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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

'Dirty big holes' in valley of king coal

The front cover of John Drinan's book, The Sacrificial Valley. Picture supplied

Imagine Sydney Harbour. It's beautiful, right? And enormous - stretching from The Rocks all the way to Watsons Bay and out to Manly.

Now picture an Upper Hunter open-cut coal mine. It's a dirty, big, degraded hole in the ground. No comparison? In terms of aesthetics, they're poles apart.

Now consider this. Sydney Harbour covers 5500 hectares - that's 55 square kilometres. A 2016 report said there were 29 open-cut coal mines in the Upper Hunter. Some pits were kilometres long and more than 300 metres deep.

Their total surface area, back then, was over 4554 hectares - that's more than 45 square kilometres. That report was about seven years ago and every day since, coal companies (largely foreign-owned) have continued ripping up the Hunter Region as if there were no tomorrow.

The open-cuts are a series of gigantic, growing pockmarks with a combined size approaching that of Sydney's iconic waterway. The immense scale of destruction is John Drinan's comparison point. And, you know what? When coal companies have finished banking their billions-upon-billions of financial profit, they can simply walk away from their mess. That's right.

There is no requirement to refill the shocking holes with the mountains of "overburden" rock and earth they've dug up, and dumped nearby. Our Sydney-centric NSW government politicians and bureaucrats agree with coal company chiefs that such a clean-up would be "unreasonable".

Hypocrisy is obvious. Successive governments have accepted billions in coal royalties and political party payments for decades, while encouraging exploitive expansion.

There's no way this permanent industrial wasteland would be OK anywhere around Sydney. These huge eyesores will forever be left in the Hunter to fill with water that's increasingly contaminated by toxic seepage and runoff.

This scandal is the most stunning thing I learned from John Drinan's great book. I'll sum up The Sacrificial Valley in a moment. But rather than scatter our attention on other issues Mr Drinan covers so well, I'll stay focused on what he has unearthed about coal's dirty, big holes in the ground.

The demolition of our environment, I believe, is indicative of the careless approach to all coalmining impacts. It's not careless, it's deliberate. The rape of our land, defiling our air and water, obliterating ecosystems and a multitude of human health issues are well-documented, long-standing, common coal impacts. People, and their place, have been trampled by the pursuit of money.

These vast mining holes prove that Australia's environmental protection laws have failed. Best practice rehabilitation has also withered. In the United States, for instance, coal companies have to backfill, compact and grade pits to restore the approximate original land contour, eliminating highwalls, spoil piles and depressions.

On Upper Hunter mine sites, woodlands, forests and grasslands have vanished, along with the fauna they supported. Some surface and underground water flows can never be restored. Huge, ugly pit holes will remain for hundreds of years at least.

Their fill will include continually concentrated salts, chemicals and heavy metal contaminants such as mercury, selenium, cadmium and more. The venomous mix will affect surrounding and downstream surface and underground water, stunting all ecosystems in their seeping path.

There'll be no pristine, sandy beachfronts in the Upper Hunter. And, this ecological ruin is knowingly bequeathed to generations who reap no benefit, have no say in the situation, yet have to deal with it.

It's contemptible, I say.

To sum up. The Sacrificial Valley is clear, factual, revealing and wide-ranging.

From environmental, social, economical, human health and generational perspectives it's an absolute shock.

The book concludes with the hope that "redemption is always possible".

My hope is that it's read, and acted upon, by decent politicians, bureaucrats, coal company decision-makers and their stock market shareholders.

More importantly, the general public should read The Sacrificial Valley and pressure wrong-doers to clean up their mess, and spur a just transition to alternative energy and a safer future for us all.

Check The Warranty 

Topics has been looking into the latest offers on rooftop solar panels.

We're a tad sceptical about the claims that solar panels come with 25-year warranties.

Can you imagine people getting a warranty replacement on solar panels after 20 or so years?

Guess there'd be some folks who keep that warranty handy and try their luck in, say, the year 2045 when their panels kick the bucket.

To see more stories and read today's paper download the Newcastle Herald news app here.

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