Phil Piper got worried yesterday, and with good reason. The president of the Mirboo North Landcare group discovered, via The Age, that his small property in the rolling hills of South Gippsland had been pegged as a potential future coal mine. And not just any old coal mine.
In January, a Western Australian company, Mantle Mining, applied for a licence to explore for coal over 19,000 hectares at Mirboo North in the foothills of the Strezlecki Ranges.
Inquiries by The Age have discovered that Mantle plans to supply coal to the Victorian-based Exergen for its controversial plan to export dried brown coal, including for use in Indian power stations.
Yesterday, Mr Piper was taken aback by the news. Despite a requirement for such applications to be advertised in local and metropolitan newspapers, he said he knew nothing of it, and doubted that anyone else in the area did either.
''If it had been advertised, I would know about it. It's a bit rude that they [the mining companies] don't let the people affected know.''
The mere fact that a coal mining exploration licence is possible on prime farmland such as that around Mirboo North is likely to trouble many Victorians.
Until now, tracking and monitoring leases, licences and applications has been something that only experts could negotiate.
But today Environment Victoria launches a new online search tool, CoalWatch, that allows any Victorian with access to a computer to map and track all coal mining activity and planning across the state.
What CoalWatch reveals is that thousands of square kilometres of farm and bushland are already subject to mining or explorations lease, a situation described by Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham as a ''ticking timebomb''.
"We're sure that many Victorians are not aware that the rights to the coal resources deep beneath their homes have already been granted to a coal mining company,'' said Mr Wakeham.
This is especially so in Gippsland, where a major row is brewing. It is an area that enjoys high and comparatively reliable rainfall and rich soil and is therefore one of the state's most important agricultural zones.
At the same time, it is home to most of the state's 65 billion tonnes of commercial brown coal reserve, and it is the region earmarked for widespread gas exploration, and underground carbon storage.
Yesterday, a Department of Primary Industries spokesman said that in situations such as Mantle's application in Mirboo North, the company should have advertised the application in one statewide and one local newspaper, allowing a four-week period in which people could lodge objections.
Mr Piper is very clear.
''We're just stewards of this land. I would be very upset if mines came in and wanted to drill holes and dig mines on our farms and in our plantations.''