The first coalmine in the Illawarra began operating at Mount Keira in August 1849. As the industry developed, the Illawarra Mercury of 1857 confidently asserted: “Our Black Diamonds will promote commerce and add to our social industry.”
Mining coal by hand was dangerous work anywhere it was carried out, but miners in the Illawarra had to contend with “firedamp” — a mixture of gases leaching from the coalface that were prone to explode.
The first great disaster occurred at the Bulli Colliery on March 23, 1887, when 81 lives were lost in an explosion. It was followed by the worst industrial disaster in Australia’s history when 96 men and boys perished in an explosion at the Mount Kembla mine in July 1902.
The Illawarra coalmines are “gassy” and it was the militant miners, battling mineowners whose primary purpose was profit, who fought to make them safe. But it was never easy. At Bulli Colliery in November 1965 a spark ignited Illawarra bottom gas (a combination of methane and carbon dioxide) that incinerated four miners.
So when the federal Labor government recently announced that its much-hyped high speed rail (HSR) network would bypass Wollongong because the 37 kilometres of tunnels necessary for the project were “basically unconstructable”, it came as no great surprise to those familiar with the region’s history.
As the HSR report noted, the tunnels would have to pass through coal seams that “present the risk of explosive methane gas during construction and operation of the railway”. Sealing off the tunnels from methane gas is, it seems, impossible.
A spokesman for federal minister Anthony Albanese was quoted in the Illawarra Mercury on April 13 saying: “A lot of work was put into whether or not it was possible but, based on current technology, a tunnel to Wollongong is unconstructable. It was given serious consideration but it is impossible to construct a tunnel, given the methane from the coal seam gas.”
Yet this is the same area that the NSW government wants to open up for CSG mining.
CSG extraction using directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing results in fugitive methane gas emissions. After water is removed from coal seams, the methane becomes mobile and can migrate to the surface where it can be ignited by sparks.
If the danger of gas explosions rules out Wollongong from the fast train route, CSG mining in the same area is also ruled out on the same public safety grounds. The scientific case against HSR tunnels on the Illawarra escarpment makes out the scientific case for a total prohibition of CSG mining in the area.
Federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke need look no further than the HSR report to institute the ban immediately. Or will yesterday’s Pig Iron Bob give way to today’s CSG Tony?