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Issue #1444      24 February 2010

Coal industry insatiable greed

Hard on the heels of the Queensland government’s contract for the sale of vast amounts of coal comes further controversy over BHP Billiton’s plans to carry out long-wall coal mining operations beneath the Dharawal State Conservation Area near Appin, south-west of Sydney.

This very important natural conservation area includes the largest number of upland swamps in mainland Australia. Despite their bad historical image, swamps have a very important role to play in cleaning water and nurturing native flora and fauna. The Dharawal wetlands, for example, filter water that enters the nearby Georges River, especially during drought periods. They support a wide range of flora and fauna such as native grasses and Banksia trees, as well as the endangered ground parrot and the giant burrowing frog.

Longwall coalmining involves removal of huge horizontal panels of coal hundreds of metres below ground level, after which the mine void is allowed to collapse. The practice is notorious for causing fracturing of subsoil bedrock, the loss of surface water and irreparable damage to the natural environment. This has already happened in similar situations where coal mining was carried out. Coal mining is currently threatening one of the largest and most fertile agricultural areas in NSW, the Liverpool Plains.

Rampant, blind, insatiable greed

Eight of the Dharwal swamps are likely to be drained if the mining project continues, and some 47 others are also at risk. The company has admitted that draining of the swamps is likely, but maintains that the problem can be fixed by using resin to fill in the cracks in the bedrock – presumably after all the water has been lost!

After angry public objections, and the adverse report of a government inquiry into mining effects, BHP Billiton announced that it would in future refrain from seeking approval for longwall mining beneath major rivers and creeks. However, the company appears to believe that this magnanimous gesture should entitle them to the right to mine beneath minor waterways and swamps – even in areas identified by government as worthy of conservation because of their natural significance.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the company has denied the hydrological relationship between the swamps and nearby rivers, but at the same time has tacitly admitted that the project will cause damage to the swamps. As a spokesperson recently declared haughtily: “There is no evidence to support claims that mining impacts … to streams, tributaries or swamps will result in the drying of rivers or loss of water to the catchment.”

The company has also stated that the project would not be financially viable if the government prohibited mining beneath the swamps. This amounts to an argument that the community should be prepared to lose a priceless natural area in order to guarantee the company the estimated $2 billion worth of coal that lies beneath the Dharwal Conservation area.

A government responsibility

The planet now faces a major threat from climate change caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, of which carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor. Australia has the world’s worst per capita carbon dioxide emission level; half of our emissions come from coal-fired power stations, and we are now the world’s biggest exporter of coal. According to UN authorities, global emissions should be reduced by 40 percent within ten years. Logically, within that period 40 percent of our coal mining industry should be phased out, and should cease altogether within 25 years. Yet BHP Billiton proposes to operate the Dharawal mine at full blast for the next 30 years, and to continue its coal mining operations indefinitely.

The NSW ALP government is now considering the Dharawal mining proposal. Unfortunately, in every case where the interests of the environment have conflicted with the interests of the coal mining industry, ALP governments have buckled.

This applies to all levels of government. The Rudd government, for example, introduced an emissions trading scheme that gave the coal industry and other major polluters exemptions and compensation, instead of penalising them. The potential of emissions trading schemes for reducing pollution depends on the government, not the polluting industries involved. The government has again bent to the will of the polluters; nevertheless, the critical responsibility to set and periodically reduce the pollution limits, (so that they are not simply a “licence to pollute”), and to enforce the scheme without fear or favour, still lies with the government, not the market forces. In this respect the Rudd government has clearly, and most miserably, failed.

It remains to be seen whether the Keneally government in NSW will meet its environmental responsibilities in the case of the proposed Dharawal mine. However, given its track record so far, this is at best an outside chance. (As Muhammed Ali once said about one of his opponents, “This guy has two chances: slender and nil!”)

The people of NSW and the nation would be better advised to look to a new kind of government, a left and progressive coalition, in order to defeat BHP Billiton’s outrageous proposal to mine beneath the Dharawal Conservation Area. That’s the best hope for the future.

Next article –  Editorial – Disability crisis response – commerce dressed up as concern

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