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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

Culture & Life

Toxic water and remembering Tolpuddle

The ancient mariner was surrounded by water everywhere, “but not a drop to drink”. In Australia, the driest continent on Earth, our problem is lack of water. But now our supply of drinking water is actually under attack.

A locomotive hauling a coal train over the Hunter River at Singleton.

Water is needed for drinking and also – importantly – for farming, so that we have food (meat, fruit, grain and vegetables) as well as water. But water-intensive industries like mining are acquiring and using our scarce water resources with potentially devastating results for food production. Water used in mining is not only diverted from agriculture but is so polluted in the process that often it cannot successfully be re-used.

The farm-based anti-CSG organisation Lock the Gate has analysed the allocation of water licenses in NSW and discovered some very alarming facts. One of those was that coal-mine operators in the Hunter Valley hold entitlements to a massive 143 billion litres of water. In fact, they own 55 percent of all “high security” water shares from the Hunter River.

That puts them in the box seat in times of drought because they will have preferential access to water, water they will use not for agriculture or for drinking but for washing dirty coal and suppressing dust in open-cut mining operations.

The purchase by mining companies of water entitlements has driven up the cost of water in the Hunter Valley to an average of $2,000 per megalitre, making it the most expensive water in NSW. Farmers, who are dependent on water, are struggling to meet such costs.

At the same time, the reckless discharge of wastewater from the Hunter coal-mines is increasing the salinity of the Hunter River and its tributaries. That is unlikely to worry the mining companies but it is of grave concern to agriculture in the Hunter, a centre of wine growing and horse breeding.

Mining in the hunter Valley is mainly open cut, which, once a mine is “worked out”, results in a huge vacant hole in the ground. Miners call these giant holes “final voids”. These are natural gathering places for wastewater, which, because of the soil disturbance and mineral waste around them, quickly become pools of toxic wastewater.

According to an article in the community journal The Rural Grapevine, to which I am indebted for much of the information on this subject, “the salt load of final void water increases over time, drawing down surrounding groundwater for hundreds of years”.

We’re not talking about a small-scale problem here: the Mount Arthur mine void alone will be 4.000 metres long, 680 metres wide and 180 metres deep – covering an area as big as the Sydney CBD. And there are presently 22 of these final voids in the Hunter! As the Grapevine says: “Is it any wonder that Hunter communities are saying that enough is enough?

“Open-cut coal mining on this scale is unsafe. It’s threatening our water, the very life blood that we rely on to survive. And it is costing us dearly – we all need clean food and water.”

On the weekend of July 19-20, thousands of trade unionists from all over Britain gathered in the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset to commemorate the six farm labourers from there who were arrested in 1834 for forming the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest the lowering of agricultural wages by landowners. They were charged under an obscure 18th century law prohibiting the swearing of private oaths and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.

When sentenced one of them, George Loveless, wrote on a scrap of paper the following lines:

God is our guide! From field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom,
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!

A mass campaign for their release (which included a petition with 800,000 signatures) ensued and all, except James Hammett (who had a previous criminal record for theft) were released in 1836. Hammett was released in 1837.

The weekend commemorative festival actually began on the Friday afternoon, and included a mass march with banners and bands, stalls, activists’ workshops, tours of historic sites and speeches comparing the situation then and now. Union speakers in particular pointed out how the real wages of agricultural workers are once again under vicious attack. In fact, agricultural workers in the South West of Britain, i.e. in Dorset, have suffered the largest fall in real wages in the whole of the UK.

The Tories, in a blatant act of class warfare, abolished the Agricultural Wages Board in 2013, since when wage rises in that sector have been largely non-existent. In Kingswood, near Bristol, 48 percent of workers earn less than the living wage. But a former union organiser pointed out that “it isn’t just about low pay.

“The scourge of our economy is now zero hour contracts [where work is totally casualised. Workers do not know until the time they are due to start work whether in fact they have any work.] In the 21st century workers have to phone up their employer in the morning to find out if they have work that day. Victorian practices are back in 2014.”

Rosie Macgregor, Chair of South West Labour, told the Sunday march and rally that they were marching “against the background of austerity where we’ve seen rising housing costs, falling living standards and the mergence of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world, which is deplorable and unacceptable.”

Of course, Britain might be a rich country, as Ms Macgregor says, but that wealth is not in the hands of the working class who created it but in the hands of the capitalist class who expropriated it. For the benefits of that wealth to flow to the workers will require a complete change in the social system, a revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism.

Only then will the aspirations of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and those who fought for them come to fruition.

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