Hunter Valley shows folly of putting mines in farming country

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt's decision to approve a giant 35-square-kilometre open cut coal mine on rich agricultural land near Gunnedah, north-eastern NSW, has sent shivers up the spines of those who know what's coming.

The Hunter, where I used to live and work, has learned lessons the hard way.

"You cannot have a mine operating on a ridge that has, for centuries, been making a contribution to groundwater," says one Hunter Valley local. "If this starts, it'll be one of many. Most mining applications are extended. Miners apply for more country to wreck."

Jack [not his real name] has seen huge impacts in the Upper Hunter, especially Muswellbrook which has enjoyed a boom and then a bust. The valley has been scarred forever.

Jack is a successful agribusiness person. He used to run cattle. He represents a constituency that is disillusioned by both sides of politics and keen to see a fresh run of independents. "Barnaby Joyce could have done a lot more, a lot sooner. The National Party appears just as compromised as the Liberal Party, in the pay packet of international companies."

He's also angry with former state Labor Minister Ian Macdonald (found to have acted corruptly by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over Doyles Creek mining licences) for granting an exploration licence to Shenhua​ for $300 million – in all likelihood knowing just how rare and magnificent the rich soil and irrigation of the plains around Gunnedah are.

"Someone's got this federal government by the short and curlies to keep the mining industry going," Jack continues. This week's nobbling of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has added to his suspicions. "The Prime Minister denigrates wind turbines as eyesores. He's effectively saying that any farmer who put up a windmill on his farm 50 or 150 years ago is a clown. But a farmer's stock would have starved to death through shortage of water. There would not have been the rural development that we've had, were it not for wind power."

Jack also shares the skepticism of broad-acre Liverpool Plains farmers and others over Minister Hunt's approval of the mine, with "eighteen of the strictest conditions in Australian history which fully incorporate all advice".

"The conditions are not worth the paper they are written on," he tells me. "By the time these impacts are found out or acknowledged, it's too late and the damage is irreversible."

Now, Jack is no hippy from inner Sydney Newtown or Canberra's Ainslie. In an earlier life he worked in the mines. He says underground mines are modest compared with any open cut, but especially the one proposed for the Liverpool Plains.

"I had to work 45 pumps to keep the water out of one. The water varies considerably. Sometimes the water was so acidic, the life-expectancy of a piece of galvanised pipe was 48 hours. If miners had a wound they had to very careful.

"There'll be another mine just a few kilometres away where the water is so good miners could shower in it. The water will vary greatly, and it varies one layer above the other. You can have bad water at one layer and below that there can be water full of salt. Once you fracture the area, it all returns to the lowest common denominator. This is the stuff ministers are reluctant to talk about."

Liverpool Plains farmers are weighing up their legal options to stop what they call agricultural genocide. Time may not be on their side, as the Chinese owners are itching to get going. Civil disobedience is likely. "I would not take the risk of a mine in a food growing area," says one Valley resident. "We can farm for thousands of years, but you'll only mine once, and the impacts will last forever."

Despite the rhetoric, mining and agriculture can't co-exist well – that's the experience of the Hunter Valley. "Those in the mining industry, and those with family in the industry, seem to have been brain-washed into thinking they can. They don't want to hear arguments about impacts," says a Scone-based business person.

All along the Hunter Valley, grape and vegetable growers have packed up because of coal dust, which can can travel 30km. "The lesson is, just don't take the risk. Mining has affected the valley's underground water systems, but there is an even greater risk further north because it feeds into the artesian water basin.

Those who feel strongly about the approved mine are not anti-mining. They want wisdom from their leaders – less self-interest and more of a long-term view. They appreciate the bi-products of mining, from farm gates to the plastics we all use. But they question why coal is being favoured over agriculture. They know it will create some jobs in construction and related industry, but also create social and economic impacts, as well as worsen the global climate. The risk to national food security is so great, they are preparing the barricades.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 16, 2015

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