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Issue # 1408      29 April 2009

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland (Part 2)

Strong community opposition to proposed new coal mines

On the NSW Central Coast, the opposition to the new coal mines from community and environmental organisations was so strong that the state’s Labor government, whose deep and abiding concern for the well-being of mining companies has been remarked on before, realised that it would be counter-productive to just walk over the public’s concerns.

So the government organised a window-dressing operation: a carefully selected “independent enquiry” chaired by an ex-politician who could be relied on to protect corporate interests ahead of community ones, someone who knew how this game was played. Someone, in short like former Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski.

Ms Chikarovski, the principal director of Chikarovski and Associates Pty Ltd, registered lobbyists, was supremely unqualified to judge the effects of mining on aquifers, water supply, coal dust pollution, and the rest. She would however be well versed in what the government would need from the “enquiry” and equally well aware of the subtle even indirect benefits that could accrue from both a grateful government and industry for a job well done.

As resident Ron Sokolowski BSc reported in the local news magazine The Rural Grapevine, not only did Ms Chikarovski exhibit “no qualifications or experience in coal matters, which one would consider essential for a proper outcome of the Inquiry report”, but the composition of the remainder of the Inquiry panel was woefully inadequate.

“There was no environmental scientific representation, nor representation from the rural and urban communities affected by the mining proposal. The Panel was formed at the total prerogative of the Minister for Planning at that time, Frank Sartor.”

’Nuff said, really.

In breach of the very concept of an “independent” enquiry, the panel hand-picked by Mr Sartor made the mining company their principal source of technical information on the possible effects on surface water of mining in the catchment area. Despite having to acknowledge that “there was insufficient baseline data available from the mining company relating to groundwater”, the enquiry nevertheless asserted that mining activity would not significantly impact on the water supply to the Central Coast.

Ultimately, to no one’s surprise (but many people’s disappointment), the Chikarovski enquiry dismissed all objections, saying in effect: coal mining posed no threat to the water table, would not pollute and was a really good thing.

As Ron Sokolowski reported to the local community: “The Chikarovski Panel has failed to factually satisfy its terms of reference. It displays complete ignorance of serious threats to public water resources and potential environmental problems in the proposed Wallarah 2 coal mine zone.

“The report is misleading, contradictory, scientifically deficient and was a complete waste of public funding.

“It would seem that it has deliberately ignored condemnation of the adverse impact of longwall mining, the recurring damage being recorded throughout NSW coal zones, and the lack of supervisory and regulatory control over an industry repeatedly destroying our environmental heritage.”

Environmentalists, global warming activists, people in communities threatened by expansion of existing coal mines or by new ones, people opposed to the unbridled exploitation of our natural resources by rapacious, greedy corporate interests, were all disappointed by the response of the coal miners’ union, the Mining Division of the CFMEU.

A union representative appeared on television welcoming the state government’s announcement giving Kores the go-ahead for long-wall mines under the Dooralong and Yarramalong valleys.

The Mining Division of the CFMEU took the same position towards the proposed mines as the union’s forestry division had taken towards the logging of old-growth forests: the claim that “it will create jobs” appeared to override all other considerations.

To destroy tzhe environment because it means jobs now, is like people on a wooden steamship who, told that they are running out of fuel, set about breaking up the ship and burning that: it may keep them going for a while, but their long term prospects are indisputably diminished.

Posing jobs against the environment is a favourite tactic of the employers anxious to disable support for the environment. In fact, however, jobs and the environment are not separate but inextricably linked. What good are jobs if the environment goes up in smoke, or down the tube?

The days when workers could be made to destroy their health to enrich their employer are not yet gone altogether, unfortunately, but they are going none the less. The union movement has led that struggle and needs to continue to do so. But it also needs to widen the scope of that struggle, to fight not just for jobs but for sustainable jobs, non-polluting jobs, jobs that do not diminish people’s quality of life or harm their health, jobs that do not destroy or even diminish the future for our children and our children’s children.

Just as the environment is a single entity that cannot with impunity be divided into exploitable segments, so the matter of jobs now and into the future requires a holistic approach that links job creation, infrastructure development, population growth, working hours and conditions and the environment.

Instead of struggling around the slogan “coal miners (and forestry workers) need jobs”, the union movement should be struggling for the slogan “coal miners and forestry workers need a future”.

After all, as I said before, what good are jobs if you can’t breathe the air?

Next articleGovt wins praise, but also warned as Australia supports UN Declaration

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