I spent several days last week in the Hunter Valley, visiting various community groups, with colleagues.
I saw that the Hunter is covered with huge coal mines, most of which are hidden from the road by scenic barriers; mounds of earth with trees growing on them, or by metal panels stuck on stilts. It is almost as if the mining companies were not proud of what they were doing, and did not want people to observe it.
I also learnt that open cut coal mines tend to have two, or even three parts. There is the mine pit, which destroys the land it occupies and much of the land around it, and there are the waste mountains which are composed of the rocks and soil covering the coal and separating the coal seams. That also destroys the land it is piled on and around it. The third place is where the finished coal is dumped for transport.
Several of these processes require heavy water use. The coal dust is apparently damped down to keep it from flying around, although excavation through explosives cannot be damped. The coal at the “holding for transport place” is supposed to be damped down, again to stop it from flying about, although we watched for quite a while at one mine without any evidence of this damping happening. The air was heavy with clouds of coal dust. The truly massive trucks involved use lots of diesel which is also polluting, and poisonous to breathe, but they get the tax removed on diesel usage, so its all good.
People who live near mines tell us that coal dust covers everything, and the general suspicion seems to be that coal is not damped down at night. So everyone is breathing coal dust. The mine waste also produces dust. Its dumped from the big trucks and clouds of dust rise up. The ground and trees around the dumps are covered in white/grey powder. The growth is not healthy looking.
Mining companies are supposed to do rehabilitation of the mines. This apparently means filling the pits with water, which then leaches poisons from the coal and sinks into the land taking the poisons with it. The process not only poisons rivers and bore wells but deprives the areas of water flow, on top of the water the mines get to appropriate for their own purposes. I’m not sure why the pits are filled with water, but the obvious suggestion is that it is cheap for the companies. There is some evidence of seedling planting but this mainly on the mounds that are shielding the mines from tourists, or on the sides of the dumps facing the roads. Apparently areas away from vision are largely untouched, although clearly I cannot confirm that. Most of the growth you see covering the sides of the rubble areas looks random, or natural, and very sparse. It is probably at least as unhealthy as the areas covered in the white or grey powder from the dumps.
We did not see many people working the mines or the dumps. The huge trucks, conveyor belts and mining by blowing ground up and using huge digging implements to scoop up the rocks, means few workers are needed. We were also told that most of the workforce is now contracted out, so the workers earn much less than they used to and have no sick or holiday pay or pension funds other than what they put aside out of their diminished pay. The aim of business is nearly always to decrease wages where possible.
People of course fight new mines and mine expansion, because it endangers their health, their communities and the countryside they live in. Mining companies buy up property, but this always comes with a non-disclosure agreement, so people cannot find out what the prices being paid are, and so don’t know what to hold out for; this amounts to suppression of the market for profit. People who protest might find that their houses are not bought while the rest of the village is destroyed. Sometimes companies were told to destroy the houses because the areas was too dangerous or too uninhabitable, but they would rent out the houses instead, further poisoning their workers who rented them.
People who protest can suffer from death threats in the streets from pro-mine people, which the police take seriously, and they can similarly be threatened by government agents although, so far, not with death. Under new laws they can be imprisoned for up to seven years, and if they protest about these laws can be told they are for their safety, as protesting on mines can be dangerous. If the court rejects a mine because of its destruction, then the laws can be changed retrospectively to get that mine through. It also seems to matter who you are in terms of successful protests. So far more mines seem to have been stopped to protect horse studs than farms or villages. As one person said “Horses are more important than people”.
It can sometimes seem like the main reason for the mines going ahead is the pleasure of destruction. In one place where a mine was stopped, the fertile ground, attractive hills and Aboriginal sacred sites were clear. It would have been a loss for very little long term gain.
People have argued that agriculture could make more for the local economy and the State (mining companies pay very little in royalties for our minerals, and generally avoid tax), and that farming would continue a lot longer that mining with fewer health side effects, but even that is not enough to persuade the State not to support miners. One group was told by a government official that “wherever there are resources we will harvest them” – clearly fertile land is not a resource which can be harvested.
We were taken to one site were a well known company had spent considerable amounts of money building gas storage facilities, only to find that the company prospecting for that company had neglected to inform them that the plain flooded regularly, and that the ground was so honeycombed that any gas bored out would leak into the air. The Government office relied entirely on documents provided by the company to do the approval and did not know about either point. They did no further research.
Some people alleged the government and its committees had been stacked with people from the fossil fuel industry or chosen by that industry, so there was no possible objections to the conduct of the industry or what it could destroy. This appears standard throughout most of the capitalist world.
Quite a number of people suggested that the process was so biased towards the mining industry that there was no point engaging with the State, actions had to be taken outside it to have any effect. However, there is no doubt the courts can be useful, if the situation is aligned, and pro-mining evidence can be shown to be wrong. Ultimately gains are precarious, but it seems necessary to participate.
One group was trying to get people to think about the future of the Hunter beyond coal. They were told by a representative of the industry that diversification was suicide. The stupidity of this statement, if reported correctly, is unbelievable. Focusing on one industry is a recipe for disaster. All eco-systems including economies, benefit from diversity.
There was only a little talk about renewable energy. Although some people suggested that the coal heaps could be covered in solar, as they were not fit for anything else.
All the people we met were inspirations. We need to join with them to preserve the earth from destruction for profit and from joy of destruction.