We have a situation in the Hunter where the precious commodities of clean air, soil and water are knowingly compromised in the interests of mining royalties, where the profits of international companies are prioritised over the interests of other thriving industries, community health and wellbeing, and the protection of valuable agricultural land.
Yet this is what is happening to a valley famous for its beautiful wines, top thoroughbreds, rich soils producing quality dairy cattle and the clean rivers upon which all these industries depend.
There is little in the Hunter that remains untouched by coal mining, thanks to an explosion in activity over the past decade, which means many communities and other industries are literally surrounded by coal mines.
The acquisition of 70-year-old Wendy Bowman’s farm for the Ashton South East open cut coal mine expansion is a make-or-break situation for the Yancoal company. Without it the mine can’t go ahead, but despite almost all her neighbours’ land being acquired by the mine, Wendy isn’t selling. It’s the second time a mining company has tried to buy her farm.
Wendy moved when the noise and dust adjacent to her previous property became too much. The heartache of watching the destruction of the natural assets she had worked to cultivate and protect was immense. When giant cracks appeared in the local creek bed, above the underground mine, and all the water disappeared, she vowed she would never allow a mine to destroy her land again.
Wendy’s is a story that is echoed in communities across the Hunter.
The tiny Bulga community has been trying to prevent an expansion of the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine by Rio Tinto for five years.
Already faced with intolerable levels of noise and dust from three huge mines that flank the town, and anxious to protect native woodland adjacent to the village that is home to several endangered species, the community is fighting to protect themselves and the remaining natural assets from further negative effects should the mine come any closer to the village.
Despite winning court cases in the NSW Land and Environment Court and the NSW Supreme Court to prevent the mine’s expansion, the community was shocked last year when the NSW government changed the planning laws, allowing the value of the assets to trump any negative impact on the community – effectively allowing the mine expansion to go ahead.
The community now has no right of appeal on the merits of the case and an approval decision can no longer be challenged in the courts.
The Blake family in Denman, fifth generation farmers, have their health and livelihood threatened by the nearby Mangoola mine. They can no longer collect rainwater for drinking because of the coal dust, and the children – the oldest of whom is nine – all suffer from respiratory illnesses and can no longer play outside.
The people of NSW are not well served by a government that is handing over the right to access precious natural resources to international companies that derive considerable profit at the expense of public health, environmental damage and a stable climate.
This week an open letter to the NSW Premier signed by health and climate experts, including Professor Tim Flannery and Professor Fiona Stanley, and climate scientist Professor James Hansen, calls on the Premier to ban new coal mines in the Hunter and invest in a transition plan to help the region expand other existing industries and encourage new industries to the region.
This recommendation comes from the report released by the Climate and Health Alliance outlining the economic costs associated with illnesses and deaths from air pollution in the Hunter, and the global damage from climate change, attributable to greenhouse gas emissions from Hunter Valley coal.
There are local and national costs, because the damage from coal pollution and the destructive nature of mine operations are not factored into the costs of the project, the electricity produced from the coal, nor are they levelled as penalties on the industry.
These costs fall on Australian taxpayers and the global community. Just because they don’t appear on company ledgers, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Hunter Valley has many vibrant, valuable industries that, given the opportunity and a healthy environment, can flourish and replace jobs currently in mining.
These jobs are already at risk. Caps on coal in China, commitments from India to stop importing coal, and the increasing distaste among investors for carbon-intensive fuels spell the end for the coal industry.
A ban on new coal mines and investment in new industries and opportunities for mine employees would allow an orderly transition to a more secure and sustainable economic base for the region – and an environment that is healthier for everyone.
Fiona Armstrong is the author of the Coal and Health in the Hunter: Lessons from one valley for the world report for the Climate and Health Alliance. She is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and an Associate of the Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute at the University of Melbourne.