My coal dilemma

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I can't see the issues around the coal industry in black and white terms, even though I'd vote for any ethical replacement plan in a heartbeat.

Chris Johnston cartoonAs much as people build places, places substantially build our identities, and people literally lived and died by coal mines where I grew up. I went to primary school at Nulkaba which means place of coal. My father always identified himself as a coal miner even though his job literally broke his back. If I'd been a boy, I might have ended up down a mine and I would have made a lot more money than I have, but I'm not sure I'd be less conflicted.

I've been down one longwall coal mine that extended under Lake Maquarie, near Newcastle. My group put on oversized, borrowed protective gear and travelled down to the shaft in a buggy. Inside it was cool and damp with salt water drips coming through the roof.

We were in near darkness until we got to the shaft where the machine was waiting with its rotating, snaggle-tooth head poised to take another gouge. I'd anticipated fear of being enclosed down there, like a scene from Birdsong, but it was actually fairly spacious.

The job was to walk along catwalks, overseeing mechanisation. The miner held a remote control device in his (potentially her) hands, rather than a pick or shovel. The crew, far fewer than in old bord and pillar style mines. Clinical and lacking the sad romance of a D. H. Lawrence novel.

For a few weeks in 2006, Australians and people around the world were captivated by the working conditions and hardships of miners when Todd Russell and Brant Webb were trapped underground at Beaconsfield. Yet, inevitably, the interest in these human faces of mining faded, less quickly than the name of their colleague who died. He was Larry Knight.

Unfortunately, restating coal's incontrovertible damage to places and people isn't redundant. In 2003, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Yearbook was already saying mining damages to the environment, including serious erosion and contamination, noting that costs of rehabilitation had risen then by 62 per cent since 1996-97.

 

"There is a deep tension between policy paralysis, increasing prices, town survival, and the mountain of evidence linking mining to so many negative impacts on people and places over the last 150 years."

 

And while mining has been part of the backbone of Australia's economy, it's come at a horrendous human price. Between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014, there were 15 known fatalities in Australian mining, exploration, smelting and refining (Australian Mine Accident Database).

But the toll is even more pervasive than these grim fatality statistics, with evidence that shift work and environmental hazards have many adverse health effects on mining families (Australian Mine Safety Journal, 24 July 2017). Issues such as domestic violence and suicides have been linked to fly-in-fly-out jobs in the newer, remote mines. It's not difficult to understand how this lifestyle, with its boredom and isolation, leads to mental health issues and family tension.

The last 70 of 300 employees of West Wallsend colliery were terminated in July 2016, after environmental controversies ironically convinced its owners, Glencore, to wind down operations after more than 80 million tonnes were extracted over its life. This was one of the latest closures in the extinction of this industry, where coal mines have fallen like dominoes in long established areas.

This year has had the closure of Hazelwood power station and its associated mine, and then Liddell became the fire in the political hole. Coal-fired power stations, at the end of their working lives, are trouble for the government. However, in light of massive outages in alternative-energy-committed South Australia and the lack of long term plans or coordination between governments, the desire to go greener and cleaner has come up against understandable angst.

Come January, with potential for summer blackouts, some may be willing to sacrifice sustainability goals for cool homes, but many should be angry at governments who seem to be doing nothing. There is a deep tension between policy paralysis, increasing prices, town survival, and the mountain of evidence linking mining to so many negative impacts on people and places over the last 150 years. Surely it's time for governments to dig a little deeper to find a humane transition.

The Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining has been estimating the socio-economic impacts of mine closure and concluded that it will mean that some towns are no longer viable (Research Paper No. 8, 2007). That is a soft way of saying towns become extinct. The smaller and more 'one industry' the town, the more likely it won't survive, but some carry on when the minerals run out. The Hunter Valley had vineyards. These days, hospitality may be the new black, but I think the issue of coal is far from being black and white.

 

 

Jennifer PontJennifer Pont is a part-time carer, part-time student and part-time education worker from Ballarat, Vic.

 

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Topic tags: Jennifer Pont, coal, climate change, mining


 

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What a fantastic article about a very important Australian issue. It's very interesting to get the perspective from someone who has lived in the community, and a delight to see it expressed so well.
Laura Wilson | 27 November 2017


Yes, brilliant
Denis Quinn | 27 November 2017


A very interesting article. Jennifer thanks for your insights.
Philip | 27 November 2017


Great insights. The mining industry are seen as the powerful Bad Guys, and they may very well be just that; but there's no doubt who will suffer first and suffer most if coal mining becomes extinct. The same people who will suffer first and suffer most if it doesn't.
Joan Seymour | 27 November 2017


Thanks Jennifer for a very balanced and personal article . "Surely it's time for governments to dig a little deeper to find a humane transition". Overall governments have probably done too much; frequently between States and Commonwealth in opposite directions at the same time. Your word "transition" is quite correct, and the sudden closure on coal mines/power stations in Victoria and SA are harmful to the community and indeed quite irresponsible. The same can be said about the banning of all gas exploration even where fracking is not required; again wilfully against the national interest and to a balanced, reliable, lower-CO2 emission profile for Australia at an affordable price.
Eugene | 27 November 2017


Years ago I attended a Conference for teachers of Geography and related disciplines . We were taken to a coal mine near Lake Macquarie.We 'went underground' as you did Jennifer. The guide asked us to switch off our lamps - it was scary to say the least. We were located about six kilometres under the Lake and about 200 metres below its bed . Being a geographer, my imagination went wild...what if ???? The environmental and human consequences of coal mining, particularly open cut, are very considerable and are not taken into account in the cost benefit analysis of economists. If they were, many people living well away from the Hunter Valley , enjoying the 'benefits' of electricity to keep their poorly insulated houses cool this coming Summer would think again- not just the impact on their 'hip pocket nerve'. By the way the electricity blackout in South Australia was not just due to the closure of the Leigh Creek Power Station. It was a combination of a powerful wind storm, bowling over transmission towers and failure of the Interconnector from the Eastern States. Renewable energy shortfalls were a minor contributor There is no doubt from research papers I read and local climate research I am undertake that human induced climate change due to excessive releases of green house gases provides increased energy to the atmosphere, increasing the intensity of storm systems across Australia.
Gavin | 27 November 2017


Great article. This is why transition packages for mining regions are so important...and they need to happen now, well in advance of closures. The closures are inevitable and the greatest cost to the community is when they happen suddenly. We need alternative jobs and industries in these regions asap
Greg Foyster | 28 November 2017


Jennifer, thank you. I grew up in Newcastle. My great grandfather died from Black Lung Disease. My step mother came from Abermain. Every male member of her family worked in the mines including the loved brother who died as a result of a cave-in . Her niece Mary was for many years the principal of Nulkuba School. As an educated middle class woman, I have all the "right" attitudes to coal; that is until I visit my extended family in Newcastle and hear their concerns, indeed anguish, about the employment future of their children and grandchildren Thank you again for your compassionate assessment.
mailie lee | 29 November 2017


Well said, ,Jennifer. To get to your punchline, it most certainly a black and white issue, as all those who have worked professionally in the mining and/ or energy industry well know and generally are happy to admit. The policy paralysis at the political level is not just about coal or energy but industry generally- there is no industry policy at all! Basic problem - the Commonwealth government has no track record of building or operating power stations, and you can count on one hand the number of politicians of all parties who have the slightest background in science or technology, let alone experience in industry of any kind that is relevant to this story. Hence they are prey to lobbyists of both right and left, and take their advice from what they may have gleaned on the job as politicians, and from minders who have a vested interest in telling them what they want to hear, as well as themselves having no technical background. The public service has been denuded of technical people for over thirty years at both state and federal level, and this is what underpins this paralysis.
Dennis | 29 November 2017


Jennifer, thank you for taking the time to contemplate some of the other social issues associated with climate change. With some of the realities coming into focus, there is a rush to seek a solution. But will the mining of the minerals required for batteries have a similar impact on social groups. Questions are asked about the environmental impact of lithium mining. Also the impact on workers exposed to the mineral, as well as to financial exploitation. Sounds familiar, just ask the old coal miners. Future policy needs to consider these issues along with the broader plan to move away from fossil fuels. It's not just where is the next kilowatt coming from, but how does it affect us as a global community. So for there has been no plan for anything, let's hope we can learn quickly.
Andrew | 01 December 2017


it is easy to look at problems which the coal industry has caused. BUT what enormous benefits coal has brought to humanity through steam engines revolutionising transport and then providing electricity to billions and is still needed while changes are being made
Bernie Treston | 04 December 2017


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