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Issue #1809      February 7, 2018

Water not Coal

Food and water at risk

A newly approved coal mine on the NSW Central Coast will put at risk the whole region’s precious water supply. And an open cut mine on the Liverpool Plains will jeopardise NSW’s food bowl. The underground mine, Wallarah-2 on the NSW Central Coast, is planned for the Dooralong and Yarramalong Valleys. These are the catchment areas for at least half the Central Coast’s water sources.

Barry O’Farrell wearing a “Water not Coal” T shirt of the anti-mine campaign.

Disbelieving residents point out that this same mine has been disallowed by the State government twice before. But the company – the Korean government-owned Kores Australia Ltd – keeps coming back with slightly amended proposals, clearly endeavouring to batter down the opposition. Or perhaps it is just waiting until the state government – always sympathetic to the wishes of big business – feels the time is propitious for riding roughshod over the local community.

Australia is the driest continent on Earth. The bulk of the population clings to the coastal fringe. Nowhere is water plentiful. The Central Coast of NSW is designated as an area for population growth. But already, water has to be piped into the region from Newcastle to the North. Jeopardising the aquifers of the two valleys, the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, for the sake of the revenue from a polluting coal mine has astounded residents of the region.

On January 17, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) once again recommended approval of the Wallarah-2 coal mine, flying in the face of not only popular opposition but also scientific evidence and even common sense. In fact, the PAC approved the mine despite acknowledging that it will lie beneath a sensitive and already stressed water catchment and that it will have an adverse impact on that water catchment! Clearly, money talks.

The Wallarah-2 coal mine project has been the subject of a long and bitter community campaign against it. It would be a long-wall mine, in which machinery travels along the seam ripping out the coal and dumping the overburden behind it as it progresses. It uses very few coal miners but the method practically guarantees there will be subsidence. Subsidence from long-wall coal mining in other areas has seen damage to roads and houses and – more significantly – has seen the bottoms crack and “fall out” of dams, creeks and rivulets.

In 2011, Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell, then in Opposition, notoriously made a speech wearing a “Water not Coal” T shirt of the anti-mine campaign – along with his Central Coast candidates – in which he promised that a future NSW Liberal government would stop the mine going ahead – “no ifs, no buts – a guarantee!”

As soon as he was elected Premier, however, that “guarantee” was abandoned. The community, led by the Australian Coal Alliance (ACA), has been fighting this potentially catastrophic project ever since. ACA Campaign Director Alan Hayes said after the latest PAC decision that they would continue to fight the Wallarah-2 coal mine until “the enemy is driven from the gate”.

The ACA has made the decision go to the Land and Environment Court and challenge the PAC decision. This will be costly – capitalist governments aren’t partial to ordinary people challenging the activities of big business, and coal in Australia is still big business. Renewable energy might already employ more people but it does not yet generate sufficient income to challenge the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry.

The community campaign is hoping to raise sufficient funding from donations to cover the anticipated legal costs. “Our legal team is already preparing our challenge for a judicial review”, said Alan Hayes. “The Australian Coal Alliance, on behalf of Central Coast residents, will continue this fight. We fully expected that this was what we would have to do.

“The mining company has been defeated twice before and we will defeat them again. This is a risky, unwanted coal mine that threatens the safe drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s been knocked back by a previous State government for those very reasons.

“Our waterways are precious and this mine could have an impact for decades to come. The Coalition came to power promising to end mining in sensitive drinking water catchments. They promised to stop this very coal mine, Wallarah-2, but now they’ve given it the green light.

“How is it possible that the mine is now approved? The system is broken.

“If Wallarah-2 believes that they have beaten us, they are mistaken. We will not go away.”

The State government of Gladys Berejiklian is as committed to fossil fuels as its federal counterpart. Malcolm Turnbull has notoriously spruiked the fictional benefits of “clean coal”, while cutting funding for development of renewable energy sources. Astoundingly, the Berejiklian government has also given the go-ahead for a huge new open-cut coalmine on the Liverpool Plains, the “bread basket” of NSW.

However, Labor’s record is no better. In NSW, previous Labor state governments have strongly backed coal mining, while the present Queensland State Labor government is loudly championing the highly risky Adani coal mine, which threatens a considerable part of the state’s environment including the Great Barrier Reef, on the very dubious grounds that it will “boost employment”.

It is a curious fact that right wingers, who normally don’t give a toss about whether ordinary people have work, defend all their most indefensible schemes with the shrill cry: “It will create jobs!” Adani’s CEO originally said the mine would produce 10,000 jobs, a claim echoed relentlessly by the Queensland Premier. However, the company’s own expert told a government enquiry that in fact “over the life of the project”, the mine would produce only 1,464 jobs. To put that in perspective, the federal government recently cut almost that many jobs from Centrelink alone!

What the Adani mine will do is threaten a considerable part of the state’s environment including the Great Barrier Reef itself.

The burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change, while coal mining scours the land so that it resembles a moonscape, damages the health of those who work in the industry and (if we include the transporting of coal) generates enormous quantities of dust and other fine particle pollution. The health and environmental benefits from developing renewable sources of energy are overwhelming and, one would have thought, overwhelmingly obvious.

In 2013, the Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC) on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development reported in part: “There are significant risks associated with the proposed project [referring to Wallarah 2] having a detrimental and long-lasting effect on an already stressed water supply catchment.”

The federal Member for Dobell, Labor MP Emma McBride, has referred the mine’s approval by the PAC to the federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

Assessment under the Act is supposed to take into account its potential impact on threatened species and water resources (rather than how much money the company has laid out on securing “influence” in government circles). Ms McBride, who is loudly supported by Wyong state Labor MP David Harris, said “Minister Frydenberg has the chance to stop this mine. If he doesn’t, he’s not only ignoring our community, he is ignoring the advice of experts that clearly says this mine is a threat to our water catchment.”

The people on the NSW Central Coast and the Liverpool Plains, like their counterparts battling Adani in Queensland, are waging campaigns in defence of their homes, their health and their rights in the face of the corporate greed of the coal industry and the short-sightedness of state and federal governments that clearly do not believe they have any responsibility towards the people they claim to represent.

We need governments of a new type at state and federal level – governments that put the concerns of working people before those of the profiteers. In other words, Socialist governments.

Next article – Editorial – Support for the elderly dumped; corporate welfare, military spending soar

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