Margaret River, a town on the southwest coast of Australia, is an important agricultural area, supporting olive farms, dairies and livestock. It attracts tourists from all over the country eager to check out its famous beaches, forests, artists and wineries.
But residents were shocked when news surfaced in July that a proposed coalmine will be built just 15 kilometres from the town centre.
The culprits are LD Operations (LDO), Vasse Coal and South West Coal (a subsidiary of the United States based AMCI group). These companies had negotiated with the state government for several years behind the community's back.
The proposed coalmine poses a major threat to Margaret River's water supply. The coal beds sit beneath the Leederville aquifer. The aquifer in turn discharges water into the Margaret River and its tributaries.
The coalmine would stomp all over this sensitive system. Opponents of the mine say it will have to drill a shaft directly through the aquifer, which would contaminate the critical freshwater source.
The Margaret River and the Leederville aquifer supply drinking water to three nearby towns: Margaret River, Cowaramup and Prevelly. Farmers depend on this water supply for their livelihoods.
There also is a big risk that pollutants from the mine's tailings dams would find their way into the river. Pollutants in the river would inevitably enter the food chain.
Poisonous heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, uranium and radium are often concentrated in coal deposits.
Critics have warned that the mine was also likely to make the groundwater more acidic and salty.
Coalmine pollutants threaten biodiversity. Critically endangered species such as the hairy marron, the Dunsborough burrowing crayfish and the Margaret River burrowing crayfish depend on the health of the Margaret River.
New roads through the forest would need to be built to service the proposed mine. The forest red-tailed black cockatoo, Baudin's black cockatoo and Carnaby's black cockatoo — all rare and endangered species — depend on this forest.
The mine doesn't just threaten Margaret River, but Western Australia’s southwest more broadly. The mine would set a precedent for mining on the Vasse Shelf, a geological formation that extends throughout the area. More mines would likely follow all along the coal-rich shelf.
Mining on this scale should be unacceptable in southwest Australia. Conservation International lists the region as one of the world’s 25 top “biodiversity hotspots” — among the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on the planet.
The coalmine would contribute to global warming. Coal itself is a dirty fuel, but coalmining also releases large amounts of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas.
The Margaret River coalmine is being proposed in the context of plans to massively expand the coal industry in Western Australia. In July 2010, state environment minister Donna Faragher announced the approval of five new coal fired power stations.
There is also a nation-wide mining push underway. There are plans for an expansion of mining in the already badly degraded Hunter Valley; a new gas hub at James Price Point; a new uranium mine 25 kilometres from Alice Springs; new oil rigs off the Western Australia coast (including near Margaret River); and even coal seam gas mining in suburban Sydney.
The rising demand for minerals in China is driving the mining boom. India, thought to be the main potential buyer of Margaret River coal, and Japan are also significant buyers of Australian minerals.
In 1998-1999 minerals and energy comprised 17.7% of Australia's exports. This had increased dramatically to 41.5% in 2010, a March 11, 2010 article in the Australian Journal of Mining said.
Recent floods in Queensland and NSW have put several coalmines out of commission, raising the price of coal.
The mining companies argue the mine will create jobs. However, it will only create about 100 new jobs, while it threatens the tourism and agriculture industries that employ thousands.
Yet because mining pays a far higher wage than fruit picking, the mine is seductive to some.
The WA Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union has come out in support of the mine. This decision drives an unnecessary wedge between mine workers and the Margaret River community.
It leads Margaret River residents to hold mine workers partly responsible for the coalmine. However, it should be possible for Margaret River residents and unions to be on the same side.
Other unions, such as the WA branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, are showing the way forward. In May, it adopted a policy in favour of 100% renewable energy by 2020.
Community anger against the proposed mine is not just a matter of locals wishing to protect their own livelihoods and property values. Biodiversity, water and the climate are issues of global concern.
The science tells us that to avoid climate catastrophe, we need to transition to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible. Phasing out the coal industry is a necessary part of this. Yet mining companies argue it isn't possible because coal is Australia's biggest export.
If this dirty mineral is our biggest export, we need to put ourselves on a firmer footing. It is extremely short-sighted to irreparably trash the environment for the sake of something as tenuous as the current mining boom.
Rather than exporting coal, First World countries such as Australia should commit seriously to exporting renewable technology to help Third World nations develop sustainably.
Technology is already developed enough for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2020. Beyond Zero Emissions and the University of Melbourne Energy Institute have written a detailed report explaining how this can be achieved.
Part of their “Zero Carbon Australia” plan involves a new wind farm in Bunbury, which would provide new jobs in southwest WA.
The Margaret River community has organised a powerful campaign to fight back against the proposed mine.
The campaign group NO COAL!tion formed days after the mining proposal was made public. Its first community organising meeting drew more than 50 people. It has developed a huge network of supporters and contacts.
When the Environmental Protection Authority put the coalmine's proposal on its website and invited public comment, the response was overwhelming. It received a record 750 responses — most of which were against the mine.
NO COAL!tion organised a Walk Against Warming rally in August that drew about 1000 people — roughly 20% of Margaret River’s population. NO COAL!tion have also taken their protests to Perth and have supported other protests against the state-wide expansion of the coal industry.
The coalmine site has been painted with anti-mine slogans. A hand-made sign reading "LDO" was sawn in half as a protest stunt in the town centre.
Local artists and schoolchildren have painted a beautiful mural along the main street emblazoned with the slogan “Margaret River: Too Beautiful to Undermine”. The Xanadu Winery will host a NO COAL!tion fundraiser on February 5.
NO COAL!tion has joined a national community of activists fighting coalmine developments. These groups are sharing knowledge and moral support. They, not the mining companies, are standing firm for a sustainable future.
[For more details about the campaign to stop the mine, visit www.nocoalitionmargaretriver.com .]