Passion in the Pilliga

Last weekend about 300 people gathered from farflung parts of the east coast to show that they cared — about the unique Pilliga Forest and its flora and fauna, about the Great Artesian Basin, about the farmers of the North West — and about the Santos CSG Narrabri Project that threatens them all.

Most camped at Barkala, home to the deservedly famous Pilliga Pottery, a creative and conservation oasis built by Maria and her family over decades, on their beautiful Pilliga property, a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Photo by Jo Holden

From Friday evening onwards the cars rolled in from the dusty road, tents and signs popped up, and volunteers manned information and kitchen tents.

The 200 or so campers spent Saturday morning on walks and tours discovering the Pilliga. I opted for Maria’s Walk, to her special lookout, where we looked across one aspect of the vast 500,000 ha. of this largest temperate woodland west of the Great Dividing Range.

Maria pointed out to us and her small grandson the distant Warrumbungles, with the dome of Sidings Springs Observatory just visible. Their special Dark Sky status will be ruined if Santos proceed: science and tourism gone for gas.

The Pilliga is one of Australia’s biodiversity hotspots; at first passing glance it may look the same, but is actually most diverse and rich, with around 30 distinct ecosystems, home to over 1000 native plant species and 300 animals, including 15 threatened flora species and 35 threatened fauna species… at least so far as we know, since the Pilliga has not yet revealed all its mysteries.

Those we do know, like the Pilliga Mouse, the Black-striped Wallaby and the Koala– cannot survive in the maze of an industrial gas field.

On Barkala itself, we walked through the varying vegetation of forested gullies and ridges, with dry waterholes, sandstone caves and cliffs– from one of which a rather majestic feral billygoat warily surveyed us.

Workshops filled the afternoon, with planning forums and a fabulous indigenous dance performance into the twillight before dinner and music and song. And bed, as a 7a.m. start was planned for Sunday’s actions.

Amazingly, an early and bountiful breakfast awaited, plus snacks to take with us. A long convoy of vehicles drove for about an hour, up the Newell Highway and into Pilliga State Forest to dry sandy Bohena Creek, site of the human NO CSG sign we were there to make.

Many more met us there, locals and farmers, our numbers now being about 300 passionate Pilliga Protectors. The Pilliga region is so vast that even locals may have to drive several hours to get to another part, as today.

Several farmers spoke eloquently and movingly about the grave risk — guaranteed? — to the water sources on which they depend. The Pilliga is a critical recharge area for the GAB. Depletion and pollution of precious water — for an uneconomic and unnecessary gas resource?

Fire danger from the tall gas flares, permitted even on total fire ban days in this dry forest, was another huge concern.

The insanity of the Santos CSG project was made crystal clear; there are no good reasons for it, only obvious reasons why it must not proceed.

Marshalls directed us to the letters drawn in the sand; about 60 people per letter. All ages were here, from the elderly on sticks to kids and dogs of course a clutch of Knitting Nannas, from the Central Coast, Newcastle, Gloucester, the Manning and the Northern Rivers.

Photo from Protecting the Pilliga Facebook page

It was hot as we waited for the drone to adequately capture our message to Santos and the government, but the excitement was as high as the very vocal determination to stop this shortsighted vandalism of our land and our children’s future. I happened to be on the ’S’.

Many of us then followed the innovative Jo Holden and her two tiptrucks of bagged paper symbolic ‘toxic waste’ to the gates at the Leewood Facility, where they were piled up to the chant of ’We don’t want your toxic waste’, amongst others. Narrabri CSG will be SEVEN times as salty as that from the Queensland gasfields.

There is NO solution for dealing with the vast amounts of this toxic material: it is not ‘merely’ salt that comes up from the coal seams in the water that must be extracted to release the pressure and let the gas flow. Radioactive elements are just some of the naturally occurring contaminants.

(Note: fracking is not currently the proposed method of extraction here.)

This event was very well organised; herding cats is nothing to what they pulled off this weekend with such numbers.

The People from the Plains were grateful for the outside support shown here; farms are large and scattered over great distances. They need us to keep up the passion felt this weekend and the pressure to say NO to the Narrabri project, which would be just the first of the Santos PEL empire.

Santos, this is only the start of the uprising of sane people all over the country who know the CSG industry must not be allowed to get away in NSW as it did in Queensland. The risks to water and health are proven, they have no waste disposal solution… and we neither need nor want it!

Village on the verge

North of Mudgee, Wollar village is littered with evidence of the progress and prosperity that original owner Excel promised would come to the community once the Wilpinjong mine was under way.

Peabody, ’The Big American’, bought it, the mine began in 2006, and Wollar soon felt the impact indeed…

Noise, both audible and low frequency, air pollution from blasting, ‘dust’ and spontaneous combustion.

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Stage Two made the village almost unliveable and better houses in the village were bought by the mine and rented to mine employees, who can’t complain. People left, the community was decimated, and the surrounding farms lost their focus.

The one-stop shop offered less and less. The mine owns this church, and only a handful of kids still attend the school — for how long?

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The Queensland town of Acland was emptied in advance of a stage 3 approval. In the Rich Land, Wasteland chapter about this area –Cumbo Valley, Wollar, Ulan and Bylong – in 2012 I wrote, ‘Wollar is Acland-in-progress’. That chapter is all-too-aptly called ‘Clearing out the country’ and the truth in 2016 is heart-wrenching. 

Now, as the remaining villagers and outliers await Stage 3 here, Wollar is looking more and more like Acland.

Some homes have been demolished but many are being left to fall down, with the security signs the only new things around. Echoes of Wybong.

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Eerily, as at Acland, the grass verges are still mowed.

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The large Wollar Hall is still as hale as ever, but the community that once filled it for dances is not. 

Residents told of feeling nauseous of a morning from the spontaneous combustion from the mine, of the coal dust on everything, of the vibrations from the heavy coal trains, of the ‘hum’ waking them in the early hours of the morning, of the sadness as neighbours left, of all the work that has been put into their places over decades, of those memories created, of their still strong desire to remain. 

Those outliers who will be impacted — and left stranded without a village — told of the lack of any offers to be compensated or bought out.

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I went back up the Wollar/Ulan road to see how far the mine had come since my last visit. It has crept a lot closer to the village but it’s a hard mine to see from the road, as it’s flat country, and the coal deposits are near the surface, so the overburden heaps are not as high as in the Hunter. 

It’s very poor quality coal so the overburden heaps have coal visibly mixed in them, which is not usual. This coal is contracted for Bayswater Power Station, where it has to be mixed with better coal to be burnt.

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On the evening of Monday 28th November the few locals hosted a few supporters like me, Steve from Lock the Gate, the O’Laughlins from Bulga and the four fabulous ladies from East Maitland to the sort of country hospitality Wollar was known for. A BBQ, fresh salads and cakes — and many sad stories and wishes for Peabody to stop, to leave them and their remnant village be.

Wollar Progress association has been revived, to fight on for real progress, not Peabody’s.

For this community is not dead yet; it could be revived if Peabody is denied their expansion and made to minimise the existing noise impacts regardless of the cost.

Another 11 years of Peabody’s disregard for the community’s health is more than enough; if Peabody is bankrupt, and can’t afford to operate even within inadequate conditions, why consider allowing them to continue the actual harm longer?

When did Profit get to hold such sway in our Planning Dept.? When did People and Planet get to count for nothing?

To ‘Save Wollar’ is the aim of the villagers and supporters.

It is clearly not that of the state government, who sent the project to a PAC hearing last Tuesday, removing any public right of appeal to a decision. ICAC recommended these merits appeal rights be restored for coal mine approvals.
Who is listening?

Sick of this farce of a process, it was decided to boycott the PAC; to make written submissions but not to attend or speak. After all, what use is just five minutes to plead for survival?

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Boycott rallies were held in Mudgee, outside the hearing, and in Sydney.

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Justifiably, passions were high. The indomitable Bev Smiles, a Wollar area local, told us straight how the government now admit — in print — that they got it wrong about the social impacts that Wollar would suffer, but they reckon it’s irreversible, so Peabody may as well wipe put the rest.

Local Seamus Duffy tugged at our heartstrings as he sang a rewritten John Pryne song, originally about mountaintop mining. We joined in the chorus as a son asks to be taken back to Wilpinjong Valley, and the father replies,’Sorry my son, you’re too late in asking, for Peabody’s coal trains have hauled it away’.

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We heard speeches about the impacts on water, indigenous heritage and climate change, and songs from Mick Fetch, whose roots lie deep in Wollar, whose family lie in Wollar cemetery. Mick had tried to buy that church above, but they refused and sold it to the mine.

I avoid the coal-Hunter as much as I can; my heartsickness is too great.

After I spoke at Tarwyn Park’s last day I came back to the Manning via Lithgow and Sydney to avoid it. Ridiculous, I know.

This time I took the Golden Highway. 

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Jerry’s Plains, horse country, under threat.

Another village to be pushed to the verge of extinction?

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And off to the west towards Bulga and east towards Muswellbrook, glimpses of the all-too-familiar clean country air and picturesque overburden mountains of the coal-trashed Hunter.

And still Planning pushes for more…

Last post at Tarwyn Park

The coal train rumbled past behind Tarwyn Park, as it often does on its route to and from Newcastle’s coal port and the Western Coalfields, where the Ulan, Moolarben and Wilpinjong mines are busy trashing other valleys, other villages. But on this last day of July 2016, it seemed an unwarranted rubbing in of salt to the wound that has been inflicted here in the Bylong Valley. 

Kepco is the Korean coal company that has imposed its ambition for a coal mine onto a lush farming valley, in a natural setting as stunning as Gloucester’s. The Bylong Way is a renowned scenic drive or bike ride.

And, like Gloucester, it ought to have been unthinkable to propose a coalmine here.

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Kepco’s plans have harmed the hopes and histories of many Bylong families, but today we are here to celebrate, honour and mourn in particular Tarwyn Park, birthplace and home of Natural Sequence Farming — and of the Andrews family.

Peter Andrews developed his internationally respected system here, slowing the natural flows of water through this landscape so it became water retentive, as it would have been before Europeans cleared and interfered.

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Photo of Peter Andrews by Eve Jeffery (Cloudcatcher media)

His son Stuart, wife Megan, and their sons Hamish and Lachlan were living here when I chose it as the Rich Land of the cover of my book, Rich Land, Wasteland.

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Photo by Eve Jeffery (Cloudcatcher media)

After today they no longer will be in residence; Kepco will. The fact that Kepco had set up their headquarters right next door (once a farm) always struck me as intimidating, a constant red rag, a reminder to this stressed family that ’we are bigger; we will win in the end’.

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Many came to this Open Day, to see the place and hear how the system works, to sign the petitions to have Tarwyn Park heritage listed — visit the website here — to meet Peter Andrews, to show support, express sympathy…

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The old sheds and stables, where champions like Rainmaker were housed, reeked of history, as did the homestead. People came in from the paddocks to the homestead steps to hear Peter, Joanne McCarthy and myself speak.

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The extraordinarily persevering Craig Shaw, driver of BVPA, Bylong Valley Protection Alliance, a person for whom I have great affection, admiration (and concern), brought us up to speed on the heritage listing campaign.

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Photo of Sharyn Munro (left) by Eve Jeffery (Cloudcatcher media)

I saw many familar faces there, fellow fighters for a fair go, as these industries especially impact on rural areas like Bulga, and nearby Wollar. For example, perennial battler Bev Smiles from Wollar and some really dangerous extremists like Di O’Mara.

Di is holding a green ribbon; as we left we tied these to the row of olive trees outside the gate, to flutter in the breeze for the weeks to come and remind Kepco that we care, that we do not forget. How many rich lands must we lose to wastelands — for the dying industry of coal?

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It was an emotional day for many, as we felt for the Andrews family and railed at the injustice and stupidity of any government allowing this to happen.

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Please follow the ongoing battle and progress of negotiations for heritage listing on Facebook. 

Good management at Gloucester

agl-1In mid-December last year, after AGL had fracked the four wells at their Waukivory Pilot CSG project at Gloucester, the Protectors Camp that I was visiting went into recess, but not before one intrepid protector followed the tankers carrying the contaminated wastewater to find out what they were doing with it, as AGL had not replied to questions about this. She followed them to Newcastle, where Hunter Water had forbidden AGL to bring the stuff.

Of course it wasn’t AGL’s fault that it got dumped in the Hunter sewerage system; it was the contractor’s.

Although Hunter Water had directed AGL not to even use a Hunter contractor…

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So began a lovely series of revelations as to how AGL run their show and how low is the standard of what this industry calls ‘world class regulation’.

I have often repeated what the industry admitted in 2011, that ‘good management could minimise the risks of water contamination, but never eliminate them’.

Here’s the latest run of reasons why Groundswell Gloucester’s 2014 pre-fracking 79-page advice to government, ‘Exposing the Risks’, ought to have been heeded. ‘Good management’ is NOT what has happened at Gloucester.

During the fracking, it was discovered that AGL was using a radioactive element, Caesium-137, to measure the density of fracturing fluid. This had not been part of the approval process. Trust us, we’re a gas company??

Then two fracking chemicals, Tolcide and Monoethanolamine, indicators of likely other chemicals, were found in groundwater.

AGL’s licence requires zero presence of these chemicals. AGL knew that zero limit was exceeded in November, yet they kept fracking and didn’t tell the EPA until Jan 15.

Professor Philip Pells has said all along that at Gloucester there is a high risk of an environmental disaster. He considered it likely that fracking would connect the coal seam’s polluted water with the beneficial shallow aquifers. ‘Adaptive management’ is what AGL was approved to use, to ‘suck it and see’; which always meant it would be too late to do anything after the disaster occurs, as it has.

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Then AGL admitted large fluctuations of groundwater levels at its monitoring bores; they don’t admit fracking is the fault but levels at one bore varied as much as 7.8 metres during the fracking and 3.5 metres after it.

Next they found toxic BTEX chemicals in flowback water at two of the wells and an above-ground storage tank. AGL discovered the chemicals on January 15, but only reported them to the EPA almost two weeks later.

Associate Professor Stuart Khan, from the University of NSW, says while the four main BTEX chemicals — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and three forms of xylene — occur naturally in coal seams no one wants them turning up in drinking water. Benzene is a known carcinogen and Australian drinking water guidelines restrict it to one part per billion. 

AGL denies using BTEX in its fracking. ‘The reported concentration of 555 [parts per billion of BTEX for one AGL sample] is very high and probably the highest concentration I have heard of in environmental water,” Dr Khan said.

After this avalanche of bad PR, AGL suspended the Waukivory Pilot Project, then the government did so too. Division of Resources and Energy investigators will inspect the four CSG wells with their counterparts from the NSW Environment Protection Authority.

Just two months of world class management of four wells. Imagine 110, and then 330 wells?

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But don’t worry, there will be a ‘robust’ investigation and Minister Roberts has appointed Ms Lee Shearer to oversee it; Groundswell Gloucester doesn’t question her abilities, but her past role as a consultant to the mining industry, including ‘managing crisis situations’, does raise concerns about her total independence…

AGL’s new wastewater contractor was taking it to South Windsor; the Hawkesbury area was not too happy about it, and now that treatment plant will not accept AGL wastewater either. So what is their solution?

Local National Party candidate Stephen Bromhead has been saying that “If it is found that AGL cannot demonstrate that they can prevent BTEX escaping from the coal seam their license for the Gloucester Basin will be cancelled and no new applications will be approved.” 

Sadly people cannot hear such promises without looking for the post-election wriggle room. Who could forget O’Farrell’s ‘no ifs, no buts, a guarantee’ re mining in water catchments?

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I joined Gloucester folk on the first 2015 No Stopping Gloucester walk through town: we had about 100 there.

(These are held the second Saturday of each month to coincide with the local Growers’ Market; 9 am at Billabong Park.)

The next Tuesday I returned when Groundswell Gloucester publicly presented a new 600pp document, ‘Exposing the truth’, how AGL has failed to consult or report donations and has misled the community. It asks Minister Roberts to suspend AGL’s Licence and was delivered to him on 5th February.

AGL has now admitted what I was quoting BHP Petroleum as saying several years ago: there’s enough LPG in the Bass Strait reserves to avoid gas shortages in NSW. There goes the doomsday scenario justification for rushing to open up more risky unconventional gas fields for LNG. We don’t need to poison or dewater Gloucester and the Manning — or the Pilliga and the GAB, or anywhere.

AGL wants to start three test wells at Wards River south of Gloucester next. Gloucester Council has withdrawn from the dialogue with AGL and has asked the Minister to cancel its licence.

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Meanwhile, the new CEO of AGL has foreshadowed  a ‘comprehensive review’ of AGL’s upstream gas operations, and Citibank has warned that  ‘negative connotations’ around AGL’s Gloucester coal seam gas project risk harming the company’s brand, and says the company should consider ‘walking away’’ if public perception doesn’t improve.

Citibank said that while the introduction of a new CEO meant it was a ‘good time to try and change public’s perception’ of AGL and Gloucester, ‘given the strength of local opposition, this will be a very difficult task’.

Citibank is spot on there. Take a look at this latest in Groundswell Gloucester’s series of short films of Voices from Gloucester (by David Lowe).

Speak up for nature — November 7 deadline

These are Bimblebox trees, on the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, several hours west of Emerald. 

It’s such a special place, of such high conservation value, that the Federal Government chipped in about half the cost of the property, under the National Reserve System, called ‘Caring for our Country’.

This property had 97% remnant bushland still intact, a rarity in Queensland’s Desert Uplands bio-region, a declared Australian Biodiversity Hotspot. Paola Cassoni and friends have been caring for it, but the government clearly no longer does.

The government counts the Reserve System towards meeting their international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Tick it off — then cross it off for mining? For they gave Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal an exploration licence over Bimblebox, and now the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) confirms that his proposed China First mine would destroy Bimblebox Nature Refuge. 

The opencut mine would take 52% of Bimblebox and the rest  will be subject to major subsidence and interference from underground longwall mining.

People like Paola — and me — sign conservation contracts in perpetuity, to give up their bushland for the good of all, for the sake of regional and national bio-diversity. We remove weeds, nurture indigenous plants, harm not even a leaf that belongs there.

But the wishes of a mining company, for private profit, can negate this, render those cherished natural treasures as suitable for bulldozing. Only National Parks are safe from mining — so far.

Offsets are a sick joke and the myriad variety of living things on Bimblebox face destruction. If this mine goes ahead it will set a precedent for the invasion of all conservation areas.

Please have your say about this travesty and submit a comment on Waratah Coal’s Environmental Impact Statement. The more objections we raise, the louder we rattle the can, the more we will be heard.
 
The period for public comment closes on November 7th. 

Paola and the Friends of Bimblebox have prepared a submission for people to send in, and have information for people who want to write their own. 

Please visit the Bimblebox website to find out how to make a submission.

Camberwell – in crisis from coal

In a loop of Glennies Creek sits the historic village of Camberwell: 56 houses, all but seven now owned by Ashton mine — which is Yancoal Australia, which is Chinese company Yanzhou.

Camberwell is on its last legs. As you can see from the map, the village is all but surrounded by opencut mines.  The Ashton North mine is the closest, just 500 metres away. Life has become almost unbearable there, with the collective noise and dust.

The one aspect still unmined is to the south. Ashton wants to fix that with their Ashton South East Open Cut, immediately across the highway from the main part of the village. 

Recently Planning recommended that the Planning Assessment Commisssion approve the mine.

There’s a bit of a problem because half the pit site is veteran battler Wendy Bowman’s dairy farm. Beyond Wendy and her neat paddocks is mine-owned; you can pick it by the weeds and general air of abandonment. The trees and houses to the right is the village, just across the highway; the treeline to the left is Glennies Creek.

Wendy’s already been forced off the family farm once by a coal mine, at Rixs Creek.  She has no intention of letting that happen again, partly because she is desperately worried about what the mine would do to Glennies Creek and its alluvial systems.

Not far south, that creek joins and virtually takes over from the polluted Hunter River, so all irrigators downstream, such as the lucerne-growers at Maitland and the vignerons  at Pokolbin, would be affected.

Planning doesn’t say how Ashton should make her give in, but note the mine is not viable without that property and would not proceed. I shudder to think what tactics, what pressure, might come into play.

Wendy’s not alone in resisting the new mine; the local Wonnarua people are trying to stop the cultural damage it will do, asking the Land and Environment Court  for a 500-metre wide buffer zones around Glennies Creek and Bowmans Creek.

And there’s Deidre Oloffson, who’s been fighting for her village and the right to health of its residents ever since 2002, when Ashton began digging away the back of the hill beside the village. That hill, behind her, used to be the village Common, but the Planning Minister took it away in 2010 for Ashton to use. 

Coincidentally, White Mining, related to Ashton, then applied for an exploration lease over it. Since the Camberwell Common Trust is no longer recognised, Deidre is to fight the government and both miners in the Land and Environment Court, on behalf of the residents, to get their Common back.

She has said all along that this Ashton South East Open Cut will be the final deathblow for Camberwell.

What did Planning suggest to square the mine approval with their conscience?

The seven remaining Camberwell landowners could ask to be bought out if the increased noise and dust got too bad — which it already had and which option they have been refusing — or they could ask to be relocated for the seven years of the mine’s operation. In other words, get out of our way.

Ashton’s tenants have to be warned of the risks, could ask to be relocated too, and everyone had to be given copies of the NSW health fact sheet ‘Mine Dust and You’. Does this absolve Planning and Ashton of blame?

The Planning Assessment Commission is coming to the area for a public hearing, 9 a.m., 6th September, at Glennies Creek Hall. People can have a say there if they register before 31st August with Megan Webb on (02) 9383 2113 or by email.

For details go here and look at the recommendations to the PAC.

All support will be appreciated by the battlers of Camberwell.

Glennies Creek Hall is on Middle Falbrook Road, reached from Glennies Creek Road off the New England Highway. On the way you get some lovely views back over Camberwell’s surrounding rural environment…

Minimal mining impact

Up near Capella, north of Emerald in Queensland, cattle farmers Mick and Margaret Shaw took on the Kestrel mine, objecting to Pacific Coal (Rio Tinto) wanting surface rights to mine under part of their mining lease, which extends over a fifth of the Shaws’ cattle property. 

They had seen the results of longwall mining under a neighbour’s property — cracking, subsidence, water running the wrong way. Their objections were dismissed by the Land and Resources Court; they appealed and won, since it was found that ‘the mining lease contained a fatal flaw, a technical error that made it invalid in relation to the Shaws’ land’. 

But then the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources said:

“The State’s interests in extracting its minerals resources for the benefit of the people were at risk” and so ‘they granted the company surface rights, not just to the small portion it had originally applied for but to all of the lease area on the Shaws’ land’. (ABC 7:30 Report 14.8.2002)

The Shaws felt this would make their property unviable, and the company should buy them out. But, as always, the company assured the government that the level of subsidence here would be ‘minimal’.

Local organic farmer Paul Murphy showed me that rollercoaster of a road at the top of this post, which demonstrates the ‘minimal subsidence’, 12 years after mining; two-metre deep dips — still sinking and constantly being repaired…

…and one other visible impact of those old longwalls — bands of dying established trees over the 265-metre longwall bands but not over the 30-metre gaps in between.

The mine owns most of the land now and leases it out, and I suppose they’d say that this most un-idyllic pastoral scene proves that agriculture and mining can co-exist.

Of course, if people complain about underground mining, there are plenty of old overburden dumps left unshaped and unrehabilitated — in which Queensland abounds — for them to refresh their memories and choose which they found least invasive. There is never a choice for neither.

Coal floods?

As central Queensland floods, I am hearing much in the media about the economic damage to the coal mines there, but not what those mines are contaminating as the floods surge through them. Or as the exposed coal stockpiles at every mine, rail loader and port loader wash into the floods.

 When the town of Theodore was evacuated, I immediately thought of the flatness of the country and the road to Theodore, which runs for kilometres beside the Moura mine’s heavy metal-laden overburden dumps, now washing into the rushing flood, and of their contaminated mine water, usually stored in earth-walled tailings dams.

And if you ever thought road and rail were solid things, just look at how they have been pushed aside by  water — lifted like frosting on a cake, as shown by this photo of the Banana to Theodore route, passed on by Avriel Tyson from near Rolleston.

What will such power have done in all the mines up there?

In previous floods, such walls have broken or been overflowed, and mines fined (tuppence!), as at the Ensham and Rolleston mines in the Emerald region, for releasing these toxic waste waters into the river system — and hence to the Great Barrier Reef. This photo, of the Rolleston mine flooding in that previous event, was taken by Avriel Tyson.

The Tysons have been isolated on their homestead island of slightly higher ground (which I had thought was flat when I was there) by the current unprecedentedly high flooding since late December, creeks breaking their banks that never have before, their road washed away — one of their heifers turning up 20 kilometres away! — and they are told that the next-door mine has had two metres of water over its railway line. 

As the waters dropped, Avriel took photos of flooded Sandy Creek near their boundary, with the Xstrata mine behind.

Tysons have been here for over 100 years but Avriel says that this is a first; that the normal flood direction is baulked by the mine’s ‘ring tank levees and overburden piles’.

She wonders what the mine is doing with its water, and, looking at the debris on the fence and grid at their boundary with the mine,  I too wonder what invisibles the mine has deposited.

Farmers expect to work with flood plain systems, mines can’t.

There are about 40 mines in the Bowen Basin, many of which interfere with the natural spread and flow system of floodwaters, their massive earthworks blocking and channelling so the plain no longer functions as nature designed.

In the Surat Basin, increasingly sieved with a network of gas wells and test bore holes — Taroom, Chinchilla, Dalby — what will the aftermath damage be from all the submerged and tumbled drilling sites and pipelines? The photo above, passed on by Avriel, is on the Taroom/Roma road.

 Mine management ‘plans’ for hazardous materials and wastes may tick the government boxes for approval but they only work on paper, not on the flood plains. Thirty more mines are planned for the Bowen Basin in the next five years, and half of the existing 40 are expanding.

Poisoned river systems, poisoned silt deposited on farmland?  We need to hear from the mining industry how they are dealing with this aspect of multliple flooded mines, not just how it will hurt their profit margins.

When the neighbours get pushy

Springwood is a grazing property south of Emerald in Queensland. It is run — and loved — by Lindsay and Avriel Tyson and their adult children and families, who live there, as Tysons have done since the 1890s. All these photos were taken by Avriel. Springwood is beautiful, well watered — and at risk.

The neighbouring Meteor Park used to be a farming property until Xstrata turned much of it into their Rolleston open-cut coal mine in 2004. The track to Springwood runs close by the long piles of dirt and rock where the homestead and garden used to be. Only the mailbox remains.

The Tysons were worried about the effect on their surface and ground water, the creeks and wetlands, their lake and their bores.

This lake is about 5 miles around and 12 feet deep; they have counted 150 pairs of nesting black swans there — and that’s just what was easily visible.

Their Meteor Creek flows to the Fitzroy River and thence to the sea and the Great Barrier Reef at Rockhampton.

Then, in mid-2009, Xstrata announced to them that they were expanding operations — into Springwood — and they now have a mining lease over 7000 acres of it.

The Rolleston mine is moving into the alluvial plains, easy to mine — and easy to flood.  After heavy rains in early 2010 the Rolleston mine flooded; the banks of its dam burst and the resulting silty water rushed out, over the flooded pits and across the plains and into the creeks and wetlands. Mine silt is not just good clean mud.

They were fined $2000 — about 1.5% of one hour’s takings — for exceeding their water discharge into the Fitzroy catchment.

That’ll teach ’em!

Lindsay says that rainfall is always highly variable here, but can be up to 72 inches, and, given that we are expecting increasingly unpredictable and more extreme weather events, mining ought not be allowed anywhere near areas like this. Groundwater is gleaned and filtered and stored in more complex ways than mines ever acknowledge, but it’s an obviously unacceptable risk to mine alluvial plains, or flood plains or near creeks or rivers….

Mines can’t guarantee against damage to our water, regardless of what they say. Pictures like the one below reminded me of those of U.S. valleys polluted from mountaintop mining spills.

So why are we allowing this? The Tysons are doing their best, stressed but determined, losing time and sleep and business in trying to protect what they know is at risk, against their dominating and often intimidating neighbour, who have all the resources and the mining law on their side.

This is an unfair fight.

Scenic drive

I always hate leaving my mountain, but I especially hate it when my destination forces me to drive through the Hunter Valley between Singleton and Muswellbrook.

Each time I carefully consider which route will be the least distressing, with the least overwhelming views of the open cut coal mines that are almost continuous in this 50-km stretch.

At first I would stop and take photos of the looming overburden mountains or the milkiness of the polluted lower air layer. Now I rarely do.

Yet the other day, on a clear bright sunny morning after days of rain, returning to the land of dirt and disrespect for country and community, the scope of it struck me afresh.

I stopped on a hill: on one side of the road I looked back to the power stations and the long multi-coloured piles of what the miners can’t use — just sitting there waiting for the breezes to blow their contaminated dust all over the valley.

On the other side of the road — facing the opposite direction — of course, another coal mine and more exposed overburden heaps. Thousands of hectares of this have replaced what was a rural valley, as the mines creep across the landscape, feeding and growing fat on coal, while the rest of us live with their waste.

Wines, not mines, in Margaret River

The latest unthinkable area to be targeted by the coal mining frenzy is the world-renowned wine and food area of Margaret River in south-west Western Australia. 

A town, a river and a region, it is one of that state’s main tourist destinations, offering a Mediterranean climate and a combination of surf coast and scenic hinterland as settings for rich and varied cultural and gastronomic experiences.

The people who moved there and gradually created this special — and sustainable — economic Eden know what they have to offer. They also know what they have to lose if the coal industry gets a toehold here.

Bye-bye Leederville aquifer, bye-bye rural peace and quiet, bye-bye Margaret River as a holiday refuge for the city-stressed.

This is the mine site on Osmington Rd, near Rosa Brook, 15km from the actual town of Margaret River, and a much-visited and picturesque part of the Margaret River region, with wineries, dairies, berry and olive farms, equestrian centres and charming rural B&Bs, like the owner-built Rosa Brook Stone where I stayed.

LD Operations is currently applying to mine coal underground here; other exploration leases await. As you can see from the swampy centre, it’s clearly a wet area, despite, as locals say, a dry winter.

It is inconceivable that they will be able to mine without damaging the aquifer, although I am sure they will find experts to assure us that this would be ‘unlikely’.

The visible neighbouring farmhouses are modern, new-ish; they weren’t expecting this. Nor were these inhabitants of the adjoining lifestyle block.

Locals like TV chef Ian Parmenter (left) and Brent Watson have formed a strong NoCOAL!itionmargaretriver group to fight this entirely inappropriate mine.

Ian Parmenter and his wife Ann moved here 20 years ago, building a haven — home and garden and orchard and vineyard — over that time. Brent Watson and his family run the highly successful Horses and Horsemen equestrian resort and training centre just down the road.

They have the support of the local Council, winemakers and tourism associations and notables such as James Halliday. Local member Troy Buswell says he’s agin it, but Premier Colin Barnett has finally stated that he is not about to step in and deny LDO their ‘due process’

And we all know what that portends.

At Rosa Brook Hall with Peter Rigby and Brent Watson. Photo by Derek Pool, Augusta Margaret River Times

Because I was visiting Collie, only two hours away, Ian asked me to speak at a public meeting the day before I headed home. About 70 people turned up at the Rosa Brook Hall to hear about what I’ve seen in coal areas in other states and were audibly shocked at the Rivers of Shame DVD shown afterwards. As a reward, I was treated to a Parmenter feast of a dinner — vegetarian, in my honour!

I know these good people had very full lives and livelihoods before this mine threat exploded and I know how much time they are now spending on trying to save them — and the future and water resources of the whole region. This is a huge part of the unfairness I see all around the country. I hope they can last the distance — and win — as all reason and justice say they ought.

If Mr Barnett is not thinking of the southwest’s water and longterm land use, he might like to think about this, which I’d read before this whole mining madness became public. It’s was in The Weekend Australian Financial Review May 22-23, 2010, ‘How space and place dictate your happiness’ by Deirdre Macken. She reported that Glenn Albrecht, Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University, had studied the Upper Hunter’s existentially distressed coal mining area populations, where ‘everything they valued was being taken away, … shovel by shovel’. 

He became interested in finding places that work best for people, ‘health-enhancing environments’, and he and urban planner Roberta Ryan of Urbis independently agreed that  ‘the place in Australia that best captures the qualities that please the psyche is the Margaret River.’   

Says Ryan, ‘It’s the most extraordinary place… and it just feels like the most fantastic place to be. It helps that it has an incredible level of investment by locals and so the locals feel as if it’s owned by them.’

Which is why they won’t be allowing Mr Barnett to allow the mining company, under his rubber stamp legislation, to take it away from them — and the rest of us.

Election choices?

On Saturday Australians must vote for a Federal government — as if we didn’t all know, with the election campaign dominating our media ad nauseam.

Because we no longer believe what Labor or the Liberals say, in or out of campaign mode, it’s hard to care what they’re saying.

And neither of them cares about us — or else they’d be offering us real leadership and action on climate change.

Not perhaps a carbon crumb in 2014, Julia, and certainly not more funding for the dirty myth of clean coal — for God’s sake, Tony Abbott, go talk to the coal mining unions! Nobody believes in that any more!

On Saturday 21st will the sun set on a wasted day, or worse, an Abbott-win day? I wish climate change was crap, as Tony says, but what sort of system do we have where such a man might be ‘leading’ us into worse global warming and extreme weather events?

I’d like to see him tell the Pakistanis that their unprecedented floods are just a spot of wet weather. Where has the urgency for action gone? Into reverse. Carbon is still an OK product in Australia; we are even planning new coal-fired power stations and lots of coal mines to keep emissions up. 

I can only hope that more people of conscience vote for those candidates of conscience who are un-aligned to Coal. This is especially critical — and achievable —  in the Senate, where they will have some influence.

To compare the parties’ climate change policies, go to this page on the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) website.

No prizes for guessing for whom I’ll be voting!

Voting and preferences

Voting for a minor party or independent is never wasted as your vote flows on at full value to your preferences if that candidate is knocked out, and then on to their preferences — and on. Major parties need to be kept? — or made? — honest; make your vote count by sending them a strong message that you’re not happy, so their primary vote has fallen.

Don’t forget that you can choose to allot your own preferences. I always do.

For the lower house you must number all the boxes in order of preference, that is, favourite to least-favourite. This ballot paper is green and smaller.

For the upper house or the Senate you can either put a number 1 above the line — in which case your preferences go to wherever that party or person has given them — or number every box below the line and allot your own. This ballot paper is white and large.

Fingers crossed!

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