The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Coal blights the Hunter

Peter Mac

Residents of NSW Hunter Valley coal mining districts are complaining of the disastrous impact mining operations are having on their lives. The mines have caused river and air pollution, loss of soil fertility, noise disturbance, property damage, and the ruin of the formerly beautiful landscape by massive excavations. No one believes the area will ever be able to be returned to its former condition. However, residents point out that even where land rehabilitation work has been carried out, much of it has been unsuccessful, and compensation to local communities has been woefully inadequate.

One resident of the little village of Camberwell claimed last week that the local creek water had become undrinkable. "You could stand on the bridge and watch the fish swimming over the stones. Now it's all silt and the water is often milky, with a greyish tinge", she commented bitterly.

Debris from mine blasting has been known to endanger local houses. One resident collected a 60 cm rock that landed near her home, and took it in a wheelbarrow to a residents' "coal discussion day" at Singleton. "They weren't too happy to see it", she recalled.

Another resident claimed that the blasts sometimes create a noxious, orange-coloured gas. "I was in the paddock one day and I saw it rolling down the hill. I thought I was on the Somme….When it hits you can't breathe and it stings your eyes."

Open cut mines in the Hunter have proliferated in the last few years. Almost 16 percent of the land between Singleton and Muswellbrook, a total of 222 square kilometres, has now been excavated. That is an increase of some 95 sq kms, or about 75 percent, since 1996. Of this area, some 164 sq kms is still being mined; the rest is either covered in water or has been the subject of attempts at revegetation.

The biggest single concentration of open-cut mines is in the western part of Singleton Shire. Mining expert Dr Glenn Albrecht has predicted an exponential rise in coal mining, but he also says that mining in the Hunter will be finished in a few decades. After this, local communities will be left with what Singleton Shire mayor, Fred Harvison, recently referred to as "a lunar landscape".

At certain times, much of this area will become man-made lakes, but these will be of little use for drinking water or farming, as they will be laden with salt and minerals.

And the mines dwarf other evidence of human activity. The Mount Arthur North mine, for example, is about ten times the size of the adjacent picturesque town of Muswellbrook.

Local environment group Minewatch is now mounting a campaign to protect the eastern half of Singleton Shire from open-cut mining.

Meanwhile, the state government and the mining companies have been having a slanging match about how little the other has done for the Hunter.

Residents would doubtless agree with both antagonists. According to a mining company representative, the state government's coal mining royalties represent some 50 percent of the expected profits, so the companies are raking in about $600 million in profits. Apart from the compulsory rehabilitation programs, the companies return relatively little to the area. They point out that they provide employment in the region, but they constantly seek to minimise numbers, increase working hours, and casualise their workforce.

On the other hand, the government recently changed the royalty requirements, and because of increased demand for coal, what was originally anticipated to be a payment of $44 million this financial year is now expected to rise to some $400 million. Of this sum, $300 million will come from the Hunter mines, but relatively little will be returned to the area by the government.

The minister responsible for the Hunter, Michael Costa, last week claimed that the government had "strong and detailed plans for the Hunter that build on the billions of dollars spent in the region since 1995".

However, he could only cite as examples "seven new country fire engines, a new school in Ashtonfield and 32 million in wages and salaries for more than 200 staff of the Cessnock Correctional Centre" - in short, cases where the new spending was not directly related to the particular problems facing residents of coal mining districts.

And the fact that Mr Costa is handling this portfolio does not inspire one with hope. After all, just think what a remarkable job he did in reorganising Sydney's trains.

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