The Race To Mine The Hunter Valley
By Sarah-Jane CollinsJune 13, 2012
In the frenzy to dig it up and ship it out, coal mining has boomed close to regional population centres. Now it’s pushing out the industries that keep those towns ticking.
Some residents of Gloucester in New South Wales will tell you mining saved this town that marks the start of Thunderbolt's Way, a northwestward-winding road named for the 19th century bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, who escaped Cockatoo Island to roam rough in these parts.
Even before Thunderbolt's time people knew this part of the Upper Hunter Valley as prime agricultural land. It was long the heart of the New South Wales dairy industry, before deregulation in 2000 forced farmers to diversify, mostly into cattle. Forestry was another economic engine here, until the Carr Labor government moved to end logging and regenerate the area with state and national parks after winning office in 1995.
So it was, runs the popular folklore, that many of Gloucester's 2,500 residents, in a shire with roughly twice that population, welcomed the first coalmine at nearby Stratford, which opened in June 1995 and has since expanded.
"It's a very conservative town, very conservative, very rural and they were involved with the timber and the dairying," says Di Montague, who moved to Gloucester four years ago for a change of pace.
"Certainly there was a real downturn in the town, and Gloucester Coal [which operates the Stratford mine] came along, and… people say Gloucester Coal saved the town," she says.
That doesn't mean they would welcome another mine, though. Montague heads up Gloucester Residents in Partnership, one of a number of local lobbying groups working to stop further expansion of coalmining activities in the area.
One company, Gloucester Resources Limited (GRL), holds mining exploration licences that line the town's eastern side, running the length of the population centre. Until February this year, GRL owned an entire horseshoe of land around the town, but the company relinquished a chunk on the western and southern edges before lodging an application to mine on the eastern side, roughly a kilometre from residential housing.
Montague says the new application has people rethinking their stance on mining, and questioning its overall value to the town.
"Now I hear other stories about [what saved Gloucester], that it had a lot to do with the retirees coming up here — it was a lifestyle [change], small estates, people living on small farms and a lot of us very much looking for a lifestyle."
And then there's the tourism, worth about $30 million to Gloucester each year.
Thunderbolt's Way connects Gloucester to the world-heritage-listed Barrington Tops.
COMING INTO TOWN on a June morning a low fog blankets the treetops along Bucketts Way. After two days of steady rain, the clouds on this crisp winter morning are mostly sturdy white marshmallows, broken up by intense blue sky.
To get to the temperate rainforests of the Barrington Tops from Sydney you would probably come this way — crossing the Avon River and weaving along the well-maintained road, with a railway line off to the left, or the right; it curves around a little.
Gloucester's state MP, National Party member George Souris, raised a private member's statement in 2009 opposing the renewal of Gloucester Resources Limited's exploration licence, citing its threat to tourism.
"The possibility that future mining will occur in such close proximity to the township and closely settled areas is creating great anxiety and uncertainty and will undermine the development and growth of businesses," he said.
"Tourism to our area contributed $28 million to the local economy last year and has been growing strongly for many years now. This long-term sustainable industry is now under threat.
"Future mining within the boundaries [of these explorations] will seriously damage the scenic and social features that define the character and appeal of the region."
Souris is now the Minister for Tourism in a government tasked with deciding the fate of that very mine.
Souris told The Global Mail he still holds concerns about the mine.
"The close proximity of the [exploration licence] to the built-up area will need to be carefully examined. [Gloucester] Council's objections are based on similar concerns to me, principally the closeness of the urban area. I will continue to represent council's views to the government," he says.
When contacted by The Global Mail, planning minister Brad Hazzard's office referred questions about the proposed mine to the planning department.
Photo by Ella Rubeli
Photo by Ella Rubeli
Photo by Ella Rubeli
Photo by Ella Rubeli
Photo by Ella Rubeli
The mining company, GRL, says the new open-cut mine would bring jobs and prosperity. But some residents worry that it will destroy the diversity of the region and decimate profitable agricultural industries, as well as putting tourism at risk.
"A very real fear of Gloucester residents is that this will fundamentally change the nature of our community and that it will make it just a mining community and then what happens?" says Aled Hoggett. He's a cattle farmer, Gloucester chair of the NSW Farmers Association, and the father of a russet-haired three-year-old he hopes will one day take over the family farm. "What happens when mining goes? What happens to all the people who are here now?"
Towns in the Hunter Valley, within easy reach of the world's largest coal port at Newcastle, are directly in the path of Australia's mining boom. Gloucester residents share Hoggett's concerns; they want to know what the plan is for when the industries that sustained their communities have been pushed out by mining — and then the mines close.
It's a dilemma the NSW government is wrestling with as it readies its final strategic-land-use plans, which would see some areas of the state theoretically quarantined. The plan makes valuable agricultural land off-limits to mining, unless companies can meet strict guidelines around rehabilitation and land-use balance, in an attempt to safeguard other industries, like food production.
In the draft plan for the Upper Hunter, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell talks about the challenges the region is facing: "The state's Upper Hunter region is a unique part of NSW which is home to a wide range of agricultural activities, including dairy, viticulture, horse breeding and beef cattle grazing. It is also the centre of a rapidly expanding coal-mining industry, driven by increased global demand for coal, and has the potential to experience significant coal-seam-gas extraction."
But Gloucester residents fear the plan will come too late to stop the damage to their community.
"There are two other industries here, farming and tourism, that really face serious impediments to their long-term survival if mining happens in a big rush," Hoggett told The Global Mail.
GRL's "small and modern" open cut Rocky Hill coal mine is currently making its way through the NSW government development application approval process. The company lodged the application in February this year, saying it would have a "disturbance area" of 540 hectares and produce up to 2.5 million tonnes of coal a year, for up to 21 years.
On the website for the Rocky Hill project, GRL says the community can expect to see a "capital injection" worth $150 million that will drive investment and jobs. A spokesman for GRL says the project would meet strict guidelines.
IF APPROVED, ROCKY HILL will sit at the base of the Mograni ranges, just southeast of the township proper, and nestled in to a rolling flat of prime agricultural land. Next door to the mine, on its northern border, is one of the largest dairy farms in the shire, with about 500 head of milking cows.
To the west is the satellite estate of Forbesdale, where residents on Fairbairns Road and adjoining laneways are selling up and getting out. More than 20 properties have been, or in the processes of being, sold - the bulk purchased by GRL with Gloucester Coal and AGL picking up a handful. Another 13 properties in the area remain unsold.
South of Gloucester — about 13 kilometres away — is Stratford, where Gloucester Coal Limited operates the Stratford and Duralie Coal mines.
Gloucester Coal has recently expanded its operations at the Duralie mine and holds exploration licences that meet up with the GRL licence at its southern point. Both companies are interested in the rich, easily accessible seam of high-quality coking coal that sits in the valley between the Mograni and Gloucester Buckets ranges.
Chinese mining giant Yancoal is in the midst of acquiring Gloucester Coal; shareholders gave their approval in early June, 2012, and the deal is now waiting for Chinese regulatory approval.
This has made locals nervous, with some residents in the shire believing once the GRL mine is approved it will be sold to Gloucester Coal. GRL told The Global Mail the company has no plans to sell.
Coal-seam gas exploration is also underway in the area, with AGL applying for licences to create between 100 and 300 wells in the area. AGL's exploration licences were part of an $171 million takeover of Sydney Gas in 2008. The two exploration licences were valued at $115 million, and at the same time AGL bought another exploration licence near Gloucester for $370 million.
The acceleration of investment activity in this green valley, three hours north of Sydney, is causing a whole lot of apprehension.
JOHN ROSENBAUM IS GLOUCESTER'S DEPUTY MAYOR. He's lived in the shire for almost 40 years, and owns a 220-acre farm that straddles the rich coking-coal seam. GRL is buying his property, and AGL wants in, to drill some coal-seam-gas wells. He says Gloucester Coal was also interested in parts of his holdings that sit on their exploration licence.
Rosenbaum's cherished farm is at the epicentre of the Gloucester boom. The house is small but comfortable, with an enclosed veranda that looks out over the Rocky Hill site.
"I own all the [land] flats that you see down there," he says, as he sweeps his hand towards the Mograni range. "There's 224 acres on this farm, there's 50 acres of irrigation. It was a dairy [but] that's been shut for nearly 10 years now. It's beef, hay, fodder, and it's just the lifestyle."
His wife is not at home when we visit, but the fire is roaring, and the dining room buffet groans under the weight of family photos.
"I love where I live. I always thought I'd buy a farm, and I can assure you when I brought my wife here, it was a mess. We spent a lot of money, and it was always my ambition to retire here," Rosenbaum says.
When an application like GRL's goes in those who live in the affected area — like Rosenbaum — are left with little choice but to sell, or risk living on the doorstep of an open cut coalmine.
"We wouldn't have had a lot of money, but it's the lifestyle that I valued and to continue in some way in the agricultural area. That's taken away and no one can compensate for that loss. I'm better today and I'll be better each time I talk about it but I tell you, it hurts."
The council passed a motion opposing the Rocky Hill mine, but Rosenbaum didn't vote because of the conflict of interest. All the other councillors voted in favour of the motion.
"Council believes that it is too close to the town and it has greater effect on the community than the existing mine at Stratford Coal at this stage," he says.
"We have held meetings to see how the community felt about this and overwhelmingly the community supports council's standing and objectives over the developments."
But the council does not decide whether an application to mine is approved, that's up to the state government.
ED ROBINSON FARMS CATTLE. His property, sitting high on a slope at the base of the Mograni range will have a great view of the mine if it gets approved. When we meet him, Robinson is blunt. He's angry that such a project might go ahead, and he's jaded about the relationship between mining and government.
"The state government, in the rush to get the money, is allowing the mining companies to do whatever they like. They really should be saying that this coastal strip, right up and down, should be left alone. It really is a critical area," he says.
The NSW government estimates that recoverable coal reserves in NSW total more than 12 billion tonnes.
"These reserves are contained within 60 operating mines and colliery holdings and more than 30 major development proposals," the Department of Trade and Investment says.
According to the NSW Minerals Council, coal is NSW's number one merchandise export in value terms, worth $14.1 billion in 2010-11. Just under 90 per cent of NSW's energy needs are currently met by locally mined coal, but that is just a fraction of what the state exports internationally.
In 2008-2009 domestic consumption of NSW coal totalled nearly 35 million tonnes, with exports coming in at more than 100 million tonnes.
So NSW exports just under three times as much coal as it supplies for domestic use. A report prepared for Australian Coal Consulting in 2010 predicted that NSW coal exports would rise from 107 million tonnes in 2009 to 200 million tonnes in 2015.
Robinson says booming exports are driving the push to mine so close to Gloucester and the future impact of such activities aren't being considered.
Like many of the residents we speak to, Robinson is worried about the impact of changing weather patterns on agricultural land. These patterns, he says, will determine what land is useful for farming in the future and what will no longer be viable.
Climate change that in other parts of the state will dry out areas currently used for food production will have a different impact in the Hunter. Modelling that predicts the likely impacts of temperature rises in coming decades suggests the Hunter Valley region will get more rain, possibly making it more suitable for farming and agricultural production.
"If climate change is what it says it's going to be and the west gets drier, then this area needs to be protected… we're probably going to need to produce a large amount of food here. That might be in 100 or 150 years, but still," Robinson says.
For fellow farmer Aled Hoggett, the threat to food production is of great concern. Farming has sustained the economy in this region for almost 200 years, and residents want to know whether hosting the mine will destroy the land's agricultural prospects.
"For 180 years we've been farming here, and everything around us is the result of that farming industry," Hoggett says. "When the mine first came in the mid-1990s the area was in the doldrums because they'd closed down forestry in the area and they'd closed it down basically to put all of that forestry area into national parks."
Rocky Hill's own initial socio-economic assessment for the project, lodged earlier this year with the NSW Director-General as part of the first step in the mining-application process, says that in 2006 just 4.2 per cent of people employed in Gloucester Shire were employed in mining, whereas almost 20 per cent were employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing — the region's biggest employers.
"We hope that when [my son, Bryn] is 80, there'll still be farming here," Hoggett says, gesturing to the boy who is sitting on his lap eating a mandarin. "But if a mine comes in and does the sorts of things a mine's going to do then the farming industry will collapse."
Hoggett, 44, coordinates a farming co-op in the Gloucester area, called The Gloucester Project. It creates a system that allows farmers to work together to produce crops, instead of competing with each other and driving down prices.
"The Gloucester Project is about developing economies for cooperation, it's about allowing small operators like us to work together to create services like refrigerated transport, flexible labour services, marketing, all those sorts of things. And that's potentially the future of areas like this," Hoggett says.
But not if there's a coal mine running the length of the town.
"Would you invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in an area like this if you knew there was going to be a massive hole from one end of the valley to another and dust and light pollution and trucks all up and down the road?" he asks.
IN THE FORBESDALE ESTATE large, relatively new homes, built in the late 1990s and early 2000s overlook the proposed mine site. Di Montague came to Gloucester for a "tree change" but has instead been fighting GRL since the exploration licences held by the company were renewed by the previous Labor government in 2009 (GRL — then under different ownership — first began exploration in the area in 2007).
She suggested we meet in Forbesdale, to get a sense of just how close the mine will be to the town. The small parcel of newer homes sits nestled between the road into town and the Mograni Range. There's a grand view of the site of the proposed mine, one kilometre from the closest homes.
"People who bought here, who were encouraged to buy here, they're terrified because of the noise and the dust… It actually changes the whole town into a mining town; farming [and] the whole rural feel will go, because a lot of the places sold down here in this area will change," she says.
"They can't sell even if they wanted to, because the only people who are buying are the mine, and if the mine won't buy you're stuffed," Montague says. Driving the short stretch from Forbesdale to Gloucester proper we count at least five properties for sale.
Deputy Mayor John Rosenbaum, who will buy a new, smaller place somewhere in town, knows he is one of the lucky ones.
"People that sit outside that acquisition zone do not have that opportunity [to sell] and I believe this is a flaw in state government's legislation. If the state government is going to approve these sorts of developments there should be just compensation to the loss of value to these people," he says.
"If they're unable to sell and move on there should be some compensation. I don't believe they should be put in a position where the value of their property decreases substantially."
JAN TRESIDDER AND HER HUSBAND run Gloucester Tyre and Battery in the town's main street. They used to live on Fairbairns Road until GRL came calling about two years ago.
"The first thing we knew about a mine being close to Gloucester is a gentleman turned up in the paddock next to our property one day and we had no idea who it was, we didn't even know the property next door had been sold," Tresidder says.
What followed, she says, was a long campaign by GRL to force the Tresidders to sell up, which they eventually did, moving to the other side of town last year.
"They were buying up properties around us and I just felt that we were going to be left on our little perch in the middle of our lovely place."
The Tresidders had moved to Gloucester from Newcastle in the mid-2000s. They were careful to check on the status of coalmining in the area before they took the plunge.
"When we bought our property we were told the exploration licence had been given up by Gloucester Coal at that time. We rang Gloucester Coal, we rang the minerals department, we rang the council, and we were assured that there was going to be no further mining closer to Gloucester in the future, so that's why we purchased that land," she says.
But GRL purchased the exploration licences for land around Gloucester, east to the Mograni, west to Gloucester Buckets and south to Stratford. Tresidder says people in town don't seem aware of just how close the new mine will be, if it's approved.
"It's divided the town, the whole issue. I don't think people in town actually realise how close it's going to be. Until they get [the mine] they won't know how close it's going to be.
"Most people I know and that I speak to on the street, they're supportive of mining because they can see some benefits and we're all that way I guess, but they're not supportive of it close to town… when it's so close to town, what happens? Nobody wants to live there."
Tresidder is in a bit of a tight spot. As a small business owner, she does get trade from the mines in Stratford and Duralie, and she would possibly get more from further projects or expansions.
"It's hard because we do deal with the mining industry, and yes we get business from them,'' she says. But there's a flipside for local businesses, with mining operations poaching people they've invested in.
"My son has gone. He worked for us, [but] he's actually gone to work for the mine. I can't pay the wages that they pay — in all honesty we can't compete… that's what's happening around town. Businesses put an apprentice on and after they've done their time, they get poached by the mine."
Tresidder is pragmatic, resigned. She believes the mine will be approved, and when I ask her if she thinks this application will lead the way for an expansion that stretches around the town, eating up the areas GRL still holds for exploration, she is matter of fact.
"I guess most of the people in Gloucester don't believe that will happen, they believe somebody will stop that from happening, but it doesn't always happen that way. We certainly could potentially be surrounded."
When asked if the company had plans to expand the mine further, if the current application is approved, GRL spokesman John Church had this to say:
"GRL is focussed on the Rocky Hill Coal project and has no immediate plans to mine in other areas of its current exploration licences. Any expansion in the future would be subject to the same detailed rigour and due process from state government regulators."
It's not a no.
A spokesman for the NSW Planning Department told The Global Mail concerns about the loss of other industries would be taken into account during the approval process.
"While this draft [strategic land use] plan is yet to be finalised, the department is requiring applications such as this one to address a number of its key elements, including the requirement to lodge an agricultural-impact statement clearly outlining the likely impacts of the project on the agricultural values of the area," spokesman Paul Searle said.
"The department also requires and independently undertakes a thorough assessment of the likely cumulative impacts of the project, in particular its impacts on nearby residential areas," he said.
Searle said no decisions about the mining application had yet been made.
Rosenbaum says the council is still waiting to hear from the state government in response to objections it has raised. He believes if the mine is approved Gloucester will lose its balance, and much of what he loves about the area.
"When you have such a beautiful place that you live in, what price do you pay for the damage that you do to that? I don't know if there's a value you can put on that. I think it's worth fighting to try and protect what we have, but I am not an anti-mining person," he says.