Green Left Weekly's Simon Cunich spoke to Peter Kennedy, a coalminer and anti-coal activist and Graham Brown, who worked with Kennedy until retiring from mining last year. Both men were at a November 22 protest outside Eraring coal-fired power station, on the NSW Central Coast. Brown's comments were recorded in September.
"I'm here to join a peaceful protest at a power station I actually helped to build, because I'm concerned the expansion of the coal industry is burning our children's futures", Kennedy explained to GLW.
Kennedy has been in the earth moving and mining industry for about 40 years and currently works at a large open-cut coalmine near Muswellbrook. He was requested by his employer not to publicly name the company he works for but refers to it as "the Big Australian" and explained it operated the steelworks in Newcastle until 1999.
Kennedy is also concerned about the health and environmental impacts of coal dust. On November 25, the Newcastle Herald reported that the Upper Hunter (which includes towns such as Singleton and Muswellbrook) is polluted by 50,000 tonnes of fine particles a year from coalmines. "If we move to renewables that problem will go away", Kennedy said.
As well as the issue of particles, concern has been raised by data showing that 53,000 tonnes of poisonous oxides of nitrogen were emitted in the Muswellbrook local government area in 2006-07, largely from coal-fired power stations, according to the November 24 edition of the Newcastle Herald.
New mines and extensions approved by the NSW government for the Hunter region alone in the last 18 months include the $240 million Anvil Hill (now Mangoola) open-cut coalmine project, the Abel underground coalmine and major expansions at the Liddell coalmine, Bulga underground mine and Bengalla coalmine near Muswellbrook. These, and the other pending proposals, would add another 60 million tonnes a year to the 110 million tonnes of coal produced by Hunter Valley mines, according to the Anvil Hill Alliance.
"[Coal companies] plan to expand but it's not going to be an expansion that will create more jobs. It will be expansion with extreme cost cutting. During my time in the industry the trend has been to maximise the equipment, make the equipment bigger and to minimise the number of jobs", Brown told GLW.
"There's a certain bit of cynicism in the community because the expectation of jobs in these new mines didn't eventuate so now the community just doesn't believe what the coal industry says", he explained.
According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, "Productivity based on saleable tonnes per employee has increased from 6920 tonnes per annum in 1996-97 to 10,120 tonnes per annum in 2006-07".
In 2006-07 NSW produced a record 131.3 million tonnes of saleable coal worth around $8.1 billion. However, while coalmining regions like the Hunter endure the worst impacts of the industry — from the destruction of rivers and noise pollution to the loss of agricultural land — they do not see the economic benefits.
"It's a major point of issue that a huge amount of money that's made by the coal industry goes out of the area and virtually none stays here in the Hunter Valley", said Brown.
According to Brown, workers in the industry are feeling the squeeze as coal companies seek to maximise their profits.
"There's a growing realisation that one of the reasons why people get money in the mines is the draconian conditions they're working under ... and the hours they have to put in. There's been a general decline in real terms in the money the miners are making in relation to the number of hours they're working. And that will continue.
"We're seeing people on 457 visas coming into the Valley now being paid $40,000 whereas a permanent employee would be earning something like $135,000. Contractors are earning about $85,000 and the trainees are earning less than that", he said.
Brown argues that the coal industry should begin to be phased out immediately and an expansion of renewable energy embarked upon. He explains to people "who want coal to go on forever" that the coal companies themselves will shut down mines as they begin to run out of coal: the coalmining industry provides no employment guarantee.
"The withdrawal of the coal industry will free up water for agriculture. At the moment the coal industry takes most of the water away from the agricultural industry. As the coal industry phases out, agriculture will come up again. We'll also see, as part of the rehabilitation of coalmining areas, that [the land] could be shaped to provide good conditions for wind farms", Brown argued.
"We already have the infrastructure for the power, and the power stations themselves can be retrofitted with solar energy to phase out coal. So I see the Hunter becoming a clean energy centre and that's where the prosperity will come. It will be a big job producer and [there'll be] an increase in agriculture as well", he explained.
"If we're going to get serious about global warming", Brown continued, "it needs to happen straight away. It can happen virtually straight away. We have figures from researchers that say every power station on the East coast of Australia can be retrofitted with solar thermal over an eight-year period and that would tie in with our phasing out of the coal industry. There'd be an increase of jobs."
A 2008 study conducted by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity in Newcastle found that a shift to a renewable energy economy in the Hunter/Wyong region would result in a net gain of between 3,900 and 10,700 jobs.
"I know from my time in the industry that the attitude of people is give them another job that isn't in a coalmine and they'll take it", Brown said.
Kennedy shares this sentiment. "I can't wait for the day we have a solar panel factory in Muswellbrook. I'll be waiting at the door to work there", he said.
Kennedy describes himself as a "front-line" union member for 40 years and explained he has fought some "long and hard battles against coal companies." Both he and Brown believe the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union needs to stand up for workers and their futures by opposing the coal expansion.
"First and foremost [the union] has got to look after the jobs of the workers and not the profits of the coal companies. That's where they need to focus", said Brown.
"The officials of the union need to stop promoting the coal companies and start promoting the workers. There's nothing wrong with a transition — the union can still have input into the transition away [from coal]. Those jobs that go into the renewable energy field can certainly be covered by unions."
The government must also support this transition, in Kennedy's view. "Instead of propping up the coal companies with the diesel fuel rebate for mining operations the federal government should spent that money on renewables", he said.
Brown called on the government to get begin a "just transition", saying it should "make sure it's carried out and fully funded by the coal companies. That the education and training facilities are there — they have to be put in place."
Brown explained that community opposition to coal has been growing.
"We're putting pressure on [the coal industry] and that pressure needs to be maintained. We need to get more people involved, mainly young people. [Young people] are coming along with a knowledge of what's got to be done and we need to give them the breathing space, the opportunity to join in.
"The next steps of the campaign are to actually reinforce the concerns of the community with more numbers doing direct action. We have to get those wavering politicians and show them the community means business.
"Direct education [can include] educating the young kids. Direct action can be having community forums and getting that information out there, videos, accessible modes of information that everyone can relate to. That's happing and it's expanding", Brown concluded.
Kennedy explained that there is a growing understanding of the impacts of coal expansion within the industry.
"In my workplace, talking about these issues can sometimes feel like talking to a brick wall. Although, slowly but surely these barriers are breaking down and people are starting to discuss it", he said.
"We're slowly convincing people in the industry that we need to go towards renewables. And that there ample opportunities for retraining for people [to work in alternative industries]".