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Issue #1747      September 7, 2016

Culture & Life

Coal threat to the Coast

The main water-catchment valleys on the NSW Central Coast – the Dooralong and Yarramalong Valleys – are under threat from a government-sanctioned underground long-wall coal mine. The proposed mine, Wallarah 2, would be operated by KORES, the South Korean government-owned Korean Resources Co, and the locals have been fighting it for years.

A local protest against the Wallarah 2 coal mine proposal.

A long-wall coal mine uses a huge piece of equipment called a shearer that continuously grinds coal from the seam and dumps it into a conveyor. The conveyor takes the coal to a stockpile, from which (in the case of Wallarah 2) it would be loaded onto trains on a rail spur and trundled off to Newcastle, now the world’s largest coal-loading port.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, let’s see. First there’s the health effects of coal dust on miners, rail workers and the community. The proposal calls for the conveyor belt and stockpile to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next 30 years. Kate da Costa, spokesperson for The Greens on the Central Coast, points out that “freight trains will be loading coal from an uncovered conveyor belt around the clock.”

As printed notices pinned to telegraph polls across the Central Coast point out: “Coal Dust Kills”. Alan Hayes, long-time campaigner against attempting to extract coal or CSG from under the Central Coast valleys, told the Wyong Regional Chronicle: “When you are talking about coal dust, you are talking about fine micro particles that can’t be seen by the naked eye but are carried many kilometres by the wind and will get into your lungs and cause all sorts of respiratory problems.”

Then there’s the potential damage to the water table in valleys that carry the bulk of the Coast’s natural water supply. Long-wall coal mines are highly mechanised. As the coal shearer machinery and its accompanying conveyor belt progress along the coal seam, the over-burden is allowed to collapse behind it. This may be smart economics for the coal company, but it practically guarantees subsidence. The result is cracking of roads and the walls of houses.

More insidious, but potentially more devastating, is the effect of this subsidence on rural creeks and dams. Dams can lose their entire contents, small rivers can cease to flow altogether, as their water disappears into a new aquifer or floods a disused mine.

In the manner of most government bureaucracies under capitalism, the body set up many years ago to manage this problem in the coal fields, the Mine Subsidence Board, seems less interested in facilitating claims for compensation from affected property owners than in avoiding them, especially claims for damage to dams.

Already, water is piped long distances to supplement the Central Coast’s own water catchment. Any damage to the catchment and water-carrying ability of the Dooralong and Yarramalong valleys would be potentially very serious. There are already over 300,000 people living on the NSW Central Coast and the state government is keen to turn some sections of it into centres of population growth, which would dramatically increase the population and the accompanying water consumption.

If the mine was to proceed, the coal stockpile, conveyor belt and rail spur would be a scant 200 metres from the densely populated suburb of Blue Haven. Apart from coal dust, the nine storey coal loader would be clearly visible to residents there and also to residents of a new suburb being developed by the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Alan Hayes’ community organisation, the Australian Coal Alliance, has also raised concerns about air extraction from the proposed mine and the possible dumping of contaminated water from the mine project into local lakes or the ocean.

During the 2011 NSW election, the then state Liberal leader, Barry O’Farrell came up to the Central Coast, donned a Coal Alliance “Water Not Coal” T-shirt and declared that, if he won government, mining under the water catchment valleys would not be allowed: “No ifs, no buts, a guarantee!” Once elected, however, Kores’ mine proposal was back on the agenda, with Liberal government support.

Labor member for Wyong, and Shadow Minister for the Central Coast, David Harris, has called on the Baird Liberal Party government to buy back Kores’ exploration licence for the Wallarah 2 mine, the same way they have agreed to buy back from BHP the licence for the proposed Caroona mine in the Liverpool plains. That buy-back is costing the NSW government $220 million, but the opponents of the Wallarah 2 mine argue it is equally sensitive.

However, the Baird government has made it a requirement now that when the Planning Assessment Commission examines a development proposal it has to “prioritise economic outcomes”. In other words, if it is good for business, that takes priority over other issues like public health or the environment.

Kate da Costa, from the Central Coast Greens, pointed out in an interview with the Wyong Regional Chronicle that Kores’ own EIS (environmental impact statement) actually conceded that a coal mine in a populated area like that proposed for Wallarah 2 “could increase mortality by one in 100,000 people per year”.

There are presently some 320,000 people living on the Central Coast of NSW (the author of this article is one of them). If the mining company’s figures are correct – and one would expect them to be understated if anything – then if the mine goes ahead we can expect three additional deaths every year. Over the anticipated life of the mine, that means 90 people who will die because of the mine.

Alan Hayes pointed out to the Chronicle: “The NSW government wants the whole northern area of the Central Coast zoned for housing”, a plan that will boost the population of the region enormously. But, as Hayes adds, “if you had a young family, would you go to coal mine central to raise your children?”

Not if you wanted them to grow up healthy you wouldn’t.

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