Home' Aurora : Aurora February 2013 Contents John L Hayes ponders current
issues raised by coal mining.
Coal mining began in the Hunter at
Coal River, now known as Newcastle,
about 1800. There has been co-existence
between that industry and the people of
the Hunter ever since -- sometimes easy
and peaceful, sometimes difficult and
For more than two centuries, members of
many Hunter familles have been employed
by the mines, or in industries processing,
distributing and exporting coal.
Much of Newcastle and the Hunter is
undermined and in many places buildings
can't easily co-exist with undermining.
Costly grouting and remediation is often
needed to allow construction of larger new
buildings over old coal workings, and in
other cases, building restrictions apply.
Ownership of the coal mines and the
exporting facilities used to be in local
hands, but that has changed dramatically.
Now, more than 80% of coal mines are
owned by multinationals --- with most
of their profits going overseas to foreign
shareholders and/or foreign governments.
All the coal export facilities in Newcastle, all
coal export ships and most Newcastle tugs
are also owned by multinationals. Almost
all new large machinery and equipment
used in the mines and in handling and
haulage is made overseas by foreign
companies and imported here.
In the heyday of Broken Hill Proprietary
(BHP) and the big Hunter coal-fired power
stations --- which used to provide cheap
electricity for industry and residents --- the
catch cry for all this activity and Industry
was jobs, jobs, jobs -- and anything done
in the name of jobs was good. Health and
environmental considerations were mostly
put to one side, and as most coal mining
was underground, there was usually an
'out of sight -- out of mind' mentality.
Then four things happened:
1. The development and rapid
expansion of open cut mining, then
and now driven by significant increases
in prices for export coal.
2. Different methods, more mechanisation
and then increasing automation
gradually led to fewer jobs per mine
and per tonne of coal mined,
processed, transported and exported.
3. Coal prices went up, existing mines
were expanded and new open-cut
mines were opened. Recently we have
seen that when coal prices go down,
there is a rush by some miners to
increase tonnages, to compensate for
the lower prices.
4. Cheap electricity disappeared.
So in the last 40 years there has been a
Remember the beautiful Hunter
Valley, the very rich Liverpool
Plains and the picturesque
Gloucester valleys? Let's look
forward from that time.
Mining once co-existed fairly
easily with most residents, as
well as with general agriculture,
the wine makers and grape growers
and the thoroughbred studs. Increasingly,
mining is becoming an unwelcome
neighbour that is driving people and
industries away. World famous vignerons
and horse studs are now saying they will
struggle to remain in the Hunter.
What used to be beautiful landscapes, with
clean air and clean water, are increasingly
looking like huge moonscape craters, and
increasingly, clean air and clean water are
distant memories. Statements by miners
and governments that these once beautiful
valleys will be "remediated" when mining
stops are impossible pipe dreams.
No amount of attempted remediation will
bring back rich soils, lost flora and fauna,
significant natural forests, great vistas and
landscapes, naturally flowing clean water
and clean air.
Whole populations of small villages and
farmers are being driven from their homes
and properties, and property prices --
which until recent years were either steady
or rising -- are now dropping. Larger
centres are also under threat.
We are becoming more and more aware
of the negative effects of mining and coal
dust on our health -- at the mines, along
the coal corridors, at and near the coal
Experts differ, but the more I read and
hear about the effects of mining, the more
I'm convinced that over the last forty years,
the serious increase in asthma and other
respiratory diseases in the Hunter has an
uncomfortably close relationship with the
increase in coal mining.
As one university expert said at a recent
Dust Seminar in Waratah, "There is no safe
level for airborne dust particles, just as
there is no safe level for cigarette smoking."
Matters of global warming and climate
change need to be considered in
the context of ever expanding,
and largely unconstrained
coal mining; very rarely is
permission for a new coal
mine refused. The claim that
humans contribute to global
warming and climate change
is supported by thousands of
non-aligned scientists around the world,
who communicate regularly and who
produce increasingly gloomy reports. Let
the naysayers say and do what they like.
Nightly news reports from around the
world should cause them to stop and think,
"Hey! Maybe the climate scientists do have
Alternative non-polluting renewable energy
sources are now available, most notably
solar and wind power. New technologies
are enhancing these, and making them
more cost efficient all the time, and brand
new non-polluting sustainable techniques
and machines are being developed every
year. Despite statements to the contrary,
BASE load power generation is possible
with renewables now, and is already
The cost curves of electricity from coal-
fired power and renewables are getting
closer, and will soon converge and cross
over. How soon depends on many factors
but removing some of the freight and
investment subsidies for coal will hasten
The role of Governments, especially
the Environmental Protection Authority
(EPA) should be to protect people, the
environment and flora and fauna.
The facts are that the EPA licenses industry
to pollute through the issuing of Pollution
Reduction Licences. Many argue it does
not do enough in its "Protection" role.
Governments make a fortune from coal
royalties and will not easily surrender that
revenue. However, thinking politicians and
governments should and will realise that
many benefits in employment and to the
environment will flow from fostering the
renewable energy industries in the Hunter
and gradually pulling back from non-
renewable and polluting coal.
Common sense will tell you all is not right
I hope you have enough information here
to continue your own research and to ask
the hard questions --- of politicians and
John L Hayes retired to Newcastle nearly
nine years ago, after working in Sydney for
about 40 years in various roles, including
senior management and administration for
major organisations. He is now involved in
many community organisations, including
the Social Justice Council of the Diocese of
Social Justice issues for
Hunter residents to ponder
BY JOHN L HAYES
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
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