AUSTRALIA has a lot of coal, but it doesn’t really have a lot of truly prime agricultural land.
That’s why, in years past, a tacit understanding existed that open-cut coalmines would never consume the Hunter Valley’s precious alluvial flood-plains and river flats.
There was nothing ‘‘anti-coal’’ about it. It was simply that everybody, including mining companies and government departments, accepted the irreplaceability of this valuable land.
Given that long-standing consensus, it has come as a shock to many people that some mining companies have applied, after all, to open-cut the river lands.
One such application by Coal and Allied, the Carrington West proposal, is now the subject of a Planning Assessment Commission hearing at which much opposition to the plan is being voiced.
The reasoning behind the mining companies’ applications isn’t hard to follow. For the most part, the coal beneath the alluvial flood-plains is the last of the valley’s ‘‘easy’’ coal.
There is no question that the mining companies stand to make a lot of money if they get permission to dig up this land.
Equally, there is no doubt that the potential royalty payments to the state government stand to be very substantial over the life of the proposed mines.
So, what is the downside?
First, mining companies have not been able to persuade Hunter residents that they are capable of returning high-quality alluvial land to its original productive status after mining operations.
Second, available evidence does not convincingly demonstrate that these mining operations will be able to be conducted without damaging the rivers and interconnected water systems.
Rivers don’t merely run in their visible beds, but are conducted through saturated alluvium that extends to a variable extent beyond what can be seen.
Coalmines have fractured alluvium surrounding several streams, including in the Hunter Valley, and the consequences – extrapolated to major waterways like Glennies Creek or the Hunter River itself – are potentially extremely serious.
The coal beneath the river flats can be mined only once, yielding a one-off profit.
Alternatively, that land could be used to produce valuable crops for many generations into the future.
In a world awakening to the imperative of food security, the Hunter’s prime river lands have a potential value far in excess of the fleeting benefit from mining.
The risks from these proposals are too great and too far-reaching for approval to be countenanced.