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.’

Farmers versus BHP

On the Liverpool Plains near Quirindi, New South Wales, local farmers at Caroona have been defending their properties from invasion by BHP Billiton’s coal exploration drillers.

For 615 days, until Thursday 25th March, they have inspired coal-threatened communities everywhere with their blockade, by saying ‘No’ — and meaning it.

Trish Duddy and Tommy and George Clift (front L to R, all hatted) have been at the blockade camp every single one of those 615 days, joined by other locals on a rolling roster for cups of tea, information swapping, resolve steeling — and symbolic trailblazing.

The drillers had government permission in the form of an exploration licence but these farmers did not agree to access because they have strong and reasonable fears that any drilling through their precious aquifers could cause contamination or loss of the water on which their highly productive grain cropping depends.

Recently the Supreme Court quashed the Mining Warden’s decision where ‘access agreements’ were imposed on two Caroona properties. The access agreements were declared null and void because BHP had failed to notify the mortgagees for the properties.

It was the the first victory for the Brown and Alcorn families in an almost two-year battle to keep BHP Billiton off their land. The ruling could set a precedent that voids every access agreement in the exploration licence area and across the state.

So the blockaders have won a major and significant battle, but the war continues to save their fertile farmlands and its water supplies.  And they will not hesitate to reinstate the blockade if need be.

I had driven in to the Blockade that morning, looking south across the Plains to the polluted and dust-laden skies of the Hunter Valley, where the government has allowed every coal company to win every battle. Down there it is the wineries and thoroughbred horse studs now protesting that their industries cannot cope with any more coal mines.

The difference when I looked north, away from the coal-trashed Hunter, is obvious – clear blue skies as country skies should be, not murky brown. I admired the vast patchwork of ploughed land and crops, with the rusty red of sorghum seed-heads, the green of new crops, the cream of harvested stubble and the rich dark soil itself.

Later that day, heading towards the hills and home, I pass incredibly flat golden vistas of sunflower heads and their vibrant green plants and I am struck by its ‘livingness’ as I think of the appalling contrast I will meet back as I drive back into the Hunter.

Vistas of dirt and coal, an industrial hell, a dead landscape, seen through the veil made by one of the highest concentrations of fine dust particulates in Australia. I hope the Caroona farmers manage to stop this happening to their Plains — and after speaking to many of them I believe they will!

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.

Wybong Action Group

wag-bannerThe fight to save Anvil Hill near Wybong, NSW, from being mined by Centennial Coal involved thousands of people from near and far. We wanted to draw a line in the sand here at this scenically biodiverse ‘Ark of the Hunter’ and say ‘No new coal’.

We lost to King Coal and the NSW Planning Minister.

At the time, Muswellbrook and Denman mainly supported the Anvil Hill mine; perhaps they believed what the coal companies promised??!!!

Sold to Xstrata, who renamed it Xstrata Mangoola, and are now proceeding to ‘develop’ the site, it will destroy 100 square kilometres of the Wybong Valley. It has already got rid of 300 of the 500 residents.

Wybong, like its larger neighbour, Denman, is an area of farms large and small, vineyards and horse studs. Now the coal companies, showing their usual greediness, want three new mines in this area.

Xstrata Ridgeland is next to Mangoola: that should clear out the remaining Wybong community. And now there are the Spur and Yarrawa,  threatening closer to Denman.

Coal companies are good at ‘divide and conquer’. I hope this time the landowners stick together — as at Caroona — and say NO to the transformation of the Upper Hunter Valley into continuous mega dust pits and dust mountains.

The Wybong Action Group is certainly trying to make that ‘NO’ be loud and strong. They have my support and their website will now be a permanent link on mine.

Hunter happenings

hunter-powerUnder the murky skies of the Hunter Valley, despite its dominance by coalmines and coal-fired power stations, some culture does exist!

Singleton talk

Next Thursday evening I’ll be speaking at Singleton Library about my book, Mountain Tails and some other matters — apart from my wild neighbours — that stir my passions at present. I’ll also read some extracts from Mountain Tails.

This library always does a great wine and cheese spread to sustain the literati audience, and it’s free!
You do need to book, though:

6-8pm,  Thursday 26th November

Singleton Library,  8-10 Queen St.

Phone (02) 6578 7500

Valley voices

While I’m talking Hunter happenings, I recently won the Prose Prize for a new anthology, People of the Valley, with my short story, ‘Greta Italiana’, about an Italian migrant’s experiences on his first night at the Greta camp, just after the war.

This is the latest anthology about the Hunter from Newcastle’s own Catchfire Press.

They have published Through the Valley, Beneath the Valley and now People of the Valley — Writings from the Hunter.

The book is an interesting mix of past and present, of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with B & W photographs.

I understand the book is so far available at Hunt-a-book, Scone; Macleans, Hamilton and Toronto; and Angus & Robertson, Kotara.

Join me at Climate Camp

camp-posterFor three days in October, from Friday 9th—Sunday 11th, I’ll be camping in my little tent alongside hundreds of others at Climate Camp ’09 . 

Set up among the trees near Australia’s oldest coal mine on Dharawal land in in Helensburgh, NSW (40 minutes south of Sydney),  Climate Camp ’09 will be an entirely sustainable solar-powered event.

Climate Camp is for everyone — because when it comes to water, climate and jobs, actions speak louder than words. And getting a strong message to the government grows more urgent every day. By joining us, show them you demand a different future than the dark one offered by coal and its apparently entrenched supporters. 
This is a family event — come for the three days or come for an afternoon — for great workshops, music, art, food and positive climate action. Most importantly, if you can, please come along to swell the numbers at the powerful and peaceful community action on Sunday October 11th. 

At Climate Camp ’08 in Newcastle, our largest coal exporting port, around 1000 people of all ages joined in an uplifting community walk to halt the coal loader.

Find out what it’s all about on the Climate Camp ’09 website.

I hope you’ll join me at Climate Camp ’09 – with your kids and parents, neighbours and friends – we’re all in this predicament together and we all want a better future.  Let’s make it happen!

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.

Read moreParadise under threat

Mining madness

Our governments appear to be blind, mad or bad when it comes to coal. This is just one instance.

Firstly there is the madness of having approved, in 2007, a mega coal mine that in Stage One will produce 127 million tonnes of coal over 15 yrs for the world to burn to make more CO2 — just what we need; now they are contemplating approving Stage Two, to produce 17 million tonnes of new coal per year for 24 years — even better if we don’t want the global warming to slow down.

This Moolarben mega-mine, owned by  Felix Resources, will comprise three opencut mines and a longwall underground mine.

The second evidence of madness ( or whatever) is where the mine is to be located:  in close proximity to the Goulburn River & The Drip Gorge area that abuts the Goulburn River National Park.

The three opencut mines will trash the picturesque Moolarben valley, rich in bird life and biodiversity, will displace many farming families in this area and come within 2 kilometres of the village of Ulan and local primary school. I’m sure they will welcome the health benefits from all the heavy metal laden fine dust particulates and the 24-hour noise, lights and stress.
drip-1The Drip’  in Goulburn River National Park under threat from mining; get the scale of its grandeur from the two figures at its base.

Read moreMining madness

Hurry up, Mr Rudd!

On Saturday 22nd November about 150 people walked in to the aging Eraring Power Station near Newcastle NSW.

Emitting over 20 million tons of C02 each year, it is one of the world’s most polluting, so an appropriate site from which to urge Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong to get serious about acting now to slow our runaway global warming.

And certainly not to give such an emitter a permit to keep doing so!

Police flanked and backed the walkers all the way.

Once we got there, they intensively guarded the final fence, while guard dogs paced behind it and police on horses and trail bikes patrolled the perimeters. We were allowed only three hours for a rally before all had to leave, escorted.

Perhaps they feared strong action, realising that people are getting desperate about the lack of genuine commitment by the Rudd government as time runs out.

The power station is huge when you’re up this close. It’s daunting, as are the unresponsive policemen between whom we edged to tie to the fence the banners we had carried, plus photos and drawings of things we love, and for whose futures we fear unless carbon emissions are stopped.

Here’s most of mine— less half a grandchild!

In December, the Rudd Government will announce Australia’s medium term emissions reductions targets, and they are widely expected to be weak and ineffective.

It looks unlikely that they will show enough courageous leadership to announce that 2010 will be Australia’s  ‘peak carbon’  year – after that and forever, our greenhouse pollution must come down.
But that is what we need, and what Saturday’s rally called for.

Read moreHurry up, Mr Rudd!

Flat earth

I know plains are flat country but I had no concept of just how flat they can be. Out on the Liverpool Plains of NSW, as you drive up the straight flat Newell Highway you pass straight flat ‘fields’ kilometres wide.

On one side you can see where they end, as the wheat fields run smack up against the Mt Kaputar National Park.

On the other side, the rows of sorghum or wheat or stubble of one of their many other food crops stretch to the horizon and beyond.

Anything vertical, trees or wheat silos, float in fake lakes, dissolve in a wavering mirage that defies a finite end to this flat, flat earth.

As you can imagine, irrigation and drainage levels are worked out precisely.

Longwall mining for coal takes out a huge chunk 3m high for a long distance underground; subsidence invariably follows.

Boring through layers breaches aquifers, can cause the mixing of pure water with saline or acidic.

If food production is important, and until we can eat coal, only a madman would think of mining under these incredibly flat Plains.

Yet the NSW government accepted $100 million from BHP for the rights to explore at Caroona on these very Plains.

They haven’t done it yet, because the farmers have been blockading their entry for over three months.

Check out their extraordinary stand on the Caroona Coal Action Group site

Farmers say ‘NO!’ to mining

Gunnedah is the main town of the fertile, well-watered NSW Liverpool Plains, which grow much of our grain and seed crops, such as wheat, canola, sunflower and sorghum.

These flat lands are dependent on their underground aquifers and their even surface drainage. Longwall mining will wreck both.

It would be madness to mine there, so why should companies like BHP Billiton explore there?

BHP’s plans came to a halt when local farmer Tim Duddy simply wouldn’t let them onto his property at Caroona.

The court ordered him not to obstruct them, so all his neighbours did instead. They’ve been doing so for 6 weeks and they don’t intend to stop.

On Tuesday 16th September myself and 8 other coal-inflicted Hunter people went up to support the locals in a rally organised by the Caroona Coal Action Group.

They held it outside the Civic Centre where the Gunnedah Basin Coal Conference was being held.

As we were there from 8 am, most delegates must have gone in the back way, as we saw very few, although I later spotted some peeping through the glass front doors at the apparently scary protestors.

The rally was not your usual activist gathering; not a dreadlock in sight. Here we had conservatively covered books holding highly effective radical activism between their covers.

There were establishment farmers in their best moleskins and Akubras, their elegant wives equally adamant in their protest; there were worried rural families who’d thought they had a future here; there were babies and dogs and little old ladies bristling with No Mine stickers.

It was clearly a community sticking together, standing their ground against the Big Multi-national, saying ‘No’ with all the authority of People Power.

Read moreFarmers say ‘NO!’ to mining

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.

Read moreCamping to halt climate change