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Speech: Hunter Valley mining

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Feb 2012

Adjournment speech, Wednesday 8 February 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:17): A David versus Goliath battle continues in New South Wales's largest coal region, the Hunter Valley, between local farmers, environment groups and residents and their formidable opponent, King Coal. Goliath is spending billions of dollars to dig up hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal and send it overseas. David is struggling to cope with the consequences and wondering what is in it for local communities. The scarred lunar landscape that is the immediate visual legacy of open-cut coal mining in the Hunter is a stark reminder of the ongoing damage being inflicted on this fertile river valley for the burgeoning coal export industry. The damage is magnified when you consider the dangerous contribution that this export coal, when burnt, adds to the earth's atmosphere as carbon pollution.

The community campaign linking the runaway expansion of the coal industry in the Hunter Valley over the past decade with the ever expanding Newcastle Harbour coal export terminals, with climate change, and with the regional environmental impacts on the land, water and rivers and on human health, is reaching a critical stage. But state and federal governments are driving continued investment in coal mines, coal ports and coal-fired power, to their shame, at a time when we know governments should be leading the transition to renewable energy with public investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green manufacturing creating new jobs growth and a more sustainable economy.

There is no doubting that there is big money in it for Australia. Australia's resource and energy commodity export earnings are forecast to reach a record $206 billion this financial year, according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics. But the big players here are multinational companies taking their profits offshore. We know the mining jobs figures have always been overstated and have largely plateaued. People are asking where this voracious mining and the damage it leaves in its wake will leave them in 10 or 20 years time.

This time will be remembered by future generations as the death throes of the fossil fuel era. There are dozens of new coal projects on the NSW government's books, and much of the millions of tonnes of new coal will be exported through the coal ports of Newcastle Harbour. The rail infrastructure being built to move this coal, with projects in excess of half a billion dollars, is being heavily subsidised by the federal government. There is never enough money in the budget for passenger or freight rail, but money can always be found for coal rail lines. This government has a long way to go to redress the imbalance they inherited in infrastructure spending on roads compared with rail. The Labor government is doing a bit better than the coalition government did but, in the last budget, road building funding still outstripped rail funding five to one. We have the situation in NSW where the only rail lines being built are for coal trucks to move the coal to export terminals.

The giant Kooragang Coal Terminal at Newcastle Harbour is currently undergoing its fourth major expansion. Known as the T4, the new coal loader will increase the port's capacity by up to 120 million tonnes per annum, including rail upgrades, massive new stockpile areas, a new ship berth and the dredging of 300 metres of the river to a depth of 15 metres to create another navigation channel. All this means more air pollution for locals and rail lines clogged with coal trains.

Port Waratah Coal Services operate two of Newcastle's three existing terminals. Backed by Rio Tinto, Xstrata and other coal companies, they won the rights to build the T4 terminal in Newcastle Harbour, at a stated cost of $5 billion, bumping out local developer Nathan Tinkler's plans for a coal loader at Mayfield. Tinkler's push to be an even bigger coal baron made a convincing case for the unsuitability of the expansion of Newcastle Port. He argues that it would compound Newcastle's infrastructure problems. Coal being railed through Hunter towns and the suburbs of Newcastle means coal will forever be railed through the middle of Newcastle suburbs and the townships of the Hunter Valley. Fifty-eight submissions were made to the New South Wales Department of Planning objecting to the proposal, many highlighting the serious climate change impacts of the expansion.

During the break I spent two days travelling in the Hunter with New South Wales Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham to meet with locals who are deeply troubled by coal mine expansion in their area. We started our visit at Rosedale farmstead, home of beef farmer Wendy Bowman. This stunning property, nestled on the alluvial river flats of the Glennies Creek, was the site of a significant win against the mining giant Yancoal, owned by Yankuang Group Corporation Ltd. This Chinese government owned company met its match when it came up against Wendy, who has been fighting to protect Hunter farms from mining companies for more than 20 years. I congratulate Wendy enormously for her achievements. She had been a leader of many communities and has brought great insight into how to conduct this work.

The New South Wales Planning Assessment Commission, after hearing solid evidence from locals on the health and water impacts of the mine, knocked back the company's application. But, sadly, the push to expand Ashton coal mine adjacent to this Hunter tributary has still had a detrimental impact. We drove past empty farmhouses on land bought up by the mine owner when we turned off the New England Highway on our way to Rosedale.

Deirdre Olofsson, another local who also can take much of the credit for this win, showed us around the Camberwell village, where her family has lived for years, after previously running a dairy. Like many people I spoke to, Deirdre had a story about mining company representatives heavying the locals. This story is particularly ugly. Employees of Felix, the previous owner of Ashton mine, came into the family home and pressured Deidre's elderly parents about comments they had made on the mine.

I met Deirdre, an electrician employed at Liddell Power Station, a few years back, when she was campaigning to stop the Ashton coal mine expansion plan to move onto the Camberwell Common. In a dubious deal, former New South Wales Labor minister Tony Kelly handed Felix Resources control over much of Camberwell Common. I asked questions and spoke on this issue when I was in the New South Wales parliament. The win that has just been achieved in stopping the latest plans of Ashton mine to expand hopefully opens the door to having that bad decision over turned.

Warkworth and Ravensworth villages have also been decimated by mining. A sad sight is the decaying community halls. Wendy described how these places were once a hub of activity, with birthday parties, children's Christmas pageants and community meetings. At the Ravensworth Hall now, the windows are smashed and the corrugated tin is banging in the wind. We also visited Bulga, where residents are working hard to ensure that their delightful village does not go the way of these other villages. We gathered at the Bulga Memorial Park with about 20 locals. They put a very clear case about why the mine should not go ahead. They described the unacceptable levels of noise and dust.

Despite the company and the New South Wales government entering into a 2003 deed of agreement to retain Saddleback Ridge, on the outskirts of Bulga, partly as a barrier to mining noise and as a biodiversity offset, the mine owner, Rio Tinto, is expecting to be allowed to mine and remove the ridge. The noise and dust impact will be extreme, as the mine could come as close as within 2.6 kilometres of the town—another very good reason why it should not proceed. A frequent comment Bulga residents made to me was about how frustrated they are with the New South Wales government. A common complaint was that compliance officers comply with what the mines want and do not represent the interests of locals.

I met Charlie Shearer that day. His family have been farming for 110 years. He and his neighbour Bruce have been working this area, and they described how their horses and their dairy cattle have been experiencing more eye cancers. Local vets have identified that this is associated with the high dust levels associated with open-cut mines. Water impacts also concern them enormously. I also had a chance to have a good talk with Ian Moore, who is fighting to stop drilling on his farm. Ian is legally blind, and I congratulate him enormously on the work he is doing and the leadership he is giving to coal communities in this area.

It is time that governments at the federal and state level came to their senses and did not allow the expansion of the coal industry, which is driving such enormous local destruction of the environment of local communities. When this coal is exported overseas, we are exporting tonnes of carbon dioxide and driving dangerous climate change to more worrying levels.

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