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Whatever happens donít work together

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 18 September 2012


‘The bloody fluro bastard passed me on the double white lines.’ An angry remark from a Mum in Mudgee with the kids on board; a metaphor for ‘whatever it takes’, from mine workers, managers, owners and prospectors. Whatever has to be done in the mine industry has to be done yesterday and bugger the consequences for anyone seen to be in the way.

Government is on the side of the miners. After a few small concessions in the Hunter to land holders, the NSW, O’Farrell government announced the granting of 22 new gas licenses on 12 September, some of them over aquifers.  The land, landholders, food production and existing local communities do not get a look in.

Paul Cleary, with commendable research and controlled anger, sets out to show the reader the extent of the rape of the continent in the name of development. His new book, “Mine-Field”, is easy to read but difficult to digest.

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There are few offsets. Mining, government and food producers have not been brought together to plan and discuss optimal construction and use of new infrastructure resources that might benefit communities, producers and land holders. The taxes levied on the mining industry, including the new mining tax, are insufficient to substantially assist long term nation building.

Mines  are developed and expand without consultation as to the strain this will impose on local infrastructure including roads, hospitals,  doctors, schools, housing and child care facilities, to name but a few of the services impacted. The mines do not offer to assist with these major costs, instead opting to help sponsor local footy or netball clubs and race meetings. Tokenism in terms of what they are taking and making.

 Paul Cleary spells out in detail the impact of mining Coal Seam Gas on food producers, the water table and the quality of water. It was not so long ago that a program was implemented to cap the flowing bores of the Great Artesian Basin in order to conserve water. Now the process of fracking employed by the CSG extraction process threatens aquifers near the process including the Basin. What has happened to earlier concerns?

Rising salinity was the subject of much angst and study, particularly in WA, but again both CSG processes and coalmining threaten to bring to the surface millions of tons of ancient captured salt. The speed and haste of development does not permit proper and sustainable solutions to be found.

In another new book, “The Coming Famine”, Julian Cribb says, “If people respected cornfields, as the French philosopher Simone Weil once suggested we should ( as part of our love for our homeland ), we would not build cities on them or degrade them. The coming famine of the midcentury is likely to teach renewed respect for grain fields, rice paddies, orchards, market gardens, and the soil that sustains them all.

Believe it or not, the world is running out of high-quality soil. In one sense, we passed ‘peak land’ a long time ago. A report by Rabobank shows that the area of food production has declined from 0.45 hectare  ( 1.1 acres) per person in 1960’s to 0.23 hectare ( 0.6 acre) currently and will keep on falling as population rises, to around 0.18 hectare ( 0.4 acre ) in 2050.”

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Paul Cleary says that in Queensland three projects alone will consume 20,000 square kilometers of productive land. Again in Queensland 30 million tones of salt will be produced over three decades from CSG projects employing fracking.

In the Bylong Valley between Rylstone and Mudgee there are massive reserves of coal about to be exploited. With what turned out to be a lucky break for former NSW politician Eddie Obied, having bought a good sized rural retreat in the Bylong Valley, he later learnt that he was sitting on millions of tons of coal. He sold out to Peabody Mining causing a cascade effect amongst land owners in the Valley, with the result that prime agricultural land is now about to become a series of mines, checked slightly by a belated re-classification of some of the valley floor as Strategic Agricultural Land. But the question remains, in the light of past experience will the government adhere to its classifications in the face of mining pressure?

In the face of easing prices some coal mines are shedding staff and contractors. Mostly these are older mines, where labour and maintenance costs are higher, new mines are going ahead and the miners long term view of demand dictates that they should.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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