester alliance alongside farmers, environmentalists and opposed residents . Mobilisation consisted of several rallies, with local Greens politicians as well as members of Doctors for the Environment NSW forming part of the mobilisation against the mine and showing solidarity with Gloucester residents during the campaign . The environmental group ‘Lock the Gate Alliance’ were also supporting the Groundswell Gloucester campaign and welcomed the news of the court ruling, encouraging an independent climate change review of another NSW coal project in the Bylong valley in an effort to link campaigning on the two cases .
Hailed as a landmark decision in climate litigation even beyond Australia, the ruling has been regarded as part of a growing push to use law to influence companies and investors to take action on climate change  . Chief judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court Preston concluded that the mine was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, referring to the scenic landscape and proximity to residents and the greenhouse gas emissions it would cause in times of climate change, where a rapid and great decrease in emissions is needed . In a statement following the ruling, chairperson of Groundswell Gloucester Julie Lyford stated: "With climate change threatening everyone and everything on the planet, we owe it to this and future generations to step away from fossil fuel, embrace renewables and work towards just transitions" . NSW spokesperson of the Lock the Gate campaign stated that the Rocky Hill judgement is having an influence on other mining companies, including South Korean KEPCO and their Bylong coal project which was rejected later the same year (October 2019)  . Calling it a turning point in NSW’s consideration of new mines, she stated that mining companies are now increasingly having to deal with the role that coal extraction and export is playing in the context of climate change . The chief executive of Environmental Justice Australia also expressed the radically different nature of the court case given that arguments used successfully by mining companies in the past had been disregarded, including the argument that if coal was not mined in one place it would merely be mined in another mine .
While the Rocky Hill mine will not proceed, GRL has said it will continue to explore the possibilities within its current coal license area. In response to this, Gloucester Groundswell has started a petition to end all coal licenses in the area and currently has 6000 signatures (status May 2019) . Gloucester residents described being wary of celebrating too early, being aware of other examples in which mining projects had been overturned but following a pro-mining change in legislation were eventually approved . Relatedly, just over six months following the court ruling, the current NSW government announced plans to introduce new legislation with the intent of preventing regional planning authorities from blocking mining projects based on emissions from coal once its burnt . Regarded as a response to the landmark Rocky Hill ruling, the legislative move has been described as a ‘capitulation to the mining industry’ by environmental groups and the legal firm Environmental Defenders Office NSW who represented Groundswell Gloucester in the ruling .