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Published in Online Opinion and The Canberra Times September 2012

‘The bloody fluro bastard passed me on the double white lines.’ An angry remark from a Mum in Mudgee with the kids on board; a metaphor for ‘whatever it takes’, from mine workers, managers, owners and prospectors. Whatever has to be done in the mine industry has to be done yesterday and bugger the consequences for anyone seen to be in the way.

Government is on the side of the miners. After a few small concessions in the Hunter to land holders, the NSW, O’Farrell government announced the granting of 22 new gas licenses on 12 September, some of them over aquifers. The land, landholders, food production and existing local communities do not get a look in.

Paul Cleary, with commendable research and controlled anger, sets out to show the reader the extent of the rape of the continent in the name of development. His new book, “Mine-Field”, is easy to read but difficult to digest.

There are few offsets. Mining, government and food producers have not been brought together to plan and discuss optimal construction and use of new infrastructure resources that might benefit communities, producers and land holders. The taxes levied on the mining industry, including the new mining tax, are insufficient to substantially assist long term nation building.

Mines are developed and expand without consultation as to the strain this will impose on local infrastructure including roads, hospitals, doctors, schools, housing and child care facilities, to name but a few of the services impacted. The mines do not offer to assist with these major costs, instead opting to help sponsor local footy or netball clubs and race meetings. Tokenism in terms of what they are taking and making.

Paul Cleary spells out in detail the impact of mining Coal Seam Gas on food producers, the water table and the quality of water. It was not so long ago that a program was implemented to cap the flowing bores of the Great Artesian Basin in order to conserve water. Now the process of fracking employed by the CSG extraction process threatens aquifers near the process including the Basin. What has happened to earlier concerns?

Rising salinity was the subject of much angst and study, particularly in WA, but again both CSG processes and coalmining threaten to bring to the surface millions of tons of ancient captured salt. The speed and haste of development does not permit proper and sustainable solutions to be found.

In another new book, “The Coming Famine”, Julian Cribb says, “If people respected cornfields, as the French philosopher Simone Weil once suggested we should ( as part of our love for our homeland ), we would not build cities on them or degrade them. The coming famine of the midcentury is likely to teach renewed respect for grain fields, rice paddies, orchards, market gardens, and the soil that sustains them all.

Believe it or not, the world is running out of high-quality soil. In one sense, we passed ‘peak land’ a long time ago. A report by Rabobank shows that the area of food production has declined from 0.45 hectare ( 1.1 acres) per person in 1960’s to 0.23 hectare ( 0.6 acre) currently and will keep on falling as population rises, to around 0.18 hectare ( 0.4 acre ) in 2050.”

Paul Cleary says that in Queensland three projects alone will consume 20,000 square kilometers of productive land. Again in Queensland 30 million tones of salt will be produced over three decades from CSG projects employing fracking.

In the Bylong Valley between Rylstone and Mudgee there are massive reserves of coal about to be exploited. With what turned out to be a lucky break for former NSW politician Eddie Obied, having bought a good sized rural retreat in the Bylong Valley, he later learnt that he was sitting on millions of tons of coal. He sold out to Peabody Mining causing a cascade effect amongst land owners in the Valley, with the result that prime agricultural land is now about to become a series of mines, checked slightly by a belated re-classification of some of the valley floor as Strategic Agricultural Land. But the question remains, in the light of past experience will the government adhere to its classifications in the face of mining pressure?

In the face of easing prices some coal mines are shedding staff and contractors. Mostly these are older mines, where labour and maintenance costs are higher, new mines are going ahead and the miners long term view of demand dictates that they should.

The Murray-Darling Association has agreed to assist the Mid-Western Regional Council (embracing the towns of Mudgee, Gulgong, Rylstone and Kandos ) in opposing the transfer of water licenses from the Macquarie River to the much smaller Cudgegong River by the Cobbora coal mine. Incredibly the transfer was approved by the NSW Office of Water. Why? It’s the Wild West out here, anything goes, whatever it takes. Money is the name of the Game, but a lot of people are not in the Game.

A CSG add claims that the, “CSIRO and government studies have shown that groundwater is safe with coal seam gas”. It’s a statement that is not true and the CSIRO rejected it in the following terms. “At no time has CSIRO made such a statement, and nor do the results of CSIRO research support such a statement. CSIRO has stated on the public record that coal seam gas extraction is likely to pose a ‘low risk’ to groundwater quality through contamination. CSIRO has also indicated that ground water levels will fall as a consequence of coal seam gas extraction. In some places this could see aquifer levels subside by tens of metres for tens of years; in others it is likely to reduce aquifer levels by several metres for several hundred years.”

Recently a twin engine aircraft with an extended strobe at the rear flew over properties in the Mudgee district in a grid pattern at a height of 200 metres. This took place over a period of several weeks. It was offensive and intrusive to land holders who were not given prior warning of its activities. Enquiries around Mudgee provided no answers. I rang the Civil Aviation Bureau to see if clearances had been given for such low and potentially dangerous flights. They said no but were keen to get details of the aircraft. A local was heard to remark that he reckoned he could shoot it down.

No attempt was made to take the public into the confidence of the prospectors and apparently no official permission was sought to fly so low.

State and federal governments have not sought to mediate land usage or infrastructure development, which in some instances might be made compatible with farming activities or at least not as disruptive. Paul Cleary talks of CSG development spreading like a giant spiderweb over paddocks and fields and cites the Darling Downs, an area of high agricultural productivity. Farmers cannot till their fields and grow the crops they once did. Governments have not sought to arbitrate this development and in fact have assisted the loss of productive land mainly for the economic gain of the gas and coal companies involved.

What will happen in the event of a bushfire or major flood in any of these developments? It will be a nightmare just getting into these webs. Bushfires will have a greater potential to take off and meanwhile it will be volunteers, local farmers and townies that seek to battle through these obstacles on behalf of the gas companies, who have shown precious little regard for their rights and livelihoods and no regard at all for preserving the productivity of the national estate.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.