In the tiny town of Bulga, which is in danger of disappearing off the map, the locals say they can hear the sound of the massive mine that threatens to swallow them getting closer.

"Saddleback Ridge was a fairly big buffer but they've started blasting that. Then there's Wallaby Scrub Road that will be wiped out," Bulga shop owner Toni Silk told

"You can hear them in the night operating the machines, shovels into the side of the mountain, dropping 300 tonnes of rock into a truck.

"They never stop, it's 24/7."


Bulga, a historic rural village of 135 houses in the upper western region of the NSW Hunter Valley 220km north west of Sydney, is under threat from the relentless expansion of mining giant Rio Tinto's Warkworth coal mine.

The expansion will bring the mine closer, to within 2.6km, but residents say it already encroaches on their life with coal dust on their houses, clothes, cars and in their water tanks, continual noise and the visual pollution of the vast mine a part of their daily views.

Packing up and leaving the town, which is divided by an "acquisition zone" of houses, became a closer reality when Bulga lost its legal fight against the expansion in May.

Residents were forced to drop their court appeal against the approval of the Warkworth expansion when the NSW Government took away the opportunity for anyone to challenge it.

This followed the government's state Planning Assessment Commission's (PAC) suggestion that the town be relocated lock, stock and barrel.

"The town is divided and if they're going to acquire some houses, they should acquire all of them," Ms Silk said,

"I say that and I'm in the acquisition zone.

"There's people not in the acquisition zone that get so much dust when the wind blows and their line of sight is right over into that huge mine."

Relocating Bulga is one of the three options to address the noise, air quality and visual impacts predicted following Rio Tinto's approved expansion.

The NSW Government and Rio Tinto would foot the bill for the relocation of the village's 350 people, with the state delivering all new infrastructure and the company paying for construction of new houses.

But that would require the involvement of Bulga residents and "an independent mediator as a first step towards reconciliation".

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) New South Wales acknowledged "the disastrous impacts of the mine's expansion on the village of Bulga".

It also acknowledged that "the negative impacts on the village of Bulga is extremely unreasonable".

Further investigations "to minimise the size and depth of the final void" would be made.

On the ground in Bulga, where locals feel their once secure future is in jeopardy of the "bloody massive hole" advancing on the town, the political negotiations are all just talk.

"We were never going to win the legal challenge because Rio Tinto has massive pockets, but for those of us who planned to stay in Bulga we aren't ready to make the decision to pack up," Ms Silk said.

"And are we going to walk away without a mortgage, or nothing if Bulga is relocated because they say it is uninhabitable because of the mine's proximity."
The Bulga Progress Association has staged protests against the mine's encroachment, and the closure last week of Wallaby Scrub Road.

But the association "does not represent all the town", and "if there's going to be voluntary acquisition of houses then everyone should be offered it," Ms Silk said.

"There's going to be diehards who say they want to stay, but we live on the doorstep of the mine.

"Is Bulga over?" Ms Silk said. "I won't deny that's a possibility."