By Bev Smiles, Hunter Communities Network
In a park in Muswellbrook, with a long coal-train rumbling past every ten minutes, Bev explains how privatisation of the coal mines and power stations in the Hunter Valley disenfranchised the local communities.
‘Originally the state-owned coal mines supplied the state-owned power stations. Privatisation changed this. Most of the coal mines are now export coal mines. So more and more mines have had to be dug further afield to supply the power stations. That’s what happened to my community, Wollar, which is a long way away from the power stations. The coal mine that has destroyed my village was specifically developed to supply the power stations. So immediately around the power stations there’s been a total wipeout of the community.’
Bev says the geography of the Hunter Valley exacerbates the air pollution problem.
‘The way the air moves through the valley – it’s a long valley with steep escarpments on either side – it picks up all the pollutants from the mines and the power stations together, so we’ve got this huge cocktail of air pollution.
‘There has been community concern about acid rain from the power stations, right out as far as Bunnan. There was a huge dieback event there a number of years ago where a whole lot of really big, mature yellow box trees died off. A lot of the local farmers believe pollution from the coalfired power stations was one of the causes of that.
‘The main fencing supplier in this region, Waratah, has developed a stronger wire to use on the top wire of fences because of the rapid deterioration of the steel in the fences in the Upper Hunter.’51
If it’s doing that to fencing wire, what’s it doing to the lungs of children who breathe it in every day?
‘Here in the Hunter Valley we have one of the highest incidences of asthma in Australia. We believe that is because of the pollution from coal mines and the combustion of coal in this region.
She says the coal mining and power generating companies don’t welcome scrutiny. ‘We need a community voice and community representation that is not captured by the industry. That’s our ongoing struggle.’
What about the NSW EPA? ‘We don’t have any faith in the ability of the EPA to protect community health. While I believe individual officers do have community health at heart, the combination of poor government policy and downsizing of the agency itself has hamstrung its effectiveness.’
Bev says despite the industry’s public commentary, there’s no job security in coal.
‘The current coal price is not going to last very long. Four thousand people lost their jobs in the Hunter when there was a recent downturn in the coal price. There was no transition for those people. It’s very unsettling for the entire community to be reliant on these multinational coal companies that can make a decision in London, or Switzerland, or wherever, that will affect the lives of people in this region overnight. We would like to have some open and honest conversations about the future of this region without the coal industry having an influence on that discussion.’