Sharyn Munro

Sharyn Munro – “How Coal is Killing Australia” – Tuesday 26 March 2013

Below is a transcript of Sharyn’s talk.

Good evening everyone. Thank you for your interest in my book – 'Rich Land, Wasteland – how coal is killing Australia' and to the Bayside Climate Action Group for inviting me to speak, and for using the books as a fundraiser. 

This is quite a different book from my other two, (The Woman on the Mountain and Mountain Tails, which were about my solar-powered, sustainably- aimed life on my remote Wildlife Refuge, and the creatures with whom I share it. Yet even in those, threaded through the nature writing and selective memoir and the retrospectively humorous survival adventures with snakes or chainsaws, were several of my serious concerns. The aim was always to reach beyond the converted. But I could use humour to balance the serious stuff in those.

People seemed to like to take a walk in my gumboots and relate to my values:

(quote from The Woman on the Mountain p 24, 25 & this was 2007 – still current!)

By the last chapter I had enough reader rapport to give full vent to my biggest worry, global warming, and to my grief at what was being done by unbridled open cut coal mining and coal power to the mid-upper Hunter. It was being called Carbon Valley for its Co2 contributions, and it was doing terrible regional harm to its own people and places.

This is nowhere near the main Cessnock/Pokolbin vineyard region, but those who venture further north are shocked to see that the 50kms between Singleton and Muswellbrook and spreading west are nearly all opencut mining. So massive and so continuous that it is visible from space as a scar on the earth. In fact, it's a running open sore, ever expanding, ever polluting.

From the late 90s I watched its once clean country air turn into a murky greyish-brown pall, despite constant assurances of rigorous environmental guidelines and strict conditions as they ticked off each new and bigger opencut mine. It finally hit me that they didn't care about the impacts, that they weren't going to stop.

I felt I had to do something, for the sake of the next generation, like my daughter's family, my grandchildren, living in Singleton – now one of the most polluted areas in Australia – and breathing that air. I live two shires to the north, no coalmines or coal power, and at 1000m elevation, in clean air.

If things were this out of balance elsewhere, Australia was in big trouble. So in 2010, with the support of my publishers, Exisle, I took my tape recorder on a series of road trips to current or proposed coal areas in five states. I thought I was being overly-ambitious enough in trying cover coal nationwide, and I was, but

(quote from Rich Land, Wasteland p2, p337)

What I found shocked me to the core: the sheer scale and speed of the invasion, the seemingly uniform lack of truth and transparency and callous corporate tactics, worse than I'd have believed possible in Australia, and the consequent dreadful toll on people's lives and futures.

Their stories in the book will shock you too; it has been likened to Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' in its passion, its revelations, and the possibility to change the way we treat our world.

This is an industrial invasion – 'a taking over of land and a clearing out of people' – and it is by mainly foreign forces, with full government support via their loose and biased laws and processes – at best, as we're seeing at ICAC in Sydney.

I wrote the book to wake Australians up to the truth of what is happening, behind your backs, to your country and your people, in the hope you will say 'this is not the Australia we want to be' – or need to be, despite the spin – and act to stop it.

Because food and water security, health and social structure, valuable natural resources and places, both environmental and agricultural, are being taken away from us and from future generations – and nobody apart from those immediately impacted knew much about it.

For the Rich Land of the title of my book I chose to photograph the Andrews family at their Tarwyn Park property in the Bylong valley, between the Hunter and Mudgee regions, which 3 years ago suddenly came under threat from 2 coal expl leases (one of which is part of the Obeid ICAC saga) plus exploration for coal seam gas and geothermal and possibly gold.

Tarwyn Park is where Peter Andrews developed the famous Natural Sequence Farming method, and Peter and his son Stuart still run courses there. Cockatoo Coal, the name of the company threatening Tarwyn Park, is misleading, as it's 100% Korean.

But in the current coal and gas rush, nowhere's sacred, as Environment Victoria's Coalwatch website clearly shows.

To me a rich land contains things that are not necessarily able to be bought with money – like personal health and wellbeing, freedom, a sustainable clean food and water supply, or the preservation of loved natural environments. My sort of rich land can only exist where triple bottom line full cost accounting– people, planet and profit – is respected. At present, profit beats all– and hurts all.

The fact that areas like Bylong or Bacchus Marsh, the Liverpool Plains or the Darling Downs, Margaret River or Mirboo North, Ipswich or Inverloch, are being invaded by coal and/or gas shows just how out of control these industries have become, in many hitherto unthinkable areas, in every state, under mining laws that trump all others.

Such sustainable richlands ought to be valued more than the wishes of private companies to dig up one-off resources to be exported at great profit, tipping our governments on the way. We must remember they do not pay for the actual resources and that the current scale of these industries is nothing to do with 'keeping the lights on' for Australia: they are mainly for export and mainly foreign-owned – 87% of Aus coalmines are.

The royalties from approving almost every project as asked have not kept QLD or NSW in the black let alone added to the richness of the lives of the rest of us. In fact it is the opposite. Muswellbrook has three nearby mines, including the Mt Arthur mine, ten times the size of the town, which is choking on dust, has serious health issues, above state average unemployment and it now has a tent city of 40-50 families in the showground who can't afford the rents in a town where high mine wages set the prices… a common story.

As for the Wasteland: that's Ravensworth mine in the Hunter; Ravensworth was a village not very long ago. You'll read about other coal-collateral ex-villages in the book, and more on the verge of unliveability and extinction.

For they cannot dig up thousands of hectares, heap up mountains of toxic rock and dirt overburden, 2-300m high, and not cause massive pollution problems; we all know it and yet they allow it and add to it, saying it will be managed. Nor can they drill down through aquifers and coal seam layers, fracture and dewater them and not cause damage and leakage and contamination.

This is the parallel paper world that the fossil fuel industries and government construct between them and spin out to the public – and, like the myth of rehabilitation, it has nothing to do with reality. Nor do the assurances that the Great Barrier Reef and all its sealife will not be harmed by its increased industrialisation for exporting all this coal and gas.

Modern opencut mines are the neighbours from hell, underground longwall mines wreck rivers, but all along the coal chain, from the mines to the uncovered coal rail wagons to the coal ports, individuals and communities are fighting to protect the health and futures of their people and their waterways. We now see the same along the gas chain, from the gas fields to the pipelines to the LNG plants on the coast.

While my book deals with all impacts of this runaway extraction rush, for me the most unpublicised and tragic impact is about the individuals and communities, rural and coastal areas in its path, frustrated by the pretence of a government process of assessment that is not about deciding if a mining or gas project should go ahead or not but how to allow it to go ahead, how to blur glaring objections and negate others– with terms like 'unlikely to have significant impact' and 'endeavour to manage and mitigate'.

Coal of any quality or colour, unconventional gas of any sort, which is all methane, just differently accessed ¬ coal seam, tight and shale – and other metals and minerals, they are going for anything, anywhere, anyhow– and hang the consequences. Why? Because our laws allow it and once one company had asked to step beyond the constraints of decency, of respect for other landuses and for community wishes – and got approval – they all leapt into the breach. I call it 'legalised looting'.

We have to stop it. We are not obliged to keep trashing our country because there is a 'demand' elsewhere; a demand is just a market: there remained a market for asbestos and tobacco and we stopped those industries.

As it stands, once aware of being under an active exploration licence, people's lives are taken over, on hold and under stress, for years. They wake each day to a black cloud looming, a future gone awry. They must decide whether to fight or give in, to stay or go, but where would be safe?, to take the money or not, if you get a choice, and aren't trapped in or next door to an industrial hell because the real estate market and investment is frozen and values plummet at the mere whiff of a mine or gas field. The most unfair part is that the one choice they don't get – or not legally– is to say NO, go away, I like my place and my life the way it is.

This dilemma in the exploration stage is an effective means of pushing people to the edge of breakdowns and a breaker-upper of relationships and families and of communities – 'Community fracking' : companies are very practiced in this deliberate strategy and I saw it repeated nationally.

I also saw good people marginalised as they tried to warn their fellow locals of the reality of what would happen. And what did happen. Not growth and jobs for all, but a divided and drained community in a growing wasteland. Like the villagers of Wollar near Mudgee, most of whom swallowed the bait and were keen on the coming Wilpinjong mine; just 5 years ago Wollar had 96 listings in the phone book; now it has but 12, thanks to that mine.

For once a mine or a gas field is operating, the suffering ramps up as the impacts of noise and pollution and traffic hit; throw in sleep deprivation, a company that denies everything and a government process where conditions have more loopholes than legally binding clauses – and people go over the edge or get out, or both, beaten, often broken – and usually broke.

Rural regions and towns become industrialised, lose their identity, full of transient people with no local connection or responsibility but to their companies and production targets and bonuses; other landuse like agriculture is overtaken or made untenable; visitors find it hard to get accommodation, normal wage-earners can't afford the suddenly skyhigh rents, local services diminish as skilled workers leave for the higher pay.

And we may not know for generations just how much health damage is being done to us and our children, and their children, from the air and water pollution from coal mining and coal power, let alone the coal seam, shale or tight gas drilling.

If you've seen your Latrobe Valley's brown coal mining, it's different to black coal mines because Latrobe coal is closer to the surface, so no huge overburden mountains, and less dust; they don't need to blast and they mainly use electric draglines, not diesel machines, so they're quieter. And they're right next to the power stations so no endless uncovered coal trains heading to coal ports.

BUT it won't be like that in other areas where new brown coalmines are being proposed for export, such as, insanely, in the fruit and vegetable bowl of Bacchus Marsh, where the conditions and the regional impacts will be much more like the Hunter's.

From the Close Hazelwood campaigns I think all Australia's heard about the global impacts, 33% more Co2 from burning brown coal than from black. I took The PowerWorks tour at Morwell. All that funding for clean coal research or to dry it to burn almost as 'cleanly' as black coal? Which could be going into renewables. And given the huge reserves at Latrobe 'to keep the lights' on if they ever do come up with 'clean coal' solutions, why not get it right there first?

But we also know that coal power emissions are harmful regionally: hazardous for generations, and bio-accumulating, as with their mercury emissions. And that's not just from Hazelwood.

It was disappointing to see the Bailleu government dropping even the planned low emissions reduction limits and backing coal at any cost. But then this is the man who said Victoria could be the next Pilbara…

Yet you have a tremendously positive initiative down here, supported by the local CFMEU, called Earthworker, 'Australian manufacturing –working our way out of climate emergency' . I hope many of you will support it by joining the co-op. as I have. We need it to start in the Hunter too. As CFMEU Pres. Luke Van der Meulen says,

(RLWL p411)

Earthworker organiser Dave Kerin

(RLWL p413)

They couldn't get gov. funding to kick it off, so are raising it on their own as a co-op. Sad, when you think of the millions offered for the HRL's coaltosyngas project:

(RLWL p413)

Coal: toxic globally, toxic locally. In NSW the elevated figures in the Hunter and Lithgow of incidences of (from hospital admissions) and early deaths from respiratory illnesses, heart attacks, strokes and specific cancers aren't disputed. Nor is there any dispute about the ever rising harmful to hazardous emissions from coalmines and coal power of nasties like the finer PM 2.5, or of arsenic or sulphuric acid, just to name a few, as listed every two years in the NPI. But, to the shame of both state and federal governments, they have done no studies as to whether the health and the pollution figures are linked.

They have in the US, and the health dollar costs from coal have been proved to outweigh the income – but apparently that isn't relevant here. Even China is now worried about health impacts, like birth defects, in their coal areas and is doing studies to see why.

Dr Tuan Au of Singleton has been doing his own longterm research on reduced lung function in schoolchildren; the state average for this is 1 in 9; in Singleton it is 1 in 3. He says ‘If we ignore the problems and we do nothing about them, it’s the same as murder'.

Tim Flannery said it: 'Coal is the new asbestos'.

But communities are jacking up, as with the uncovered coal trains in Brisbane and in Newcastle; the Hunter is about to get double rail lines – at our expense– through the Valley towns to Newcastle, facing a 4th Coal Terminal and more uncovered coal stockpiles. When Julia Gillard visited late last year she felt obliged to say publicly what the states have avoided: that the states and their EPAs must bring all of the scientific expertise to bear to assess what coal dust means for people's health.

This is a sign of what I see as a rapidly approaching tipping point, an awareness of the growing political expediency of the recognition of values other than royalties and rights other than minerals.

Maybe the Senate air quality enquiry will add impetus.

Another major sign is that recently a conference of most major national health organisations – not just Doctors for the Environment– resolved as a matter of urgency to work to have the health impacts from current energy and resources policies addressed, both at local and climate change levels.

I could talk for hours about the downsides of coal, but it's not uncommon for an area to be under attack from both coal and unconventional gas, as at Gloucester or around Mirboo North. It is uncommon to have both under the one company as you can have in Victoria, as with Lakes Oil. Here shale and tight gas are likely more than CSG, mostly found in black coal, but you do have some of that.

It's a worry with major players like Exon Mobil buying into Ignite Energy and Gina Reinhart buying into Lakes Oil, which has been here for a long time. As far back as 2007, Lakes Oil was boasting of being the first to introduce hydraulical fracturing, 'fracking', to Australia and have been using it around Sale.

Vic at least has a moratorium on fracking. Lakes Oil are not happy. Even if chemicals aren't used, fracking can, and has, released naturally-occurring carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and interfered with aquifers.

Every gas field is different but 'fracking' is needed to release shale and tight gas; it's not called that for nothing! More wells need to be drilled, to far deeper levels than CSG, and often lateral drilling and acids pumped in. And shale gas is set to bolt in SA and WA, to be bigger than CSG. The EU has voted to wait 10 years to see what the impacts of fracking are before they allow it. Now that's a real moratorium, with a purpose other than political.

There was a huge outcry about AGL wanting to drill in Sydney's S-W suburbs, and after Mr Burke had stuck his oar in, Premier O'Farrell knee-jerked into throwing a 2km no-CSG zone around residential and equine and vineyard areas. Suddenly there were risks admitted; so what about all the other agricultural industries and rural dwellers? Your Gippsland dairy regions are simply ridiculous places to allow these risks.

I think that how to deal with the gas waste products is the elephant in the room. Like nuclear waste. Storing the contaminated and saline produced water in huge ponds or tanks while awaiting a solution to the problem, meanwhile adding to it, does not make sense. Expensive desal plants could remove the salt – and the profit margins – not that they know what to do with the mountains of salt – but what about the heavy metals and radioactive elements?

There've been enough 'accidents' already in Qld and NSW to know that the 'risks' are really probable impacts – wells and fittings leaking, creeks bubbling and ground oozing with highly flammable methane, carginogenic chemicals turning up in water sources, the odd blowout, bore levels dropping from depressurisation, wastewater spills or dumps killing everything they touch, or buried gas pipes bursting in floods. And can you imagine what could happen in bushfires like you've just had, with a few methane leaks?

Water will become more precious as the climate dries, as predicted especially down here in Australia's south-east. Yet we have it from the industry itself

(RLWL p347)

Aquifers can't be fixed. To me, the choice is simple: water or gas?

The petroleum industry body is upping their ad campaigns to silence the 'fringe activists' who are objecting to their lovely business – people like me and many of you and that 95 year old lady fined in Newcastle, or the Knitting Nannas against Gas, the KNAGS, or maybe the Mothers Against Fracking in Australia, the MAFIA?

But to deny the health worries is especially wrong; as the QLD gas fields have got going we don't even have to look to Gasland or the US anymore– as around Tara … the children with rashes all over their bodies from the borewater, constant headaches, nausea and bleeding from nose and ears, likely from the gases in the air, with methane levels now shown to be 3 times higher there than normal–'fugitive emissions', from venting and flaring and gases migrating up through the ground.

The excuse for all these risks is the sales pitch that gas produces less greenhouse emissions than coal when burnt for energy. But we know from the Cornell studies that when you include the whole lifecycle, with the 'fugitive emissions' and the fact that this unburnt methane warms the atmosphere 20-30 times faster than Co2 –although it doesn't last as long, we don't have long – so the immediate impact of massively upping this industry is far worse in the next 20 years when we desperately need to slow global warming.

Investment in CSG is locking us in for decades and delaying the urgent move to renewable zero emissions energy. I agree with journalist Joanne McCarthy: 'Switching from coal to coal seam gas is like arguing over who’s going to have the deck chair with the umbrella as the Titanic’s sinking.’

But coal is already doing damage on a massive scale throughout Australia. Even under Sydney's water supply catchment, cracking and draining and polluting rivers and impacting levels in Woronora Dam, from longwall mining. Opencut mines will leave giant final voids, draining our groundwater for centuries and filling with what becomes contaminated saline water. As they say, this is Doughnut mining: they get the dough, we get the hole.

Nevertheless, state and federal governments are blithely basing our economy on exporting as much coal as we can to be burnt elsewhere and fuel global warming. In my opinion this is immoral – and to say if we don't supply it, others will, is no excuse; drug dealers can say the same.

And it's self-destructive– causing more frequent severe weather events. How long can they keep saying 'unprecedented' of the cyclones and extreme rain events and floods and heatwaves and wild fires?

Even China has publicly acknowledged the need to wean their economy off coal. When will our so-called 'leaders' shake off the dominance of the fossil fuel industry, shed the blinkers and the muzzles and dare to join the dots?

In my opinion, 'No new coal' should be our national policy; it's dodo energy, it offers no future revenue or job security, and it's dangerous for the planet. As is the much-touted interim saviour, methane gas, so the companion policy should be 'Renewables not gas'.

I have been too narrowly called an env. activist; I prefer the term 'commonsense activist'. I act on behalf of a return to commonsense… like not fouling our own nest or killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, a la the Great Barrier Reef and tourism or our food producing areas, or the Great Artesian Basin, the lifeline of this country!

As the late Bryce C said, 'It's not about being a greenie; it's about not being stupid!'

Realising that our governments are not acting in our best interests is why so many conservative farmers and landowners and caring citizens began joining forces with once-shunned 'greenies', to join the Lock the Gate alliance to try to avoid any of the legalised trespass and looting even beginning.

In the last two years the resistance has snowballed– from legal challenges to civil disobedience and residents' blockades. Lock the Gate is the only national tool we have to fight this threat to our national future; it employs the law of trespass and is also a strategy of non co-operation. It is physical but also symbolic.

Whole communities everywhere are now refusing social licence via the rapidly growing CSG-Free Communities movement; I note Poowong last month became this state's 1st CSG-free community; in Qld's Scenic Rim and in Gippsland they are plotting Coal and CSG-free communities. Many councils are taking stands on behalf of their communities – 7 already have in Victoria – and advocating the precautionary principle.

In any other industry where a community said no to the risks, that would be it. The mining and petroleum laws must be changed to make that possible.

On May 1st last year I joined over 4000 others at the Sydney Rally organised by NSW Farmers. In an historic first, the CWA ladies marched in a protest behind their banner; the march chant was 'City and country, united we stand, Protect our water, protect our land.

Why is this happening? People power is about the only thing left in our hands once the system takes reason and right and forward thinking out of the process, as it has. To the victims with whom I have spoken, Australia is no longer associated with ‘a fair go’, but with ‘fair game’ for those with lots of money and little social conscience.

I hope my book will help create change, alongside the documentary, 'Bimblebox'. It is partly about the fight to save that QLD Nature Refuge from Clive Palmer's China First coalmine but also an eye-opening overview of this whole coal and gas rush. If that Galilee Basin is opened up to mining, with the world's biggest mines proposed, all to be exported via new coal ports in the GBR, we risk one of our most precious assets, let alone enormously increase our contribution to global warming. We have lost 50% of the GBR in the last 27 years; we can't afford to risk the rest.

For so many reasons, as the price of coal drops, mines close, companies lay off staff and mothball projects, LNG projects get into trouble, backers withdraw, share prices drop and community outrage translates more often into civil disobedience as the last resort, I know the tipping point is close, and now is the time to push, hard, while they are off balance.

People power is working; four companies have recently suspended CSG projects; all caused by public outcry and protest delays – all bad for business. Governments are at last feeling forced to make token gestures with one hand, even though the other may be throwing precious places like the Tarkine or the Great Barrier Reef to the mining wolves. It's the thin edge of the wedge.

(RLWL p424)

Our governments have no back up plan for future revenue or jobs after the boom busts, as it is clearly starting to do, however

(RLWL p425)

This mindless mining and drilling frenzy, this race to fuel global warming, must be brought under control, and together we can make that happen. Join your local group, use your social media, local papers and radio, hassle your politicians at all levels and express your concerns; they'll assure it's fine, but they will finally get that this is a major political issue.

(Mountian Tails p 156)

So read the book, dry your eyes, but please stay angry enough to act – before it's too late.

WHAT Sharyn Munro, author of "Rich Land Wasteland"  speaking on "How coal is killing Australia"
WHEN 7.30pm Tuesday 26 March 2013
WHERE Sandringham Uniting Church Hall, 21 Trentham Street, Sandringham
DETAILS   Sharyn is a 'literary activist' who aims to reach beyond the converted with her personal form of environmental writing. She has deep sympathy for the people and places being harmed by the coal and gas rush. 
See . . . richlandwasteland.com
RSVP You can, of course, just turn up on the night. But it helps us a lot if you RSVP to bccagsecretary@bccag.org.au and say how many in your group will be coming. 
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