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Speech: Coal Mining in NSW

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 14 Mar 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:29): The CSIRO's State of the environment report, released today, forecasts worsening global warming. The climate threats facing our planet and its people are being accelerated by the relentless expansion of coal mining and coal exports in Australia. We have seen in the news the horrifying scale of the new coal export terminal in Queensland that will export climate change to the world and threatens the Great Barrier Reef. In New South Wales, project plans for a fourth coal export terminal, the T4, at Kooragang Island in Newcastle Harbour went on public exhibition last week.

Any climate change action being taken in New South Wales is being grossly overshadowed by the short-term vested interests of the coal industry. Australian annual coal exports are forecast to reach 450 million tonnes by 2015. New South Wales export 200 million tonnes of coal, with 180 million tonnes forecast to move through Newcastle Harbour each year. Then we add to this the 120 million tonne export capacity coming online by 2015 at the T4 terminal.

The efforts of federal and state environment and climate change departments to develop emission reductions strategies are simply dwarfed by these figures. They are also undermined by the incredible public relations swindle being carried out by the coal companies, financing campaigns and ads to feed doubt about climate science in the public's mind, even though the scientific community has reached a consensus position.

According to the 2010 New South Wales Coal Industry Profile, the value of coal exports in New South Wales last year was over $16 billion. The Hunter Valley coal producers are driving the further expansion of the Newcastle port because of supply chain problems. Many new mines have come online in recent years but they are digging up coal faster than they can move it. Last year the federal government announced it would chip in another $1 billion to the Australian Rail Track Corporation to build new coal rail lines from the Hunter mines to Newcastle Harbour, on top of a previous $1.2 billion stimulus package investment made in 2008. This is not money for passenger rail services. Though freight is carried on those lines, it is a clear subsidy to the coal industry.

The dozens of big players that move their coal through the Hunter Valley, who benefit from this subsidy, are largely foreign owned mining companies such as Rio Tinto, with its headquarters in London; the Swiss based Xstrata; Chinese Yancoal; and our own mining multinational, BHP Billiton. These heavily subsidised companies do not share their billion-dollar profits with the rest of the country. The impact these coal multinationals are having on both the global climate and the local environment will be a burden that will shape the lives of generations to come.

One of these foreign owned mining companies, Yancoal Australia, is owned by the giant Chinese miner Yanzhou Coal. Last week Treasurer Wayne Swan approved the merger of Gloucester Coal with China's Yancoal, making it one of Australia's largest coal miners. Gloucester, once a rich agricultural producing region with enormous tourism potential, is being overrun by mining. The same company was also recently knocked back on the Ashton Mine expansion near Singleton in the Upper Hunter.

Yancoal also holds an 80 per cent stake in the 100 per cent foreign owned Moolarben coal mine at the western edge of the Hunter Valley, where coal mining has expanded into the western coalfields in the Mudgee district. I first visited this region in 2005 to inspect the rapid expansion of coal mining. As a New South Wales Greens MP I worked with a broad range of people from regional coal affected communities who were calling on the then New South Wales Labor government to properly assess the cumulative impact of mining. Successive mining and exploration licence approvals were threatening the agricultural land and water they depended on, and threatening biodiversity from the clearing of local woodlands and threatened ecological communities.

Successive mines have been assessed and approved with a relentless rubber stamp, in isolation from one another, without any assessment of the cumulative impact on the region's land, groundwater, aquifers or ecosystems, and without consideration of their greenhouse gas emissions. I have witnessed over the ensuing seven years the realisation of concerns held by community and environment groups about the damaging cumulative impacts of those mines. A case in point is the impact that mining has had on the Goulburn River and the uncertain future that has been bestowed on the Goulburn River Gorges, a unique and vulnerable geological formation at the headwaters of the Goulburn River catchment, about 40 kilometres north east of Mudgee.

A small coal mine using pit ponies operated nearby at Ulan prior to 1980. In the 1980s Ulan Coal mine began to develop their open cut mining and long wall operations. In 1981 White Mining diverted the Goulburn River around an open cut mine. They literally moved the river to suit the mine. The river diversion is unstable and has never been adequately rehabilitated. As the river now lies immediately adjacent to the open-cut void filled with coal rejects, tailings and overburden, it continues to impact on downstream water quality, particularly after significant rain events. Already degraded both in flow and water quality, the Goulburn River faces increasing threats from the insatiable expansion of the three local but foreign owned mega coal mines—Ulan, Wilpinjong and Moolarben.

The Xstrata owned Ulan mine will produce up to 20 million tonnes of coal per annum, the Peabody owned Wilpinjong mine was granted approval in September 2010 to increase production to 15 million tonnes per annum, and Yancoal's Moolarben mine will have the capacity to produce 17 million tonnes per annum at full production—making a combined total of 52 million tonnes of coal each year from these three mines, destined for export to Asian markets. When burnt, that coal from these three mines will generate 135 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

These three mines now draw 30 to 40 million litres of water per day—around 10 to 12 gigalitres per annum—from a catchment area already stressed by the cumulative impact of years of coal mining. The impact of relentless groundwater extraction, interference with and contamination of aquifer and river systems, mining subsidence, mine dewatering and on-site usage is so clearly unsustainable and yet mining continues to expand. There is no accurate modelling currently available to adequately predict the impacts on river and groundwater systems. They just do not know. I particularly want to tell the story of the fate reserved for two magnificent and unique natural features of the Goulburn River—the Corner Gorge and the Drip Gorge. When I first visited the Drip Gorge I was in awe of its sheer beauty. The giant cliff face towered over us and a wall-like wave, constantly dripping, was covered in a tangle of greenery. It was so stunning. The locals treasure it and have campaigned for its inclusion in the nearby national park. In 2007 the then New South Wales planning minister Frank Sartor's mine project approval insisted that the Moolarben mine must:

… ensure that the Drip, Goulburn River Gorge and bed of the Goulburn River remain outside the zone of recorded subsidence damage for longwall mining—

and that any—

revised mine plan would need to comply with the performance criteria specified in this condition.

Yet recently under the New South Wales government these irreplaceable natural wonders, once situated on crown lease sites, were privatised to freehold title as part of an offset strategy. These precious parts of the Goulburn River Gorge are now privately owned by the Chinese corporation Yankuang.

The offset strategies are a con. Lands are bundled into an offset package as partial compensation for loss of biodiversity and riparian habitat. They are also swapped for other packages between private companies and the government. There is often no beneficial environmental outcome but it clearly works in the interests of the miners. All the biodiversity offsets in Moolarben's case are located outside the Hunter Valley catchment. They do not represent like for like, nor do they replace the net loss to the bioregion or to the east-west corridor connecting the western woodlands with coastal forests. It is absolutely farcical. Worse still, in Moolarben's latest project application, the offset package no longer includes the Drip Gorge and the Corner Gorge despite the former requirements set out by the New South Wales planning department.

I very warmly congratulate Julia and Colin Imrie, Bev Smiles and the rest of the team of the Mudgee District Environment Group, as well as the local Aboriginal group, Murong Gialinga, and David Maynard, who works with them. Their work has been absolutely critical. (Time expired)

Lee condensed the ending of her speech as her speaking time expired.  Here is the full ending:


I think the point has already passed where we need to draw the line, yet there is no end in sight.  Coal’s star continues to rise.  We are selling out our future, our farms, our water, our air, our very livelihoods to the shareholders of rich and greedy foreign owned mining companies.  It’s a form of madness that we are passing on to our children.

I take hope from the people I meet and work with.  I very warmly congratulate Julia and Colin Imrie, Bev Smiles and the rest of the team of the Mudgee District Environment Group, as well as the local Aboriginal group, Murong Gialinga, and David Maynard who works with them. Their work has been absolutely critical.

Many local people have campaigned so hard over many years to defend their local environment, their groundwater and aquifers and the Goulburn River from the greedy onslaught of mining.  Have become activists in their desperation to protect the land for which they feel a sense of stewardship.  I am honoured to record a glimpse of their concerns and their efforts in the federal parliament.

Where successive state and federal governments have failed to place the community’s interests above the mining industry’s interests, these hard working people have accepted responsibility for the future sustainability of their region.  I can only hope that future generations will be able to adapt to the damage inflicted on their landscape and water resources and equally importantly, the climate burden placed upon them.

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