The well-being of communities is put at risk by invasive coal and gas mining, with pollution of air and water leading to illnesses and poor health outcomes. Mines encroach on towns and villages, harming quality of life, devaluing properties and destroying and dividing communities. Other industries such as agriculture and tourism face labour shortages and rising costs whilst losing land and assets to mining.
The Tara residential estate in south-west Queensland has been surrounded and encroached upon by a coal seam gas production field. More than 20 families in the area have experienced health problems which they believe are caused by coal seam gas activities. Some of the symptoms noted include nose bleeds, burning and irritated eyes, skin rashes, headaches, coughs, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing and dermatitis. Children are particularly sensitive to these symptoms and some children have also experienced unexplained seizures. It is well recognised that a range of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds can be released into the air from unconventional gas activities, and the symptoms experienced in Tara are relatively consistent with those effects.
New medical tests of Tara residents and recent air samples taken in the gasfield have further heightened concerns that coal seam gas is making people sick. A medical test recently found high levels of hippuric acid in a young boy, indicating a possible exposure to toluene which is a chemical found in petroleum products. This follows air samples taken by residents near the gasfield which found high levels of propene and acetone.
A recent report has spotlighted the Hunter Valley in the context of a review of the health impacts of coal mining on local communities. It found that the Hunter region has the highest concentration of coal mining and coal burning in close proximity to population centres and farmland in Australia, and that approximately 16% of the Upper Hunter Valley is covered by open-cut coal mines. An assessment of data from around the world contained in the report found that coal mining communities have higher rates of mortality from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney diseases.
There are already regular alerts for dangerous particulate pollution exceeding national health standards in the Hunter Valley and a new report from the Environment Protection Authority has revealed a 50 per cent jump in dust emissions over five years from coal mines in the Hunter region. However, rather than curtailing mines and managing risks, there are now plans for an even greater expansion in coal and coal seam gas mining across the Hunter Valley. Coal mining is expected to double in the Hunter in the next few years, with plans for 30 new mines or expansions and a fourth coal export terminal at the port of Newcastle.
Acland was a small town with a 120-year history and over 50 houses located just 35 kilometres west of Toowoomba. Now it is a ghost of a town, with an empty grid of streets where houses have been removed or simply fallen down. Over 300 properties and an estimated area of 9,000 hectares has been purchased for an open-cut coal expansion as a result of the New Hope Coal company deciding that it would 'remove' the town of Acland to allow mining. Feeling abandoned by their governments, confused and under pressure, with the existing mine encroaching closer and closer and bringing noise, dust and disruption, the townspeople gave up hope one by one and sold to the miners. Now, Acland is gone, a modern day mining casualty, and only one man remains, determined to protect the beautiful park and the war memorial which his parents tended when they were alive.
Towns and villages across the country are facing encroachment from coal and gas mining. The villages of Camberwell and Ravensworth in the Hunter Valley have all but disappeared due to coal mining, the Hunter town of Wybong has been decimated by encroaching mines, the townships of Wandoan and Taroom in Queensland have open-cut coal mines proposed which will mine right up to the edge of town, and the beautiful hamlet of Gloucester in NSW will virtually be sitting on the brink of an open-cut coal pit if mining companies have their way. There are also plans for a Gloucester gasfield, with approval for 110 wells surrounding the small communities of Stroud, Stratford and Craven. There is already a small coal seam gas field on the outskirts of Sydney and a new proposal for 66 new wells that will drill directly under Campbelltown and adjoining suburbs.
Hunter Valley Wineries, Horsebreeding and Tourism
The Hunter Region is one of Australia’s oldest wine producing areas and a principal winemaking area of NSW. The region produces semillon, shiraz, chardonnay, verdelho and many other wine varieties which are said to have unique regional characteristics. The Hunter semillon is acclaimed as the world's finest. Over 39 million litres of premium wine is produced in the Hunter Valley annually and it is sold to over 50 countries worldwide with an estimated value of $270 million in sales. There are over 6,000 hectares of vineyards, 125 wineries and 75 cellar doors in the region. Tourism associated with the wine-growing area is estimated at 2.8 million visitors annually who generate over $560 million in business in the region.
It is also internationally renowned as Australia's horse breeding capital, being one of only three international centres of excellence in the world. The Hunter is a breeding ground of champion racehorses, and thoroughbreds from the region frequently dominate world race rankings. This is an iconic, heritage industry - quintessentially Australian - that is also a significant employer in the region. Some of the world famous studs that are located in the Hunter include Darley, Coolmore, Arrowfield, Vinery, Yarraman Park and Widden.
The Hunter Valley is a prime tourism location, with estimates of 6.3 million visitors per year spending $1.3 billion with the vineyards and the racing studs a large part of the attraction of the region. The thoroughbred and winemaking industries have made it clear that their future viability is on the line if the planned coal expansions go ahead. The health impacts from coal dust on grapes and air pollution impacts on racehorses, and the on-going alienation of farming land and threats to water resources, mean that coal mining is fundamentally incompatible with the future of these iconic Australian industries.