Hunter coal’s 100 black marks

Can we send the coal industry in the Hunter to the sin bin and make them stay there until they learn how to behave better? This is Singleton, centre of the coal boom/blight in the Upper Hunter, where residents have just received their 100th air pollution alert. 

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage issues warnings to subscribers by SMS and email, when air pollution exceeds national health standards. What do you do on such days if you have heart or respiratory problems? Stay inside.

Particle pollution in Camberwell, about 15 kms north of Singleton, with mines on all sides but one, has exceeded the national standard for PM10 a total of 22 times this year,

Yet against the advice of its own Health Department, the O’Farrell government approved the proposed Ashton (South East Open Cut) mine, owned by Chinese government-owned Yancoal, right next to Camberwell village and on that last remaining unmined side. 

The message to the people was clear: your health is less important than coal dollars.? 

Eleven of the 17 Hunter Valley monitoring stations have recorded exceedances this year, exposing residents to harmful levels of PM10 (particles of up to 10 microns in diameter). Air pollution alerts have been issued for Mt Thorley (14 times), Maison Dieu (12), Singleton NW (13), Lower Hunter (9), Singleton (6), Bulga (7), Warkworth (6), Jerrys Plains (4), Muswellbrook (3) and Singleton South (2).

The Valley from Singleton to Muswellbrook is facing a crisis of air pollution caused by opencut coal mining, despite all the industry spin about best practice. So they should sort out how to operate without the particle pollution – if they can – and don’t add to the problem with more coal mine development until they do. And if they can’t, then stop.  No impact or no project.

Yet due to shameful proposed planning changes by the O’Farrell Government, it may be the last time a local group has the opportunity to challenge a coal mine approval in court, as they want the ‘resource’ placed above all other concerns like health and water.

Hunter Environment Lobby has launched a legal challenge against the approval of the South East Open Cut project and the case begins in the Land and Environment Court, Macquarie Street, Sydney, on Monday 2nd September. Supporters will rally outside the hearing at 9:30am.  Can you make it?

On Wednesday 4th September the hearing will be held at Singleton Courthouse, and supporters will rally outside at 10:30am. Can you join me?

(If you are a tweeter, celebrate this infamous milestone of 100 black marks; the Minerals Council have their own twitter hashtag #nswmining where anyone can leave a pointed comment congratulating them on a century!)

(For information on the court case call Jan Davis, Hunter Environment Lobby, 0417 422 738)

Downstream worries

Taree is on the Manning River, downstream from Gloucester. Taree doesn’t have CSG or coal, but Gloucester has.

In a sane world the beautiful and bountiful Vale of Gloucester would not be even contemplated for these industries, but it has two coalmines, expanding, and a third, the Rocky Hill mine, proposed but being vigorously opposed, plus an approved AGL CSG project — equally opposed.


At the Taree Envirofair last Saturday, water was a big worry. Firstly, would the rain hold off? It did.

Secondly, how to alert Taree residents to the looming threat to their clean water supply if AGL’s fracking gas wells go ahead, with so little known about the aquifers with which they’ll be interfering?

Plus both coal wastewater and CSG produced water is contaminated and saline, and its disposal is always a hugely risky and still unresolved issue, especially in high rainfall areas.

Irrigating river flats with it doesn’t seem like a good idea if you want that river water to be clean. I think of this irrigating as simply a slower death by pollution than direct discharge into the river…

Taree certainly doesn’t want it.


The Manning Clean Water Action Group’s stall (MCWAG) had plenty of folk signing petitions and gathering info, and their red-T-shirted members proclaiming ‘Water not coal or CSG’ were highly visible throughout the Fair.


In between local entertainers, the Fig Jam stage was held by speakers like activist Jonathan Moylan (pictured), Chris Sheed from MCWAG, local solicitor Paul Lewers, Bruce Robertson (ex-Transgrid fighter from the Manning Alliance) and lastly, myself.

The message from us all was, in the end, similar: we are under grave and imminent threat of losing many precious resources like land and water, against the wishes of the people. 

None of our governments are yet taking the threats seriously. So we, the people, must stand up, speak out — and make them!

Putting two bob on the environment

On Saturday 8th June, 2BOB radio on the NSW mid-north coast is having its annual Envirofair in Taree Park, from 9.30 to 3.30.  Taree is on the mighty Manning River.

Manning Valley Community Radio Station 2BOB 104.7 FM 

They’ve been holding these family-day fairs for 22 years, with the simple aim of ‘raising awareness about environmental protection’.

You can check out their website for what the day holds, but it sounds like fun as well as information: ‘… music, dancing and performance artists; fabulous food from 2BOB Radio’s famous Global Cafe and local epicureans; innovative market stalls; displays and demonstrations of ecologically-friendly products and ideas for living; and inspirational environmental speakers.’

I will be one of those speakers on the Fig Jam stage, at 1.15 or 1.30 pm. Jonathan Moylan, innovative activist (of the ANZ ASIC hoax) is another.

I’ve given about 6 talks in the Manning since the book came out in May 2012; it’s an aware and alert region, with active community groups – maybe partly due to such a great community radio station.

CSG looms here, but would be crazy to try to proceed.

Come and say ‘Hi’ if you’re about on Saturday. (The Manning Clean Water Action Group stall will have Rich Land, Wasteland books for sale — and hence for me to sign for you!)

Saving the Reef

Photo: Australian Conservation Foundation

Last July I attended the Beyond Coal Conference at Louisa Creek near Mackay — see my post on it from that time. Louisa Creek has been, is being devastated by the nearby coal ports of Hay Point and Dalrymple Bay and now they want to put a third coal port there on the other side at Dudgeon Point.

Abbot Point in flood time

At that conference Greenpeace interviewed local Louisa Creek fighter Betty Hobbs and me. Betty’s also in my book.

Hay Point

Greenpeace has taken on the huge task of campaigning to save our Great Barrier Reef from the devastation being wrought — and much more being planned — by the coal and gas rush: new coal and LNG ports, dredging, industrial shipping traffic, contamination from coal mine water releases and from seaside coal stockpiling and uncovered coal rail wagons…

Did you know we’ve already lost half the Reef in the last 27 years?!

I urge you to sign the petition on the Save the Reef website and watch the four short videos: Betty; Richard Deniss, an economist; June Norman, activist and walker for peace and the Reef (and friend and fellow grandma); and me, the ‘author’.

Victoria, the next Pilbara?

Victoria used to be all about brown coal, but only in the Latrobe, and only for the adjacent power stations. The whole world knew about dirty old Hazelwood, but all their brown coal power stations create 33% more C02 than black coal.

We also heard a fair bit about its wind power, and how the yellow-bellied parrot had stopped one progressing.

But since I was there in mid-2010, the government has changed. Mr Baillieu has dropped the target of bringing emissions down to the very low benchmark of black coal power.

He has also publicly, and I assume happily, said something like ‘Victoria could be the next Pilbara’.

This means that vast areas of Victoria are now under exploration licences for coal (brown or black) and gas: methane, however it comes, CSG, tight, shale. Often the same company is exploring for both in the same place.

Now this looks like a good place to put a new brown coal mine. This is Bacchus Marsh, about 55km from Melbourne, on the way to Ballarat. It’s a fruit and vegetable (and herb) bowl if ever I saw one, with market gardens and orchards picturesquely lining the road in.

Grain and beef production are also important here, I’m told, but they wouldn’t look as pretty as this field of what I assumed to be parsley .

Bacchus Marsh also made national headlines in February this year when pregnant local resident Natasha Mills and Quit Coal activist Paul Connor chained themselves to Mantle Mining’s drilling rig.

Natasha and her friends in the Moorabool Environment Group (MEG), like Deb Porter, Kate Tubbs and Liz Cooper (L to R) don’t want Bacchus Marsh to go the polluted way of areas like the Hunter Valley of NSW and they intend to keep fighting to stop it. MEG have joined Lock the Gate.

They’d been doing their best to alert locals of the threat, but since there’s long been a very small mine here just for fertiliser production, most can’t believe that the new owners plan a huge mine here.

Mantle, whose licence covers 38,000ha, apparently aim to use Exergen’s still experimental drying technology to reduce carbon emissions and hence export it to India. It’s called ‘clean coal’!

Looking back to Bacchus Marsh township from an opposite vantage point, I imagine the ‘bowl’ edging mountains would do a good job of holding in the pollution from an open cut.

MEG asked me down to talk to locals, and showed me over the proposed site. The coal here is not like in the Latrobe, where it’s only 9m below the surface and so soft that no blasting is needed.

Here it’s under basalt and can be 70m or so down, so blasting and overburden mountains and dust and air pollution will be the lot of Bacchus Marsh if this open cut goes ahead. And who knows what will happen to the aquifers?

Totally incompatible with a food production area.

It’s also a major harness racing centre, and I knew I was nearing the Tubb family’s Jessamy Park, where I was to stay, by the ‘dirty’ signs along the fence. Mantle want to drill on Jessamy Park. Healthy horses, like healthy people, aren’t compatible with an open cut mine either.

(Photo of Eleanor,top, by Liz Cooper)

After I got back home, I received this media release. I guess getting into Hansard is some sort of milestone!

Woko waters

Recently I made my first visit to the Woko National Park near Gloucester, New South Wales. I was tagging along with the Upper Hunter branch of the National Parks Association, which I’ve joined.

The camp site was perfect, flat and grassy and right beside the clear and fast flowing headwaters of the Manning River. You could just float on the current, or skim along — but avoid the rapids if you’re a wuss like me.

Others, like Alan, (pictured) even tackled the log jam run left after an obviously mighty flood.

A fair-sized goanna came to see what riverside picnic lunch leftovers were on offer, but raced up the nearest tree at our chattering attention. Once again, I marvelled at the intricacy and variety of the patterning of this ‘prehistoric’ creature; and just look at its blue chin and neck!

There was water of a far more gentle sort in the dry rainforest  behind the camp, with several small waterfalls.

These were places to stop and listen and look, as the water fell perpetually and lightly down the gully. No roaring or rushing majesty here, but peace.

A good place to sit and take a tea break, except for the need to be on the lookout for the many leeches seeking to begin their ascent up your leg! Spraying insect repellent on socks and boots seemed to help — although one still found its way up under my shirt.

Being used to leeches, the walk was well worth the risk. Some others didn’t think so.

This virtual world

This piece was probably one of my first non-fiction articles. Sadly, it remains as true now as when I wrote it, despite our knowledge of the pollutants in those coal power station emissions.

Seeing is believing, right? As old-fashioned sceptics used to point out, however neat a theory might be, it was still debatable, whereas you couldn’t argue with what was in front of your very eyes, now could you?

These days what’s in front of your eyes is probably your computer or your television/video screen. And it seems the powers-that-be expect us to believe what we see and hear there regardless of the silent screaming from the sceptical minority as virtual reality virtually replaces reality.

A classic Leunig cartoon comes to mind: on the floor of a room bare of any furniture but a telly sits one of his waifs, mesmerised by the small screen picture of a sunset, whilst through the window behind him a grand sunset is taking place unnoticed.

Virtual worlds can be created by oft-repeated fallacies as much as by flickering images. Once ships stopped reportedly falling off the edge of the flat world, circumnavigation of the previously ludicrous round one became the reality, and the diehard proponents of the flat world theory became the madmen.

As man’s knowledge increases, unfortunately so does his ego. Scientists kid themselves that once they have worked out how a part of a thing works, they know all about it, by scientific extrapolation and logical extension. The fact that they are later proved wrong by other scientists is irrelevant. Like the innocent, their explanation was “true”, the new reality, till proved otherwise.

As the body of knowledge has increased, it has become more difficult to be the well rounded Renaissance man. So we specialise. Specialists work in rarified worlds, be they shining stainless steel laboratories, booklined studies, humming computer rooms or ivory towers.

They use their brains more than their eyes, focus their thoughts intensively within, not extensively without, their worlds. They forget that our world is a complex unit, that their disciplines, however large, are derived from what already exists in an infinitely larger form. They put the cart of knowledge before the horse of reality.

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Riverside homes

The weathered sandstone cliffs by the Goulburn River offer shelter to a variety of creatures. Those who aren’t winged must like easy access; I fancied these caves had steps — foot and hand holds — cut into the face below.

Closer to ground level, smaller winged creatures — like native bees? or? — had chosen the underside of the ‘plates’ in a severely eroded sandstone cave roof. Unoccupied summer residences?

Walking back along the clifftops, I spotted this large Angophora hollow home with its beautifully rounded edges of bark slowly grown around it. I am sure some animal or bird has claimed such a desirable residence.

Underfoot was both crunchy and cushioned; the lichens and mosses on the rock base were dazzling in variety and intensity. Miniature forests and coral gardens.

On the path, a few tiny fluted fungi had pushed through the thin soil and brightened the bush with their golden trumpets. I think these are Cantharellus concinnus, Australian Chanterelle.

In this sort of dry country, the treasures are often shy and small, needing an observant eye, and worth it.

The march of the methane-mongers

As the gas leaks and bubbles, and the contaminants creep into the falling water sources and the salt accumulates, as people itch at strange rashes, hold their heads with strange aches, or their stomachs with strange nausea attacks, and worry if they are drinking cancer-causing chemicals from the fracturing process or breathing them in from the gas flares — the coal seam gas (CSG) industry continues to advance across Australia. Gasland is here. This is Angus Bretherick, 6, with the rash his family say was caused by their local coal seam gas industry. Angus lives at Tara, hotspot of the Queensland methane push, and where residents had been complaining since 2008 about leaking gas wells and the dumping of CSG water on roads. (Photo: Courier-Mail 21.10.2010)

The Gasland film showed impacts of the coal seam gas and shale gas industry in the U.S. It put ‘fracking’ into all our vocabularies.

We have CSG rapidly spreading now; they are investigating shale gas, which always needs fracking, in three states. They want it all, in whatever strata the methane is hiding – for export, and ‘they’ are mainly foreign companies.

40,000 wells like these at a Chinchilla (Queensland) gas field have been approved in that state; the net of wells and linking roads and pipelines over the Darling Downs is more dense and more extensive now, a year later.

They can do this on your property; can you then imagine, as they claim, that CSG and farming can co-exist?

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Dark skies

A storm-bent early morning, when pewter clouds fill the western horizon and no scrap of blue to be seen.

The sun climbs over my eastern treeline and switches on the spotlight, and the contrast between the suddenly vivid green moptops of the gum trees and that heavy background sky sends me running for the camera.

Blue is not the only beauty a sky can offer.

But that’s in Nature’s own colour scheme. Let  corporate Man at it, and brown enters the palette. Dirty brown, pollution brown, ‘don’t breathe-the-air’ brown, the cumulative emissions from too many open cut coal mines and coal-fired power stations. Accepted as hazardous to human health in the U.S., still unacknowledged here — that would mean they couldn’t approve any more. 

Lucky we have different lungs from Americans.

Welcome to the mid-upper Hunter Valley, which I can remember once had clean country air, blue or grey skies, but no toxic stripes of brown.

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.

Don’t breathe the air

The once-rural Hunter Valley baked in the early February heatwave, but not under blue skies. The many and expanding open cut coal mines in Singleton and Muswellbrook Shires made sure of that. This was what the air quality looked like on Friday 4th February.

On the Tuesday before, the 1st February, the averaged PM 10 reading was ‘very poor’, exceeding national health standards where ‘people with heart or lung disease should limit exercising outdoors’.

We are told that local dust emissions could be reduced by half if best practice particulate emissions controls were put in place, and if there was ‘a substantial increase in the area of land rehabilitated each year and the application of suppressant to haul roads’.

Given the known health issues from dust particulates, why don’t they do this already? It would cost money, cut into profits.

Why aren’t they told to do it or shut up shop?

Surely not because it would displease donors, cut into royalties?

A friend sent this snap, taken from the road, of dust rising from the massive Mt Arthur mine at Muswellbrook, about two weeks ago. A common enough sight to those who live in the two shires, when passing any of the mines.

And yet the state government has just issued its NSW Coal and Gas Scoping Paper, where the scary assumptions are made that, rather than agree that these shires are over-saturated with mines and dust and power station emissions– they will get more.

‘The intensification of mining in the area between Singleton and Muswellbrook will require the careful management of potential cumulative impacts in an area that already accommodates substantial coal mining activity.’

The words say it all about the disconnect from the dangerous and dirty reality: ‘potential’? ‘accommodates’? ‘substantial’?

So we are not to worry, because it will be ‘managed’ as it is now, no doubt under equally strict consent conditions as now, since, as we are always told, the mining industry is the most highly regulated of all.

Comments are invited from the public until 15th April. Please have a read of what I consider an offensive draft blueprint for a coal-trashed future for NSW — it’s not very long — and let them know what you think!

Download it here: Coal and Gas Scoping Paper