How Coal Could Genuinely Be a Community-Based Industry

Stephen Gallillee and the NSW Minerals Council describe coal mining as a ‘community-based industry’ (‘One way or another, mining touches us all’, Newcastle Herald, 18/9/13).

What would a ‘community-based’ industry look like? What policies and practices would a community-based industry adopt and implement?

Mining companies could start by taking every precaution to protect the environment and community from harm and ensuring decisive action to remedy unavoidable impacts. Companies with a commitment to community would form genuine partnerships with their communities based on transparency and trust – the ‘honest, open and positive relationships’ that Stephen Gallillee writes of in this newspaper.

But this is far from our reality in the Hunter.

Instead, the multinational mining companies that benefit from our region’s destruction practice secrecy, delay and denial. Their industry mouthpiece invests in sponsorship deals that seek to turn sports events into public relations exercises. Instead of building trust and collaboration, the Minerals Council has campaigned to vilify community campaigners – two of our members have been defamed in Mr Gallillee’s campaign emails in the last few months.

The relationship between communities and mining companies is so bad that many local groups primarily interact with companies in courtrooms. Spare a thought for community groups in places like Bulga and Camberwell that rely on fundraising, goodwill and courage to take legal action against corporations. Both of those communities are currently locked in courtroom battles with global mining giants, who are attempting to force mining expansions on unwilling residents.

This week’s ‘Environment and Community’ conference should have been a turning point for the Minerals Council and the multinational companies it represents. The rhetoric was convincing: “responsibility”, “scrutiny”, “reputation” and “expectations”. But the conference was simply more of the same. All public relations, no substance. The region’s many community and environment groups were not invited to the conference. And two of the region’s most notorious mining companies received ‘Environment and Community Excellence’ awards.

Glencore Xstrata was the major sponsor for the conference and the major award recipient. The company is currently under investigation by the NSW Government, after pouring 180 tonnes of concrete into waterways and through subsidence chasms it created in Sugarloaf State Conservation Area. Glencore’s previous awards include the ‘Public Eye’ and ‘Black Planet’ awards, both awarded by environmental NGOs for price manipulation, environmental pollution, corruption and forced land seizures.

Another award recipient, BHP Billiton, was recognised for supporting a school readiness program in Muswellbrook. Schools in some Hunter communities are bringing children in-doors when coal dust levels trigger air pollution alerts. Almost 150 alerts have been issued in the Hunter so far this year. Open cut coal mines are responsible for 87.6% of the Hunter’s PM10 pollution, and BHP Billiton operates the largest open cut in the Valley (Mt Arthur).

It’s understandable that the Minerals Council feels the need to defend the mining industry’s role in the Hunter. In recent weeks, community members have read in the Newcastle Herald about a river of concrete at Mount Sugarloaf, rivers poisoned by acid mine drainage at Kurri Kurri, and the legacy of 570 abandoned mines throughout NSW. If ever there was a need to demonstrate responsibility and pledge that this kind of damage will never happen again, it’s now.

Toxic rivers from past mining practices are nothing compared to what the future may hold. There are more than 24 open cut mines operating in the Hunter, with many more planned. The companies responsible aren't planning to fill the holes back in when they are finished. Instead, they will be abandoned to become super-saline toxic lakes for future generations to worry about.

Spin is no substitute for action, and won’t help build the social licence that mining corporations need to operate. On the contrary, aggressive public relations campaigns will only build distrust and outrage.

We invite and encourage Mr Gallillee and the Minerals Council to live up to their stated ideals. Meet with us. Stop vilifying environmentalists. Explain how the Minerals Council and its members will ensure air quality in the Hunter remains below the national health standard. Commit to covering coal wagons.

James Whelan
Hunter Community Environment Centre

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