OPINION: Farmers, residents fight back over coal

RURAL life is under fire in the upper Hunter Valley.

Farms, studs, vineyards and villages are being consumed by an occupying force of open-cut mines and coal-seam gas rigs.

The benefits of Australia's resources boom are far from rural residents' minds.

Their boom is the sound of overburden blasting as new coal seams are opened up in the black pits that encircle their properties.

Industry spokespersons claim that mining can coexist with agriculture because a tiny percentage of land is used for mines - as low as 0.7 per cent in the Hunter Valley.

The facts from recent Landsat calculations tell a different story, shown in the map, right.

Open cut mines occupy 16 per cent (315 square kilometres) of the upper Hunter Valley floor, and mining exploration leases take up another 64 per cent (1280 square kilometres), all close to farms, studs and vineyards.

Coal royalties contributed $1.2 billion to the NSW government coffers in 2011.

Hunter Valley power stations provide almost half the electricity for NSW but 75 per cent of the region's coal is exported: 122 million tonnes went out of the Port of Newcastle in 2011.

How can there be coexistence with agriculture when the economic power and political influence of the occupier vastly outweighs that of the farmers?

Mining companies and lobby groups like the NSW Minerals Council claim that miners and farmers have a strong working relationship.

Their websites promote a few company-owned farms, dairies and horse-breeding establishments conspicuously located in the heart of mining zones.

But the majority of farmers try to make a living in the midst of 24 x 7 operations that create dust, noise and vibrations from blasting and machinery, bright lights all night, damage to water sources, effluent, heavy traffic movements on local roads, loss of local flora and fauna, as well as disease and reduced productivity of crops and livestock.

Coal seam gas (CSG) operations are a new type of invasion, with 35 exploration wells currently in the upper Hunter Valley.

Residents rightfully worry about pollution and the damage to water sources from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that releases the gas, plus dangerous methane leaks, from coal seams.

Landholders lack legal rights to stop companies accessing their properties for exploration and extraction, while at the same time the landowner's key legal support, the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, is being eyed for termination.

The NSW Government's Strategic Regional Land Use Policy aims to protect high-value agricultural land from mining and CSG operations.

It has industry support but producers' groups like the NSW Farmers' Association and the Hunter Valley Water Users Association see it as a weak weapon to protect farming lands.

All occupying forces give rise to resistance movements, and the Hunter region is no exception.

Normally conservative rural residents have organised themselves to campaign against mining expansion and CSG drilling.

These include Minewatch, the Hunter Valley Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and the winemakers' Hunter Valley Protection Alliance.

Lock the Gate Alliance, a national organisation that links more than 160 local groups to fight inappropriate mining and coal seam gas development, is strongly supported in the Hunter.

Local residents' groups have joined the ranks. This year, Fullerton Cove residents have blockaded the site of Dart Energy's coal seam gas project and challenged the company in the Land and Environment Court.

The Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association legally challenged Rio Tinto's expansion of the Mt Thorley-Warkworth operation.

Mine-surrounded Camberwell residents, while losing their battle against the expansion of Ashton Coal's pit, continue their fight against coal-mining dust through the Singleton Shire Healthy Environment Group, and their successful lobbying for independent dust monitors in the Upper Hunter.

Mining and CSG industry supporters have little to say about these struggles, except that they always abide by regulations and conditions of consent; theirs is an essential industry creating new jobs and national wealth; and there are no cheap and efficient alternatives to coal in a world hungry for energy.

All these statements have been challenged, but they express the views of politically favoured interest groups and so often carry the day.

Apart from the mirage of "clean coal", climate change is ignored by the coal industry, and no wonder.

The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook recently warned that with current mining technology, most of the world's coal reserves must be left in the ground if excessive global warming is to be avoided by 2050. The World Bank has endorsed this.

Meanwhile many rural residents of the Hunter Valley, unwilling to accept the irreparable damage caused by coal and gas mining, are fighting back: united, determined, a "Coalition of the Unwilling".

Linda Connor is a Professor of Anthropology and Phil McManus is an Associate Professor of Human Geography, both of the University of Sydney.

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