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Issue #1496      6 April 2011

Mining muscles in on more farmland, wilderness

Wherever you look in Australia, mining corporations are staking claims on precious wilderness areas and even the family farms of battling primary producers. Over recent decades, state and federal governments have allowed exploration and mining leases to scar and pollute the landscape to shore up economies dependent on mineral exports. The consequences for the people of Australia of decades of “free-trade”– neo-liberal economic priorities – will be ugly and even the short-term benefits look very doubtful.

An abandoned mine within the Dharawal State Conservation Area.
(Photo: Tony Markham)

The extent of the nightmare was driven home to NSW’s new premier, Barry O’Farrell, when he was confronted with some realities in relation to his promise of a national park on Sydney’s fringe. It turns out that the Dharawal State Conservation Area is littered with mining and exploration leases. BHP Billiton has two active coalmining leases that it wants to press ahead with. Longreach Oil has an exploration lease for hot rocks energy. Coal seam gas explorer Apex Energy holds a license for petroleum exploration. O’Farrell will need to offer big compensation to the mining corporations involved and dig deeper to buy some green credentials or simply drop the undertaking.

In South Australia the Rann government has been forced by public outrage to consider a ban on uranium mining in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. Uranium mining company Marathon Resources was caught dumping 60 tonnes of waste in the Sanctuary in 2008 in breach of their licence conditions. Rann says he would even consider declaring the area a national park in order to preserve the area. That has been welcomed but won’t completely protect it, either. “Many in the community would be unaware that 83 percent of the area of our national parks is actually open to mining and mining exploration, so the government needs to go much further than that,” Matthew Turner of the Wilderness Society points out.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke is delaying a decision on whether or not to declare the high value Tarkine wilderness area in Tasmania’s north-west a national heritage site. It was nominated in 2004 and former environment minister Peter Garrett put an emergency protection listing on it when a road through the area was proposed.

The listing lapsed in 2009. Burke says more “community consultation” is required. In the meantime, his department is considering a proposal from Shree Minerals for a magnetite and hematite mine at Nelson Bay. Another proposal from Tasmania Magnesite was found to not require federal assessment if the company agreed to limit the impact on threatened species.

In Spring Hill near Orange in NSW, a meeting of farmers was held recently where many vented their feelings of powerlessness in their dealings with goldmining companies wanting to explore under their land. “Farmers might think they are signing up for one [drilling] hole, whereas they sign up for a pad of gravel and associated infrastructure that goes on with much more major activities,” NSW Farmers Association spokesperson Fiona Simson told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Methane is bubbling to the surface in the Waratah Rivulet east of Campbelltown, NSW. This is one of the key rivers feeding Sydney’s drinking water catchment. The problem started when a longwall coal mine operated by a subsidiary of the world’s biggest coal company, Peabody Energy, caused the ground beneath the river to tilt and crack.

A brightly coloured algal bloom has broken out. “It’s outrageous that, six years after the rivulet was first damaged by coalmining, this damage continues to happen,” Total Environment Centre spokesman Dave Burgess said. Peabody denies any danger from the leak and is attempting to glue the riverbed back together with polyurethane resin.

In the Hunter Valley, a region already under huge environmental stress from the coal mining industry, a big new push for coal seam drilling is underway. AGL plans to build up to 110 gas extraction wells near Gloucester using the controversial “fracking” technique. Approval was given by the state government two days before it went into pre-election caretaker mode. Residents are concerned that rivers and aquifers will be polluted threatening the health of the people of the area and primary production.

“Fracking” involves the pumping of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep underground causing the coal seam below to crack and release gas to the surface. This is collected and used as a fuel. Overseas experience of “fracking” has been devastating and was the subject of the film Gasland by Josh Fox (find out more at AGL insists the chemicals to be used are as benign as household detergents and shampoo. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, a sixth generation farmer but also chairman of Eastern Star Gas, is urging farmers to get behind the coal seam gas proposals in order to secure their energy needs into the future.

The Greens have called for a moratorium and an inquiry into the long-term effects of the expansion about to be unleashed. The whole “wild west” approach to the wellbeing of the community and the environment at the hands of the resource sector also needs to be examined. Its reckless, essentially unplanned nature threatens the environment in many ways including its massive impact on climate change. The future utility of the resources is being robbed from the people of Australia and the planet and most of the financial benefit shipped overseas as well. A serious approach to these questions must include the public ownership of these resources and the companies that extract them.   

Next article – Editorial – Urgent CPA health care campaign underway

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