Rural Australia’s coal mine waste and its environmental results

Oct 05, 2011 12:00 AM

by Amy Coopes

Across the spectacular valley sprawling before Eden Anthony’s Australian homestead a new mountain has risen in the gritty distance -- a heap of coal mine waste. It is a cautionary tale for Hunter Valley, a picturesque wine-making area north-west of Sydney, which finds itself at the centre of a growing resources controversy: the hunt for coal seam gas (CSG).
Mining is not new to the coal-rich Hunter region: open-cut pits dot the landscape, linked to power stations and the nearby Newcastle docks by a network of rail and road.

But CSG has people worried, and a growing backlash that began in Queensland state has seen landholders across the country uniting under a simple mantra: Lock the Gate.
“This is the most radical transformation of rural Australia we’ve seen since the expansion of the pastoral frontier in the 19th century,” says Drew Hutton, founder of the Lock the Gate alliance. “And the Hunter Valley’s the tipping point. If coal seam gas comes into this region… it’ll just be a great big industrial wasteland.”

The fears are about water. Most Australian farms rely on boreholes and gas fields are popping up along the edges of the world’s largest underground aquifer: the Great Artesian Basin.
Farmers and scientists fear CSG mining -- a highly invasive process in which the rock is hydraulically fractured or “fracked” with a toxic cocktail of chemicals and water to release the gas -- could devastate underground water supplies. Some properties in Queensland have already seen aquifer levels drop by two-thirds due to CSG mining and what water has left is salty for animals and plants.

But what is of deeper concern to most are the unknowns, says Anthony, a member of Lock the Gate and long-time campaigner against CSG in the Hunter region. Limited testing by activists of what can be released from the seam during fracking has shown cyanide, arsenic, and a group of carcinogenic and nerve-damaging agents known as BTEX in the mix.
A recent BTEX scare at Arrow Energy’s Queensland operations and blow-out at a well on the outskirts of Sydney have reinforced public unease about the industry’s untested environmental effects, according to senator Larissa Waters.

Waters has travelled the country examining the CSG industry’s effects and says “communities are up in arms” about water issues and their limited rights to keep miners out. Anything below the topsoil is considered state property and short of haggling over compensation, farmers cannot stop mining on their land.
A six-month moratorium on fracking by the New South Wales government has seen projects halted in the Hunter -- a “small win” for Anthony and his neighbours, but Waters thinks it should be national, and more lasting. Waters is pushing for laws to allow landholders a final say on their land.

A landmark court challenge against CSG firm AGL could provide hope, with lawyers from the non-profit Environmental Defender’s Office challenging a development in the Upper Hunter region on ground water and contamination issues. A victory in the case would have big implications, requiring CSG firms to satisfy state planners to a much higher standard about the effects of their activities.
Recommendations from Waters’ government panel, due in November, could also see water become an environmental protection trigger, meaning the government would have to review and green-light all future CSG projects. It could be too late in Queensland, where Lock the Gate’s Hutton says a “suck it and see approach” has prevailed, allowing the CSG industry to make mistakes which could be felt for centuries.

Hutton believes thousands more farmers will join his campaign as the high-stakes search for cleaner energy alternatives to coal ramps up.
“Every valley that I go into has a coal seam, and a coal seam gas company poking around trying to see if there’s a resource there,” he said. “It’s just massive. It will be the biggest social movement this country’s ever seen.”

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