King Coal? Social Justice issues for Hunter residents to ponder

John L Hayes ponders current issues raised by coal mining.

King Coal? Social Justice issues for Hunter residents to ponder

Coal mining began in the Hunter at Coal River, now known as Newcastle, about 1800. There has been co-existence between that industry and the people of the Hunter ever since – sometimes easy and peaceful, sometimes difficult and combative.


For more than two centuries, members of many Hunter familles have been employed by the mines, or in industries processing, distributing and exporting coal.


Much of Newcastle and the Hunter is undermined, and in many places buildings can’t easily co-exist with undermining. Costly grouting and remediation is often needed to allow construction of larger new buildings over old coal workings, and in other cases, building restrictions apply.


Ownership of the coal mines and the exporting facilities used to be in local hands, but that has changed dramatically. Now, more than 80% of coal mines are owned by multinationals — with most of their profits going overseas to foreign shareholders and/or foreign governments. All the coal export facilities in Newcastle, all coal export ships and most Newcastle tugs are also owned by multinationals. Almost all new large machinery and equipment used in the mines and in handling and haulage is made overseas by foreign companies and imported here.


In the heyday of Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) and the big Hunter coal-fired power stations — which used to provide cheap electricity for industry and residents — the catch cry for all this activity and Industry was jobs, jobs, jobs — and anything done in the name of jobs was good. Health and environmental considerations were mostly put to one side, and as most coal mining was underground, there was usually an ‘out of sight – out of mind’ mentality.


Then four things happened:

  1. The development and rapid expansion of open cut mining, then and now driven by significant increases in prices for export coal.
  2. Different methods, more mechanisation and then increasing automation gradually led to fewer jobs per mine and per tonne of coal mined, processed, transported and exported.
  3. Coal prices went up, existing mines were expanded and new open-cut mines were opened. Recently we have seen that when coal prices go down, there is a rush by some miners to increase tonnages, to compensate for the lower prices.
  4. Cheap electricity disappeared.

So in the last 40 years there has been a quantum shift.


Remember the beautiful Hunter Valley, the very rich Liverpool Plains and the picturesque Gloucester valleys? Let’s look forward from that time.


Mining once co-existed fairly easily with most residents, as well as with general agriculture, the wine makers and grape growers and the thoroughbred studs. Increasingly, mining is becoming an unwelcome neighbour that is driving people and industries away. World famous vignerons and horse studs are now saying they will struggle to remain in the Hunter.


What used to be beautiful landscapes, with clean air and clean water, are increasingly looking like huge moonscape craters, and increasingly, clean air and clean water are distant memories. Statements by miners and governments that these once beautiful valleys will be “remediated” when mining stops are impossible pipe dreams.


No amount of attempted remediation will bring back rich soils, lost flora and fauna, significant natural forests, great vistas and landscapes, naturally flowing clean water and clean air.


Whole populations of small villages and farmers are being driven from their homes and properties, and property prices – which until recent years were either steady or rising – are now dropping. Larger centres are also under threat.


We are becoming more and more aware of the negative effects of mining and coal dust on our health – at the mines, along the coal corridors, at and near the coal export facilities.


Experts differ, but the more I read and hear about the effects of mining, the more I’m convinced that over the last forty years, the serious increase in asthma and other respiratory diseases in the Hunter has an uncomfortably close relationship with the increase in coal mining.


As one university expert said at a recent Dust Seminar in Waratah, “There is no safe level for airborne dust particles, just as there is no safe level for cigarette smoking.”


Matters of global warming and climate change need to be considered in the context of ever expanding, and largely unconstrained coal mining; very rarely is permission for a new coal mine refused. The claim that humans contribute to global warming and climate change is supported by thousands of non-aligned scientists around the world, who communicate regularly and who produce increasingly gloomy reports. Let the naysayers say and do what they like. Nightly news reports from around the world should cause them to stop and think, “Hey! Maybe the climate scientists do have a point!”


Alternative non-polluting renewable energy sources are now available, most notably solar and wind power.  New technologies are enhancing these, and making them more cost efficient all the time, and brand new non-polluting sustainable techniques and machines are being developed every year. Despite statements to the contrary, BASE load power generation is possible with renewables now, and is already operating.  


The cost curves of electricity from coal-fired power and renewables are getting closer, and will soon converge and cross over. How soon depends on many factors but removing some of the freight and investment subsidies for coal will hasten that convergence.


The role of Governments, especially the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) should be to protect people, the environment and flora and fauna.


The facts are that the EPA licenses industry to pollute through the issuing of Pollution Reduction Licences. Many argue it does not do enough in its “Protection” role.


Governments make a fortune from coal royalties and will not easily surrender that revenue. However, thinking politicians and governments should and will realise that many benefits in employment and to the environment will flow from fostering the renewable energy industries in the Hunter and gradually pulling back from non-renewable and polluting coal.


Common sense will tell you all is not right with coal.


I hope you have enough information here to continue your own research and to ask the hard questions — of politicians and others.


Read a letter by Lawrie Ayers in response to this article.


John L Hayes retired to Newcastle nearly nine years ago, after working in Sydney for about 40 years in various roles, including senior management and administration for major organisations. He is now involved in many community organisations, including the Social Justice Council of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. 


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