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My coal dilemma

  • 24 November 2017


I can't see the issues around the coal industry in black and white terms, even though I'd vote for any ethical replacement plan in a heartbeat.

As much as people build places, places substantially build our identities, and people literally lived and died by coal mines where I grew up. I went to primary school at Nulkaba which means place of coal. My father always identified himself as a coal miner even though his job literally broke his back. If I'd been a boy, I might have ended up down a mine and I would have made a lot more money than I have, but I'm not sure I'd be less conflicted.

I've been down one longwall coal mine that extended under Lake Maquarie, near Newcastle. My group put on oversized, borrowed protective gear and travelled down to the shaft in a buggy. Inside it was cool and damp with salt water drips coming through the roof.

We were in near darkness until we got to the shaft where the machine was waiting with its rotating, snaggle-tooth head poised to take another gouge. I'd anticipated fear of being enclosed down there, like a scene from Birdsong, but it was actually fairly spacious.

The job was to walk along catwalks, overseeing mechanisation. The miner held a remote control device in his (potentially her) hands, rather than a pick or shovel. The crew, far fewer than in old bord and pillar style mines. Clinical and lacking the sad romance of a D. H. Lawrence novel.

For a few weeks in 2006, Australians and people around the world were captivated by the working conditions and hardships of miners when Todd Russell and Brant Webb were trapped underground at Beaconsfield. Yet, inevitably, the interest in these human faces of mining faded, less quickly than the name of their colleague who died. He was Larry Knight.

Unfortunately, restating coal's incontrovertible damage to places and people isn't redundant. In 2003, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Yearbook was already saying mining damages to the environment, including serious erosion and contamination, noting that costs of rehabilitation had risen then by 62 per cent since 1996-97.


"There is a deep tension between policy paralysis, increasing prices, town survival, and the mountain of evidence linking mining to so many negative impacts on people and places over the last 150 years."


And while mining has been part of the backbone of Australia's economy, it's come at a horrendous human price.