At The Coal Face: Hazelwood, Acland, Kingaroy and Adani

‘The smoke got thicker and darker and then it seemed to be
coming from everywhere, swirling around until it blackened the entire town’

— The Coal Face by Tom Doig

‘Coal is good for humanity’

— Tony Abbott and Malcolm Roberts
(neither know what they’re talking about)

‘By the time it’s at the stage where it’s quite dramatic, the company’s gone, the mine's gone and the groundwater systems are destroyed’

— catchment expert and farmer Jim McDonald
(RN Breakfast 14 July, 2017)

 

In February 2014, the open cut coal mine surrounding Hazelwood Power Station caught fire and burned for forty-five days — that’s over 1000 hours; one-and-a-half months; six weeks. The town of Morwell, home to 14,000 people, is less than half a kilometre from the mine. Over 100,000 people live within 20km of the mine. Carcinogenic brown coal ash fell as far away as Warragul (50km) and Sale (60km). This was a huge industrial; environmental and public health disaster. Melbourne is 152km away, that’s a two-hour drive.

In one sense you have to ask, why was a power station, that burns coal to produce electricity, built in the middle of a coal mine, that’s made up of the highly flammable stuff being burned by the power station to make electricity; but on the other hand it makes sense, right? If the power station’s right in the middle of things, there’s no need to transport the coal too far.

Initially, when the mine and station were privatised in the 1990s by the Kennett Government, the company paid a bond of about $12 million. The mine owner, formally GDF Suez, now ENGIE, is one-third owned by the French Government. It was formed on 22 July 2008 by the merger of Gaz de France and Suez, and traces its origins to the Universal Suez Canal Company founded in 1858 to construct the Suez Canal. Since 2008 merger, the French State holds about one third of the company.

Experts estimate the rehabilitation cost at the ‘normal’ end of the mine’s life would be about $250 million, but since the 2014 fire a number of studies have revealed the cost to be more like $750 million — meaning the true cost is over 70 times the original bond. And that’s assuming everything goes off without a hitch. The Centralia Coal Mine in Pennsylvania has been burning since 1962, and it’s suspected the deliberate burning of trash in a former strip mine ignited a coal seam. Then there’s ENGIE‘s plan to dump 740 billion litres of water into the mine to turn it into what is known as a ‘pit lake’. This could see the Morwell River being diverted for at least seven years; could cost as much as $440 million; and would need more water than Sydney Harbour. ENGIE wants to take the water (for free). To date, no one can say if the water will become toxic, and no one knows what impact such toxic water may have on the surrounding land and water table.

Just two to three hours from Brisbane are two similarly contentious mines being pushed onto the people of Acland and Oakey (about 178km from Brisbane — approx. a two-and-a-half hour drive), and onto the people of Kingaroy (about 212km from Brisbane and a three-hour drive). Both places grow food.

The proposed New Acland Mine (New Hope Group) has already consumed the town of Acland. It doesn’t exist any more; it’s not even a ‘ghost town’. The buildings are gone and the only things left are the roads and the ANZAC memorial, which used to be in the middle of town.

The proposed Kingaroy Mine (Moreton Resources Ltd: MRV), sounds a lot like Hazelwood. MRV wants to build a mine to within 1km of the town. The Kingaroy Concerned Citizens Group is contesting the mine, not least because it will impact negatively on winery tourism, the observatory, the water table and farming land, but because MRV, like Adani and Posco in the Galilee basin, has form. Previously known as Cougar Energy Limited, MRV has already left Kingaroy residents to deal with the environmental consequences of a failed experimental underground coal gasification plant.

In The Coal Face (2015) Tom Doig reveals the decades of decisions that lead to the 2014 fire, and gives an intimate account of the blaze during the dark weeks that followed. The Coal Face is an urgent and immediate account of one of the worst health and environmental disasters in Australia’s history. Let’s hope the QLD Government learns from the mistakes of others the past and works adamantly and tirelessly on behalf of the QLD people and citizens to ensure it doesn’t repeat them.