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Issue # 1426      2 September 2009

Culture & Life

Universal health hazard

Recently, my wife Pat and I joined about 150 other people at a rally in Wyong on the NSW Central Coast to protest against long-wall coal mining under the Dooralong and Yarramalong valleys where we live. Protests against coal mining are now so frequent as to be commonplace up and down the NSW coast and in the Hunter Valley and the Liverpool Plains – in fact wherever coal is to be found.

Once coal was considered one of the Earth’s riches, to be exploited for the benefit of humanity, but those days are long gone. Nowadays we know better: fossil fuels are a finite resource, of course, and hence have a limited future regardless of any other factors.

Of much greater significance, however, is the fact that fossil fuels are major pollutants. That there is a direct link between the smoke-filled skies over industrial cities and stunted growth in children, ill-health and shortened life-spans has been known since the 19th century. It was, after all, glaringly obvious to any half-way serious observer.

Unfortunately for the world’s people, there is little profit to be made from preventing pollution and considerable – well, let’s not beat about the bush, enormous – profits to be made from exploiting fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Oil powers our cars and buses, our ships and planes, and its use spews huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. You could say quite truthfully that it is fuelling the greenhouse effect that is producing the global warming that in turn threatens the very existence of life on Earth.

And then there is the not so small question of oil spills, like the one that right now is floating up the WA coast off the Kimberleys.

Incidentally, last week in Worth Watching, in writing about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, I misquoted one statistic by a factor of ten (!): I said that that spill killed “over 350 sea otters”. In fact, it killed over 3,500 sea otters. That’s what is now confronting the people of WA.

Whether the spills are the result of drilling mishaps (as in WA), or tanker mishaps (as in Alaska) or some other “mishap”, one thing is certain: under capitalism, big oil will continue to make super profits and the people will be left, literally, to clean up the mess.

But oil is not the only fossil pollutant we have to contend with. The mining, transporting and burning of coal all result in pollution: the land is turned into a moonscape by open-cut mining, modern underground mining causes subsidence, riverbeds dropping out, dams and creeks ceasing to flow, buildings and roads cracking.

Transporting the “black gold” results in very unhealthy dust pollution over wide areas, as does loading it onto ships. Most importantly, however, we now know that the burning of coal is the main contributor to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Coal may make lots of money for coal companies, but it is at the expense of our planet’s future.

The NSW Labor government however, is nothing if not accommodating to the needs and wishes of the coal companies. Despite all the scientific evidence showing the indisputable link between global warming and the use of coal, the coal companies, not the scientists or the public, continue to call the tune in NSW.

The government is not only permitting the coal companies to undertake a massive expansion of the number of coal mines in the state, but is even building new rail tunnels and other track upgrades at public expense so that the coal companies can get their polluting product to market more easily and in bigger quantities than ever.

The rally in Wyong that Pat and I were part of, had been called to coincide with a regional meeting of the NSW Cabinet in the Mingara sports and recreation complex. We stood outside with our placards, while members of Cabinet hurried inside, the more arrogant wearing those derisive smiles that clearly say “poor fools”.

Curiously, the major exception was Premier Rees, who actually went to the trouble to come over to us and talk. It was a political ploy, of course, and I think only a few succumbed to the display of earnest charm and sympathetic concern. Especially when he announced (yet another) enquiry into coal mining on the Coast.

How many enquiries are needed before mining in a water catchment area is stopped by government? After how much irreparable damage has been done?

Even Rees must have been conscious that his audience was less than enthusiastic about his new enquiry. Perhaps he could sense, using his politician’s sixth sense, that many of us felt opening new coal mines in the age of global warming should be classified as an act of terrorism against the population of the world.

His response however did not break any new ground: he told us it would not be just another enquiry but a “robust” enquiry, so we all felt a lot better, didn’t we?

His ears should have been burning afterwards, because he certainly copped a fair bit of adverse comment.

In today’s world, coal mining is not only a health hazard for coal miners, but for everyone on the planet. We urgently need political leaders who can grasp the nettle of phasing out coal and coal mining, and instead fund the introduction of renewable energy resources, the creation of green industries and jobs and the retraining of displaced workers from the coal and related industries.

For time is running out.

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