Australian coal mine defeated by thoroughbred industry

Coal or Horse Billboard

Greenpeace and the Greens have cautiously welcomed the decision by Kristina Keneally and the NSW Government to stop the Bickham coal mine, north of Scone in the upper Hunter Valley, from going ahead, saying it is a win for local community action. It was a strong well funded campaign by the thoroughbred horse industry and its economic contribution to the state economy along with community action which halted the proposed open-cut coal mine.


Greenpeace Australia said on its blog that communities fighting coal mine proposals could take heart that it was possible to stop coal mines, "This victory sends a signal to local communities all over the country that it is possible to stand up to the coal industry and win. It will be a much needed morale boost for other communities in the Hunter valley, the Gunnedah Basin, the Illawarra and in Queensland and Western Australia who are fighting new coal mines. It is yet another signpost on the journey beyond coal."

Lee Rhiannon, Greens MLC in the NSW parliament also welcomed the decision, "This is a great win for one community, but it only has wider significance if it is the start of a genuine shift by the NSW government from its addiction to damaging coal mining to investing in clean, sustainable energy production," Ms Rhiannon said.


The coal mine threatened to disrupt the drainage and pollute the local water supply from the Pages River and Kingdon Ponds Aquifer to thouroughbred horse studs, vineyards and thousands of aces of arable land. The five towns of Murrurundi, Blandford, Gundy, Parkville and Scone are dependent on this catchment for clean water.


The decision to stop the mine was influenced by the power of money - in this instance the thoroughbred horse industry which is worth $2.4 billion into the State economy each year. Premier Keneally said "We will not jeopardise the growth of this important Australian export industry. Furthermore, this mine is simply not compatible with the unique rural characteristics of this locality, including the horse-breeding industry. It is also clear from the PAC report that potential impacts on local water resources would far outweigh any benefits of proceeding with the project.”


The campaign against the coal mine had some very influential backers including broadcasters Alan Jones and Phillip Adams, former Governor General Mike Jeffrey, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, businessmen Gerry Harvey, John Messara, advertising executive John Singleton, actor Jack Thompson, and Helen Georgopoulos, a former advisor to former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard. The campaign allegedly cost at least one million dollars to stop the mine.


Arrowfield Stud proprietor John Messara told the Sydney Morning Herald in November 2009 that the horse studs were not opposed to all coal mining in the region but raised fears over the impact of this open cut mine which posed a threat to their livelihoods. "What we're saying is we understand the importance of coal mining to the state, to the country, etcetera, but surely two industries can co-exist so that coal mining can proceed where it's not going to destroy the horse business," Messara said.


After Kristina Keneally announced the mine would not go ahead, John Messara said “The Premier’s decision has put an end to ten long years of uncertainty for our industry and our community. The Thoroughbred Breeding Industry of the Hunter Valley and the many industries that support us can now proceed to build and invest in the future with certainty.”


Bickham Coal said in a media release they were "extremely disappointed that its proposed open cut coal mine would not proceed to full merit-based assessment." The company claimed it had spent $10 million over the last 8 years planning the project and participating in planning processes.


In its decision the Government has said it is about to amend planning rules to prohibit open-cut mining on the Bickham site permanently, but underground mining may still be a possible option for the company.


Lee Rhiannon was cautious about the direction of the NSW Government and coalmining, "A true beginning will occur when the government gives appropriate weight to the impact of all coal mine proposals on local communities and the environment. This is the first and only time, which we are aware of, that the NSW Labor government has rejected a coal mining project in the face of community objections."


The NSW Government has encouraged an expansion of coal mining investing in the upgrade of coal terminal port facilities at Newcastle. There are now 14 massive open cut coal mines in the Upper Hunter Valley, producing 99 million tonnes of coal a year with more new mines on the way. Current mining proposals in NSW include the massive BHP Billiton's $60 billion Bulli Seam longwall coal project which risks damaging Sydney's water catchment, and the Shenhua Caroona long wall mine proposal on the agriculturally productive Liverpool plains. Further west are Xstrata's Baal Bone near Lithgow and the Coborra coal mine near Dunedoo. (see NSW Dept of Primary Industries - new coal mines and projects in NSW)


A recent Fours corners report in April 2010 - A Dirty Business - revealed some of the health concerns of residents of the town of Singleton. The Hunter region has the highest rates of asthma in children in the state.


In March the NSW Government approved plans for two new gas or coal-fired power stations. The Nature Conservation Council of NSW condemned the move “The approval of two coal-fired power stations is an absolute disaster for the climate, with the potential to increase NSW’s carbon emissions by 15 per cent,” said Max Phillips, Climate Campaigner for the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.

"This government has initiated the biggest expansion of coal mining in the state's history, at a time when climate change tightens its grasp on the planet. Premier Keneally should not stop at Bickham but now turn her eye to the other coal communities around the state hoping that today's decision signals the end of their fight to preserve their health and quality of life," Ms Rhiannon said.