Rural Australia busts as coalmining booms

August 3, 2012
The Caroona Coal Action Group organised a community blockade to stop coalmining on the fertile Liverpool Plains. Photo: Sharyn M

In the space of a decade, Australia’s mining sector has come to dominate the country’s economic life. In June, Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens said mining investment is tipped to “be about as large as business investment in the rest of the private economy combined” by mid 2014.

The boom has concentrated huge wealth and power in some hands, helping to shape a consensus among politicians and the corporate media that digging stuff out of the ground is now the backbone of Australia’s economy and other sectors must simply make way.

The writer Guy Pearse says Australia suffers from “quarry vision”, a phrase he coined to describe “the rose-coloured glasses through which we view the importance of the resources sector — particularly the coal industry”.

Apart from the mineowners themselves, few groups of people are as blinded by this “quarry vision” as mainstream economists.

Last month, CommSec economist Craig James drew on census figures to produce a report that said mining is generating great wealth in remote and regional Australia. The report said Australia’s 13 richest postcodes are in regional Western Australia, the heart of the iron ore mining boom.

James told the London Telegraph: “It is quite remarkable what is happening in some of these remote areas … It is the modern day equivalent of the gold rush but it has the potential to last a whole lot longer.”

But author Sharyn Munro says there is another story to the mining boom. Most of the new Western Australian mines are in arid regions, such as the Pilbara. In the eastern states and in Australia's south-west, coalmining is pushing aside established towns and spoiling prime farmland. In her new book Rich Land Wasteland she says big coal and big gas are not leading a gold rush, but a literal “invasion of our country, a taking over of land and a clearing out of people”.

Her book describes the resistance, and too often the defeat, of rural communities battling to save their properties, health and livelihoods from the coalmining and coal seam gas (CSG) juggernaut.

Munro travelled around Australia for a year, interviewing people affected by nearby mines. She found historic villages wiped off the map, polluted rivers and disappearing creeks, towns choking on mining dust, adults and children struggling with sudden health complaints and productive farmland changed into huge open cut mines.

Every place she visited she heard the same story: the coalmines are killing rural communities and destroying the natural environment. And in every place she found growing anger at the mining companies and the politicians who help them get away with it.

Munro told Green Left Weekly that “a quiet revolution of civil disobedience [against coal and CSG] is taking place” throughout the bush.

She said researching her book “took a year on a variety of road trips to various states” to meet with battling individuals and groups in regional areas. “I have kept in touch with most of these people. Nobody’s story got any better. The number of tears I shed while transcribing the [interview] tapes … There is no way you cannot have your heart break.”

One of the most moving stories Munro tells in Rich Land Wasteland is about the small Queensland town of Acland and its single remaining resident, Glenn Beutel. Acland’s other residents are gone, their houses bought by coal company New Hope to make way for its New Acland mine. Beutel had refused to sell up, telling Munro “this place is part of my soul”.

Rich Land Wasteland also tells the story of a young mother from Bulga, a small town in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley. The valley has been completely transformed in the past decade by open cut coalmining. The companies insist the dust from their mines is under control and poses no health risks.

But one day the mother was shocked to find black coal sludge at the bottom of her baby’s milk bottle. It ended up in the bottle via the kitchen kettle, which had the black sludge caked around the heating element, doubtlessly blown in as dust from nearby coal operations.

Munro told GLW that she first decided to write her book because three of her grandchildren were living in Singleton in the Hunter Valley. Singleton is now surrounded by giant, open cut coalmines.

She said: “Since the late 90s, I’ve watched the pollution growing [in the Hunter]. You get assured that rigorous environmental guidelines are adhered to.” But she said things could change only “if people know what is going on, not only the health damage, but also the environmental damage”.

Another issue is that so few people outside coal-affected communities know about the crisis. Munro said: “There is a big knowledge gap even in the country … Even if you live in the country and you don’t live near one of these coalmining areas, you just have no idea. In the cities, it’s only people who are socially and environmentally concerned who know. But people don’t know about the mental and emotional damage. And very few people know the scale of it: it’s just enormous.”

Munro said that the economic argument that coalmining is needed for Australia’s prosperity makes sense only for those who refuse to count all the real human and environmental costs.

“The health costs [of coal] alone have been shown to outweigh to mining income,” she said. “It’s not even good for the economy, it’s only good for those who are on the right side of the mining boom. It’s really unhealthy for an economy to be dependent on one thing.”

Munro said the solution is to “put mining back into its box as another business. I do not see why one business should be allowed to override the wishes of other businesses and landowners, but why that one business should be able to trump other rights and environmental rights.

“The federal government needs to have more powers on water and environmental controls. Things need to be more transparent. The whole assessment process needs to be changed and carried out by independent experts. People don’t trust the government or the companies any more. There is total disillusionment. People [in the bush] who voted Liberal and National all their lives are at a loss.

“Meanwhile, these companies are out to get all they can. That Australia can be contemplating signing international agreements on reducing climate change [while allowing coal to expand] is two-faced for a start.”

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