Climate activists brought Newcastle's billion-dollar coal-loaders to a grinding halt yesterday, suspending themselves midair to effectively shut down the world's largest coal export operation.
Police arrested 41 members of the Rising Tide group, which launched a simultaneous protest at three coal-loader sites at dawn yesterday.
The group said it was staging an "emergency intervention" into the main cause of global warming in Australia.
Nine protesters dressed in high-visibility work clothing, similar to employees at the loaders, breached security at the Carrington and Kooragang Island sites about 5am.
Five of the group used climbing equipment to scale coal-loaders and suspend themselves in midair, unveiling banners and forcing the immediate shutdown of machinery.
About 8am, as police organised cranes in an attempt to remove the protesters, 32 more members of Rising Tide broke into a coal stockpile at Kooragang and staged a sit-in.
All protesters had been arrested and removed by mid-afternoon.
The nine who staged the dawn break-ins - seven men and two women - were charged with entering and remaining on enclosed lands.
Police said other protesters were likely to face fines for the incident.
Yesterday's protest made international headlines. UK-based news agency Reuters picked up the story, as did Arabic-language broadcaster al-Jazeera and Russian state radio services.
Rising Tide spokeswoman Annika Dean said the group had been forced to protest because of federal government inaction.
"We call on Prime Minister Gillard to step up to the challenge of global warming, put an immediate moratorium on the expansion of the coal industry, and begin to replace this outdated industry with the renewable industries of the future," Ms Dean said.
Spokesmen for the affected coal export companies said the impact of the protest would not be known for a few days.
Port Waratah Coal Services, which operates round-the-clock at Carrington facility and one of the Kooragang coal-loaders, was forced to delay loading four ships.
A spokesman for the Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group, which owns the recently opened second loader at Kooragang, said none of its operations were delayed.
"Our primary concern in circumstances like this is the safety of employees and of the protesters," the spokesman said.
A source told the Newcastle Herald yesterday that one of the protesters was "inches from absolute disaster" when automatic machinery had to be manually turned off by employees at one of the three coal-loaders.
All coal-loaders were operational by about 2.30pm yesterday.
Police condemned the actions of the protesters, which they said were extremely dangerous and took officers off the street.