Coal v foals: The last stand

UNTIL now, Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association president Cameron Collins has been concerned but not overwhelmed by the thoroughbred industry’s chances against coalmining in a state where coal is king.

But with the NSW Planning Assessment Commission’s approval of Ashton Coal’s South East Open Cut mine at Camberwell this week,  Collins’s concern shifted to outright fear.

Even severe public health warnings did not stand in the way of a Camberwell mine that the commission conceded was ‘‘a very small mine with a very short operating life’’ whose ‘‘potential contribution to total NSW coal production is negligible’’.

The commission did not run away from the impact on the village, where private property owners have been reduced to four and the rest of the village is owned by a mining company. The impact of a new mine was ‘‘not minor’’, the commission said.

‘‘Most of the potential for damage to the social fabric of the village has already occurred during operation of the predecessor to this project, the North East Open Cut.

‘‘However, the proposed project could complete the process.’’

The likely death knell for Camberwell was heard by the thoroughbred industry.

‘‘The Camberwell decision has confirmed what everyone thought would happen,’’ Collins said. ‘‘I really wonder if we’ve got any chance at all.’’

Camberwell could be the proverbial canary in the coalmine for other contentious coal projects in the Upper Hunter, including several that directly threaten the internationally rated Coolmore and Darley thoroughbred studs at Denman.

‘‘We’re extremely, extremely concerned,’’ said Coolmore business manager Paddy Power.

‘‘To any reasonable person, the thought of an open-cut mine so close to such a completely unique operation would raise alarm bells.’’

 FOR years the thoroughbred industry and the coal industry have had an uneasy relationship in the Upper Hunter – both with long histories, earning big money for state and country, and with substantial political and social influence.

But the explosion of mining leases and mines in the past five years as world coal prices soared, and the expansion of the industry up the valley, have put coal and horses on a collision course, with only the NSW government standing between them.

The release of the long-awaited and government-hyped Upper Hunter Strategic Land Use Policy in September has left the thoroughbred industry extremely concerned it has come off second in this race.

The final policy watered down protections included in a draft released earlier this year, including a ‘‘gateway’’ process that was to have restricted mine companies from lodging development applications in areas within twokilometres of key agricultural land if mine proposals failed to meet gateway criteria.

In the final policy released in September, a gateway panel cannot refuse to issue a gateway certificate or stop a company from lodging an application. It can only issue conditional or unconditional gateway certificates.

‘‘It’s a gateway where the gate’s permanently open,’’ Collins said.

As Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush noted, the ‘‘gateway’’ debate is beside the point for the Upper Hunter because the process applies only to three mine proposals in the pipeline – Ferndale, Spur Hill and Ridgelands.

‘‘The government’s Upper Hunter land use policy, insofar as the gateway process is concerned, will have very little application in the Upper Hunter,’’ Rush said.

‘‘Given that the gateway process was the central policy response of the government to managing land-use conflict, on any objective basis the policy is a failure.’’

In the wake of the policy’s release the thoroughbred industry has vowed to fight mine proposals ‘‘case by case’’, with Anglo American’s Drayton South open-cut mine, on the doorstep of Coolmore and Darley studs, likely to be the first fight, followed by the controversial NuCoal Doyles Creek mine near Coolmore.

 DRAYTON South was proposed in March 2011, four years before nearby Drayton mine’s coal resources are exhausted in 2015 and before the Drayton approval expires in 2017.

As a preliminary environmental assessment lodged with the NSW Department of Planning noted this year, a Drayton South mine would allow Anglo American to continue mining the area for 26 years and use existing infrastructure to extract up to 7million tonnes of coal per year.

At the height of the carbon-tax debate in July last year, Anglo American did not correct media articles suggesting Drayton South’s future was unclear because the tax might have been the final straw affecting its profitability, although the company said it remained committed to the project.

In the next few weeks the Department of Planning is expected to place the Drayton South project on public exhibition.

If approved it will result in an open-cut mine across the road from up to 1000 horses at a time at Coolmore stud. The stud has produced six of the last 10 Australian stallion champions, including the most recent champion, Fastnet Rock. The champ services mares at $200,000 a throw, and his progeny last year collected $12million in race winnings.

Coolmore and Darley are already surrounded by mines. Drayton is threekilometres to the north-east, Mount Arthur adjoins Drayton South to the north, and Hunter Valley Operations is threekilometres away to the south-west.

Dellworth and Spur Hill exploration licences adjoin Drayton South.

A drive along the Golden Highway to reach one of the world’s top three thoroughbred breeding areas already includes a tour of the Upper Hunter coalfield’s biggest mines.

As Darley Australia director Andy Wiles told NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson during a tour of his 2430-hectare stud in May, thoroughbred  breeding is a prestige industry where appearances count.

A stud that is already experiencing dust from an open-cut mine eightkilometres away had a right to be concerned about an open-cut mine much closer to home. As the planning assessment commission noted in May 2010 when it sensationally knocked back the proposed Bickham open-cut mine, ‘‘the available evidence supports the view that open-cut coalmining and a viable international-scale thoroughbred breeding enterprise are incompatible land uses’’.

Which is why Collins did not completely reject a rumoured ‘‘Victoria solution’’ for the industry if mines such as Drayton South get the go-ahead.

‘‘It’s all very well for everyone to talk about a world-class thoroughbred breeding industry but it’s reliant on a few pillars including Coolmore and Darley,’’ he said.

‘‘To a degree, the people who are talking about the industry moving to Victoria or the Darling Downs in Queensland are people most likely to benefit, but it’s not an idle threat that a greater concentration of mining could force a move.

‘‘This is one of the three areas in the world renowned for thoroughbred horse-breeding, and nobody seems to give a damn.

‘‘For the big guys to pick up and go would not be a quick process, but if they go, then all of the little guys will go. If they go I think you’d see a serious splitting of the industry, and unravelling of the support industry.’’

Collins cites the development of the Scone Equine Hospital, where he works, and a planned $10million equine

 hospital redevelopment that has been  on hold for five years since the Bickham  open-cut mine was first proposed.

‘‘We’re a practice that’s evolved and grown over the past 15 years because the thoroughbred industry generates the business side of it.’’

Fifteen years ago the hospital had 18 vets. It has 35 today, with up to 70 support staff. The hospital redevelopment is on hold because of uncertainty over the future of the thoroughbred industry in the Hunter.

Any move of the industry from the Upper Hunter would be extraordinary, and Paddy Power was quick to dismiss the suggestion this week, but Collins said the industry’s very public campaign against further mining near the thoroughbred industry was ‘‘not just a show’’.

‘‘Victoria and Queensland do not have the unique confluence of elements that this area has – the water reliability, the climate and the landscape. Victoria is too cold for too long each year, and Queensland is too dry. Which is why allowing mining to threaten it is so difficult to understand, and why we expect leadership from the government on this.’’

Rod Campbell is an economist who gave evidence on behalf of the Environmental Defenders Office, which represented the Bulga community at the recent Land and Environment Court challenge to the Mount Thorley Warkworth open-cut mine after the Planning Assessment Commission approved the mine this year.

Campbell argued the failure to put a value on an amenity such as the character of an area, its peace and quiet and proximity of attributes such as agricultural land was a significant issue in the planning process.

The omission of such values underestimated the economic costs to the community and overstated the value of the project to NSW.

‘‘These costs are borne entirely by the local community, so are important to include if the true local economic impacts of the project are to be valued,’’ Campbell said.

An Anglo American spokesman said the company had submitted a comprehensive environmental assessment for Drayton South that would adopt best-practice environmental, dust and noise-management processes.

‘‘We have worked closely with our neighbours for many years, including those in the thoroughbred industry, and we will continue to engage with all stakeholders as we progress the project,’’ the spokesman said.

Paddy Power came to Australia from Ireland this year to work at Coolmore.

He viewed the Hunter Region with fresh eyes on his first trip to the stud. And he was blown away.

‘‘The thing that surprised me most, and that people hadn’t told me, was the beauty of the landscape of Australia,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s truly a stunning country.’’

A tour of Coolmore in October sees it at its best.

‘‘The foals are out in the pastures, it’s green and everything’s flowering,’’ he said.

But from Coolmore’s high points you can’t miss the dust clouds on the horizon.

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