Man-made murk

Once the fog had lifted from the Latrobe Valley, the old Hazelwood Power Station near Morwell showed the true colour of its emissions — brown. Of course the real toxic output of such an outmoded technology — CO2 — is colourless, and all the more insidious for being invisible and thus unacted upon. Hazelwood produces 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year — 15 per cent of Victoria’s total emissions.

It is also Australia’s largest single source of dioxin pollution.

Due to close in 2005,  its private owners asked, and were given permission, to keep pumping them out until 2031.

The brown sky trail edged around the valley for kilometres, still clearly visible beyond Traralgon where it seemed to bank up against the hills in what was, for a Hunter person, a more familiar milky pollution mist. It was not fog.

In the newer power stations like Loy Yang A and B, the only visible output is the water vapour from the cooling towers. Looks harmless, doesn’t it? Almost clean! But while the CO2 emitted is less than at Hazelwood, it is still more than our planet can stand.

Brown coal contains about 65 per cent water, and is 33 per cent dirtier than black coal as a CO2 emitter.

There is much research afoot into various ways of drying it and reducing emissions — but mostly only to as much as black coal. Not good enough!

A few scraps of fog hung in the mine void, but no dust. For local impact, brown coal mining is amazingly clean and tidy compared to our Hunter open cut black coal mines. Loy Yang uses big excavators and conveyor belts, all run on its own electricity — very little diesel machinery.

I was sorry to hear that Yallourn mine had not replaced its excavators, but went to diesel power. I thought of the infrasound impacts of that, as well as the fossil fuel consumption.

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The tallest White Gum in the world

In Tasmania I learnt to expect plantations like these when I saw the word ‘forest’. I drove through miles of this to reach the Evercreech Forest Reserve, 52 hectares that wasn’t clearfelled.

I reached the tree for which the Forest is famous.

The White Gum, Eucalyptus viminalis, is thought to be 300 years old. I walked around the wooden platform at the giant’s base, looking up at its ninety-one metres. Awesome. But then I read its history, and the platform seemed more a collar imprisoning it, like a bear in a sideshow.

Twice it was saved from being felled, neither time by altruism or respect. In the logging of the 1940s and ‘50s, it and its fellow White Knights, as they have dubbed them for the tourists, were too big for the bullock teams to take out. By the logging resurgence of the ‘70s, they had bulldozers, which brought the road to the very base of this tree.

One of the foresters, thinking it seemed exceptionally tall and might set a record, had it measured. They then had to convince the world that it really was Eucalyptus viminalis, so far above the known limit was its height. With such a trophy to show off, they reserved 52 hectares as a display case for it.

But … how many others, almost as big and as old, did fall to the dozers? This is tokenism; the saving of the tallest tree was an accident of egotism.

In low spirits I took the walk along the moss-bouldered creek, where the tree fern trunks are so thickly furred with moss that they bulge like bottle trees. This is an intensely green world — rocks, logs, trees, sticks, earth — all green.

But the mossy ground was peppered with millions of tiny fallen leaves, shaped and shaded like roasted slivered almonds in their range of ambers, and bright colours from orange to burgundy intermittently called attention to clusters of fungi feeding on rotting logs.

My jeans became soaked as the track took me through waist-high ferns still dripping from earlier showers. I persevered to the promised waterfall, a dainty lacework train with a graceful bend, forever trailing down the shining dark slide of the rocks. Pretty. But I was cold and wet, and over ‘green’, as I wouldn’t be on a hot summer day.

I was glad to drive up into sunlight, the heater drying my jeans, but not looking forward to retracing my way through the other sort of forest.

Evercreech Forest Reserve is beautiful — if poignant. A reserve means a remnant; it reminds me of what is lost, the major part of a natural world that wasn’t reserved. An island of forest reserve in the midst of plantations has no wild edges.

Trashing the tropics

Lately I went to look at the coal mining explosion in Queensland, to see for myself if it was as frighteningly out of control as that in NSW. It is.

This grim industrial scene is on the coast just south of Mackay, Hay Point — not your typical tourist vision of sunny Queensland’s tropical waters.

The coal comes by rail in trains up to 2 km long, uncovered, passing through Central Queenland for up to 300 km to the two major coal loading export terminals, Dalrymple Bay and Hay Point. These extend far out into the bay, 3.85 km and 1.8 km respectively.

As you can see, they can’t load fast enough; I counted 50 ships, and there were probably more obscured further to sea. About 130 million tonnes a year passes through here to fuel climate change elsewhere in the world.

At the viewing parks, large signs boast of the output and the environmental care being taken, and invite me to follow the Mining Trail inland to the mining towns that feed this port. I  did, but I doubt my reaction was the intended one.

Yet tourists who were fortunate enough not to live in coal mining areas might be awed at the novelty of the mechanised scale — or the ugliness.

They wouldn’t want to hang around too long or breathe too deeply, as the coal stockpiles are large and open and right next to the tourist car park.

People with no choice in what they breathe or what their seascape looks like still live in the small community of Louisa Creek, just north of the coal terminals. A major industrial development threatens on their other side.

Louisa Creek is a picturesque seaside village, the street now gappy where the houses of those who gave up and sold out have been taken away on trucks.

It is being whittled away, with a few stalwarts attempting to hold the remnant community together and the coal operations to account.

People had chosen to live here for the beauty, the fresh air, the peace and quiet – and not least the fishing – and sacrificed the convenience of shops. There were still a few fishermen by the creek the day I visited, but the peace and quiet no longer exists; I’d be concerned about the air — and I doubt I’d be beach fishing.

The wooded point opposite is Mount Helton Conservation Park, whose immediate rear the industrial area will be nudging. 
I fear for Louisa Creek.

My Mining Trail has just begun — and the all-too-familiar anger and sadness for the victims of coal is well ignited.

Beef factory

Those of you who have read my first book, The Woman on the Mountain, will know I’m a vegetarian. That is just my personal choice: I don’t want to kill another creature, or cause any to be killed for me by others, therefore I won’t eat any. Nor have I, for 36 years now.

Many people aiming at self-sufficiency are not vegetarian, and keep their own chooks or sheep or pigs or cows or whatever they intend to eat – some with small yards are breeding guinea pigs, I read. But they know their animals, care for them, respect them. Those animals live the lives of their domesticated kind until the moment they are killed.

Not so in factory farming.

When I realised what I was driving past, I felt sick.

This is a feedlot, a production plant for cattle to become beef. Here cattle are fed the grain grown on the surrounding plains, watered and given shade. Perhaps they get other growth-helpers or medications, I don’t know.

But that’s all. Bare earth is their world; green is something beyond their confines; it does not signify grass, for that is foreign to them – either underfoot or in their mouths.

OK, while they fatten they aren’t penned too tight to move, like factory hens or pigs, but who would consider this is a ‘life’ for any creature?

To my mind it is merely a long pending death, perpetrated by the inhumanity of corporate greed, which sees these animals as mere production lines, beef-producing machines.

Surely nobody on their corporate boards can have had their fingers sucked clean of warm milk as they try to rear a poddy calf, or been followed about by a bleating, gambolling pet lamb who has inexplicably adopted you.

Feedlots are not the norm in Australia, but most people don’t know or think about what happens to the animals that provide their food.
In my experience, I most respect the lives of those who have made informed choices.  Take a look at the Voiceless website.

Lithgow landscape

Recently I visited Lithgow, partly to see how the area just south of it compared to the Hunter Valley, since both are now threatened with a third power station, also likely to be coal-fired.

At Wallerawang power station the village of the same name is extremely close by, as the church shows. I wonder if the residents are aware of the toxic contents of those plumes of smoke? In the Hunter, Ravensworth, once probably the closest village to those power stations, is now obliterated, the abandoned school the only testament that once it thrived.

South of Wallerawang, between that and the Mt Piper Power station, with a 200MW extra power station planned just 2 km away, is  the village of Blackmans Flat. It reminded me of Camberwell in the Hunter — being choked out of existence by coal. 

Blackmans Flat only has 13 houses, but they are surrounded by open cut and underground mines plus a power station fly-ash dump, all blaming each other for the dust, noise and blasting cracks. 

With more open cut mines in the wings, and  a new 10 million tonne fly-ash dump proposed to be placed 800m from the village, and Lithgow Council’s Regional Garbage dump proposed to be 600m away — how much more can these villagers take?

Why doesn’t the government take the cumulative effects of these approvals into account? It must seem to Blackmans Flat residents that it’s because people don’t count.

In the village cemetery I see that people have lived here for over a hundred years. With the health hazards that surround them now, and worse looming, I fear for the village and its residents. But how can they leave, for who would buy their houses?


 As the valley fills with dust and noise, the cliffs split and fall away and the filtering hanging swamps drain dry through the cracks from undermining, we must remind ourselves that all these operations are under ‘strict environmental guidelines’.

I wonder if Lithgow Council, who support the third power station, know what they are allowing to happen to their scenic region and its inhabitants. While underground mines currently dominate here, unlike the Hunter’s open-cut moonscape, the pollution and the destructive impacts are increasing and so are the mines.

As my bumper sticker says, ‘Coal costs the earth.’

Natural treasures

In the Goulburn River National Park north of Mudgee, from The Drip picnic area, I recently took the easy 1.5km walk beside the river to the fabulous and deservedly famous Drip gorge formation.

On the way, I passed moss-clumped cliffs, vertical gardens that looked like they ought to be lying flat.

The sandy path led me under massive balancing acts and grotesque weatherings of ancient rocks. The river was gentle now but the effects of its different moods were evident on the cliffside banks.  From the footprints and scratchings in the sand of the depressions and overhangs, it was clear that many animals use the shelters and overhangs.

And then I came to The Drip itself. Arching over my head, cantilevered layers of rock soared against the sky. Groundwater from the land above filtered through the strata and dripped steadily into the pools below. The scale of this cliff was majestic, yet the gravity-defying structure felt fragile. I am sure nature knows what it’s doing — only an earthquake will bring this down.

If a coalmine had not been approved nearby.

I dispute that the owners of the Moolarben Coal Project know what they are doing. Why else would they contemplate running longwall mine channels under the land that leads to the cliffs, under the water that feeds it?

Imagine what will happen here from the vibrations of huge machines tunnelling underground and the subsequent collapse of strata above their tunnelling. Then think of the water that will no longer reach the river.

Only pressure from The Save the Drip group forced the agreement for the tunnelling to stop 450-550m from the river, instead of the 50-80m proposed! I’d have thought , as they did, that kilometres, not metres, was an essential setback zone if either mining company or government was serious about protecting this irreplaceable and irremediable natural — and national — treasure. 

Or don’t they think past the profit they will make from the coal?

Nightmare country

When you finally settle on your piece of rural paradise, build your home with your own hands, landscape your gardens and get to know the wildlife neighbours– you expect to enjoy the peace and quiet for the rest of your lives, right?

Wrong, if there’s coal in the area.

North of Mudgee, NSW, I recently visited such a home. It now has a new open-cut coal mine as a neighbour that can’t be ignored. That huge wall of overburden (the dirt and rock they dig up to get at the coal) is just 400 metres from their house, rising beside the small creek in the treeline. You can just see the top of one of the giant trucks operating there.

The dust is a constant problem, and so is the noise. When I was there it was like standing in Marrickville, Sydney, right under the flight path —only the traffic was non-stop.

A rural dream turned into a nightmare — and they had no say in the matter. Selling to the mine is their only option, which is a Clayton’s option as they didn’t ever want to move. They still don’t — but how long they can stand this is in doubt.

I travel south to see another mine in the region, down a pot-holed dirt road with mine vehicles hurtling along it at speeds that make me pull over to get out of the way.

Here the coal heap happens to be on fire and the giant excavator is biting into it and dumping burning heaps into the dump truck. If you have ever seen one of those mammoth yellow trucks, which looks like a toy here, you can get some idea of the size of that excavator.

Along this road there are no longer any signs of human habitation or usage, no houses or farms, just huge Transgrid towers straddling the landscape on one side and huge machines disembowelling the earth on the other.

Hell on earth.

I leave the mines behind and head down a dirt road in what seems a green and still rural valley to find a spot to have my picnic lunch. It is quiet enough, but then over the green hills I see dust rising; I have not gone far enough to escape the effect of the open-cut, although the mine would probably have classed this valley as beyond its ‘area of affectation’.

The more coal mining areas I visit, the more horrified I am. Rural people do not live in the lucky country any more. Even if mine-free now, over the next hill drilling could be going on for their worst nightmare to come tomorrow.

Nashi robbers

Usually the parrots and I share the crop from my two large Nashi pear trees. I get hundreds of fruit from the lower branches and they take even more hundreds from the higher ones.

Nashis ripen well off the tree so I can pick them when big enough, but not quite ripe, and layer them in foam boxes indoors. If I get a large wheelbarrow full from each tree I am happy. Last year I had so many I made Nashi pear wine, or Perry.

They are different varieties, as is needed for cross-pollination: Hosui, with grainy brown skin, and Nijisseiki, a smooth greenish-yellow. Their texture and taste are different too, and the Hosui ripens to a honey sweetness that is foreign to anyone who has only tried Nashis straight from a supermarket.

But this year there is not a single fruit left on either tree. The entire crop has been eaten or knocked to the ground, along with a great many leaves, now turning black amid the mushed fruit. As you can see, they haven’t left me any salvageable scraps.
Crimson Rosellas like this one are a major culprit but so are the red and green King Parrots, who are more elusive — or guilty.

Paradise under threat

Recently I attended a Rivers SOS conference at Booral near Gloucester. Rivers SOS is an alliance of 40 groups from all over NSW committed to protecting the integrity of river systems and water sources against the impacts of mining.

The weekend was held at Country River Camp, an informal and natural grassy camping area right by the Karuah River. Keith and Margaret Wynne, who own Country River Camp, love their river and are strong supporters of those who fight to protect it.

On Sunday we were taken on a tour of this beautiful, well-watered area, under grave threat from the expansion of the two coalmines in the district. It’s hard to get a peek at the so-called ’boutique minery’ of Duralie mine, tucked away from the main roads as it is. But they’re expanding way beyond boutique, and if they get their way it will be all too visible.
rivers-1 Many farms, like the one below, have already been bought up for hard-to-resist prices; across other paddocks we could see dozens of test drill pipes under their white caps.
rivers-2 This region is watered by pristine rivers and creeks that rise in the nearby World Heritage sub-alpine Gloucester and Barrington Tops. And yet the mine wants to discharge its toxic waste water into these streams.

They call it ‘irrigating’, which means indirect discharge, as the waste will just take a bit more time to reach the rivers as it enters the many gullies and watercourses of the river flats and slopes they want to use for this (below).
rivers-3These gullies run into Mammy Johnsons River (below), which flows to the Karuah River and thence to the tourist and marine environment mecca of Port Stephens.

If beauty like this doesn’t matter, with water becoming such a precious commodity, it has to be an obscenity to consider mining this area which is also blessed with fertile soils.

We can’t drink or eat coal.

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Cyanide insanity


In my book The Woman on the Mountain, I expressed my disbelief that the National Heritage listed wetlands of Lake Cowal — and all the waters downstream — had been put under great threat from Canadian giant Barrick Gold’s open-cut cyanide leach goldmining right next to it.

The Wiradjuri people and their supporters have been fighting this insanity, this obscenity, for the past 10 years. Now Barrick Gold wants to expand into the lake bed, doubling the size of the mine.

No mine has ever avoided leaking cyanide-laced water and waste into the ecosystem. Barrick’s gold mine at Lake Cowal will be no exception.

You’ll be appalled at what you learn from their Save Lake Cowal website which I am now including as a permanent link from mine.

They need ongoing support in this campaign about sovereignty, the battle against corporate greed and the ongoing fight to protect an ecologically significant and sacred land.

Watch a video about it here.

Echidna slaughter

It is somehow worse to see an echidna roadkill than a wallaby. Not only because I see them less often, but because they are so unmistakably not dreaming but dead.

I see wallabies dozing in all sorts of odd poses, but I have never seen a live echidna on its back. The spines are there to protect it from predators; it rolls into a tight spiky ball when threatened.

Yet here it is, the soft underside helplessly exposed, the strong-clawed paws that would have dug it to safety outflung, stiff and useless.

Neither its spikes nor its claws were any defence against the uncaring, unstopping driver of the vehicle that bowled it for six – and out. Echidna-, not manslaughter, hit and run, and yet no one will be punished for this.

Camping to halt climate change

This may not sound like much action, but when there’s frost on the tents and no hot showers for six days (10-15 July) – it is suffering for the cause.

Held in Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port, the national Climate Camp drew hundreds of committed environmental activists, mostly young, since it followed the Students for Sustainability conference. But there were enough greyheads for me to feel at home when I joined them for three days.

With workshops and discussion groups, the whole event was astonishingly well-organised and run by volunteers. Great vats of great vegan food were prepared to feed the hundreds. I earned a blister from my stints there, chopping pumpkin mostly.
And there was action. On the Saturday hundreds more concerned people joined us. We crouched down to form a human sign – ‘Cut carbon — now or never’ and a human ticking clock, which caused us to leap up and ‘explode’ over the oval at ‘midnight’. If you weren’t in the helicopter it wasn’t much of a photo opportunity, except for the rear end of the person in front!

On Sunday we had over 1000 people of all ages and backgrounds turn up to walk to the coal terminal and perhaps stop the coal trains, to protest against coal’s role in fuelling climate change.

The rally included way-out costumes, clowns, drummers, the Radical Cheerleaders, mums pushing strollers, kids holding hands – and knee-challenged grannies like me. There would have been a lot of high bright beseeching banners but the police banned their poles.

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