The Guardian 9 November, 2005
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To see a young child gasping for breath
I wish to bring to your attention the serious effect that dust and other air-borne pollutants are having on the residents of Muswellbrook, a major coal-mining and power generating area of the Hunter Valley of New South Wales.
What has caused me to report on this serious situation is that a work mate's young four-year-old son was admitted to Muswellbrook District Hospital recently with a serious bout of childhood asthma. To see a young child gasping for breath is a sight that one can never forget. This young fellow was born healthy with no respiratory problems and is now taking daily medication to prevent further attacks.
I have asked the owner of a Chemist shop in Muswellbrook how many people on average were having scripts filled for asthmatic and other respiratory complaints and he told me that he fills 50 a week at this time of the year. Some of this can be put down to rye grass allergies during spring but it is mostly to dust from mine dumps.
The past 25 years has seen a huge increase in coal mining activity here close to the township. To the south of the town we have the Drayton open cut mine doing their best to pollute the atmosphere with unchecked spontaneous combustion coming from mine dumps. Their neighbour ("the worker friendly, caring, sharing, BHP-Billiton" — operators of the Mt Arthur open cut mine) is certainly adding to the air-borne pollution with the size of their ever-growing mine dumps.
The edge of these dumps is within 2kms of the industrial estate that has hundreds of people working in workshops and supply companies. Whenever asked about their environmental policy, BHP-Billiton always refers to their glossy handbook, chock full of wonderful photographs and scientific facts and figures designed to convince the reader that they care about the environment and the local community. At the same time, they look like the unchallenged kings of environmental bastardry — take the Ok Tedi mine in New Guinea, for example.
Within the next two years we will see the Mt Arthur underground mine start its development using its longwall method to mine an estimated 1750 million tons of underground reserve taking the combined open cut and underground mines' output to 22 million tons of product within 10 years, all railed to the port of Newcastle.
From my humble abode I can see the Bengala open cut mine quite clearly, as the edge of their mine dump is approx 3 kms away. This is a Rio Tinto mine that has been in operation now for about seven years and uses a dragline as its main tool to remove the overburden from the coal seams below the ground. The government issued the OK to commence mining with 22 clauses in the consent orders for the mine, one of those being that the dragline stops working when the wind blows from the west behind the mine and in the direction of the township. I am convinced this is not happening as the clouds of dust are still rolling over the town coating the place with a fine brown colouring of mine waste.
Rio Tinto has before the government a proposal for further expansion of their Muswellbrook operation, called Mt Pleasant Mine, directly to the north of Bengala.. Nothing pleasant about this little beauty, I assure you readers!!! It will be tacked onto the Bengala mine and will eventually have two draglines working 24 hours a day mining the low hills on the western side of the township.
I must include in this letter that to the south of Muswellbrook we have two coal fired power stations, namely Liddell and Bayswater. During the past couple of years we have seen the operators of these places come under scrutiny for emission control and I believe that some measures have been put into place but lots more needs to be done.
In concluding, readers, I wish to commend the new Upper Hunter Council for their stance on no mining within their shire boundaries as I know that some coal companies are eyeing off some coal seams near the little town of Bunnan, approx 30 kms west of Scone. If all this extra mining is approved around Muswellbrook, will we see parents at the bus-stop seeing their kids off to school checking to see if the kids have their Ventolin puffer and enough clean dust masks to last the day.
Penny for a Guy
In the wake of John Howard's dire warning of a credible, impending terrorist attack, it may have escaped government attention that Saturday November 5, 2005 was the 400th anniversary of the notorious Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Terrorist Guy Fawkes and Co stuffed the cellars of Parliament with enough explosive to blow away the King, his Queen, the Privy Council and leading members of both Houses.
But before Parliament finally opened to pomp and circumstance, the conspirators — the terrorists were dobbed in, rounded up and sent to the gallows.
I believe the Gunpower Plot may be a cautionary tale for our times. It scared the hell out of King James, who launched a series of draconian laws to prevent terrorism from spreading throughout his realm. They remained on the books for many years.
Parliament, flushed with rare energy rushed to outlaw terrorism in any form with Catholics singled out for punishment. Heads rolled. Printers worked overtime so dire warnings could be posted throughout England, Scotland and Ireland.
The Gunpower Plot instilled so much anxiety and anger that by royal command its anniversary became an official "celebration" that was formally held each year in Parliament for more than 300 years. There will always be an England.
These days, not many kids in Western Australia seek a Penny for the Guy or light bonfires to dance around on November 5. Bushfires, you know — a real and present danger out here.
P.S. I forgot to compare Howard to King James I, who after the plot piled goose feathers around his bed in the palace, to cushion any further terrorist bombs!