Big Coal: Australia's Dirtiest Habit

Big Coal: Australia's Dirtiest Habit

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A look at the underbelly of an industry whose power continues to soar even as its expansion feeds catastrophic climate change, this work dissects the Australian coal industry’s influence to publicly, and behind closed doors, get its way. The book exposes the myth of clean coal and the taxpayer-funded public relations machine behind it while laying bare the desolation in regional Australia as prime farming land, the fabric of communities, and much else is stripmined along with the coal. Most contentiously of all, Big Coal explores how Australia can break its dirtiest habit and move to a far more sustainable, yet still prosperous, future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742241463
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 456 KB

About the Author

Guy Pearse is the author of Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams and High & Dry: John Howard, Climate Change and the Selling of Australia's Future. David McKnight is a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of a number of books on the media, politics, and history, including Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War and Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power. Bob Burton has worked as an environmental campaigner, an author, and a freelance journalist for more than 30 years. He is the author of Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry and the coauthor of Secrets and Lies: The Anatomy of an Anti-environment PR Campaign.

Read an Excerpt

Big Coal

Australia's Dirtiest Habit

By Guy Pearse, David McKnight, Bob Burton

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Guy Pearse, David McKnight, Bob Burton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-640-6



'Australia's response to climate change, both internationally and domestically, will be inextricably intertwined with the long-term future of the coal industry.' ROSS GARNAUT,The Garnaut Climate Change Review

Australia is a land of coal. We are the world's second biggest exporter of coal and 75 per cent of our electricity comes from burning coal. Created over millions of years ago as lush forests and plants decayed and fossilised, coal was compressed into vast underground seams which lie beneath large parts of Australia. In Queensland, thick basins of black coal lie inland from the coast. In some places the seams are 40 metres thick, with mine sites forming a necklace that stretches for 800 kilometres. Further south, Victoria has some of the world's largest deposits of brown coal, centred around the Latrobe Valley, to the east of Melbourne. The valley's 65 billion tonnes of coal is often found just below the surface and up to 100 metres thick. In New South Wales, Sydney sits in the middle of a vast underground saucer of black coal, whose edges rise to the surface near Newcastle, Wollongong and Lithgow. Extensive mines honeycomb the land near each of these towns. The coal seams then travel north towards the Queensland border. In South Australia, black coal is mined at Leigh Creek to feed local power stations at Port Augusta. In Western Australia, coal is mined for electricity generation at Collie. Even in mostly hydro-powered Tasmania, coal is used for cement making.

Eighty years ago, the British writer George Orwell noted that 'our civilisation ... is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it'. Orwell could have been talking about Australia. In the early days of the Australian colonies, coal brought warmth on freezing nights and powered machines that replaced hard physical labour. In the nineteenth century, coal gas first lit the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. Train engines burned coal to haul wheat and wool to harbours where coal- burning ships took them half-way around the world. Later, coal began to boil water to spin the turbines to produce electricity. Coal used in steel-making was the foundation of much of the Australian manufacturing industry. Fifty years ago, a vast network of power stations was built to produce electricity for the refrigerators, the washing machines and toasters of the postwar consumer boom. In the twenty-first century coal still produces the electricity to operate our laptops, smart phones and flat-screen televisions. And now coal has become a major export industry. Little Coal has become Big Coal.

Coal has been an integral part of the European history of Australia from its earliest days when Lieutenant Shortland, hunting for escaped convicts in 1797, noticed some black rocks near a place he named Coal River, later called Newcastle, after the British coal port. Four years earlier, the French explorer Labillardiere noticed black horizontal veins near South Cape Bay in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). The explorers Bass and Flinders, returning to Sydney Town from sailing around Van Diemen's Land in 1797, saw what looked like coal on the cliffs just south of Sydney. By 1804 coal was being dug up by convicts on the headlands of Coal River, which had become a prison within a prison, designed to punish convicts who had offended in Sydney Town. Some of the most active leaders of a rebellion by Irish convicts in 1804 were sent to dig coal there.

Digging coal in those days was punishment indeed. The convict hewers of coal entered the pit by ladders and ropes and crawled through the metre-high tunnel until they reached the coalface. There they lay on their sides and hacked at the coal with picks by the flickering light of a candle. Other convicts bailed out the water that dripped through the mine and wheeled the coal to the bottom of the shaft, from where it was hauled up by a windlass to the surface. For ten hours a day the convicts were expected to dig two and a half tons of coal.

Health problems became apparent as soon as mining began. In 1819 Commissioner Bigge was undertaking a major report on the settlement for the Colonial Office. The Government Surgeon in Newcastle, William Evans, told him, 'the foul air that is breathed [in the mine] produces spitting of blood and difficulty of breathing'.

Elsewhere in the colony more coal was discovered. In 1824 it was found at Ipswich, west of Brisbane, and the following year at Cape Preston in Victoria. Coal was found south-east of Geraldton in WA in 1846 and, somewhat later, black coal was discovered at Leigh Creek in South Australia (1888). But the area around Newcastle and the Hunter River was the main source of coal for most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. By the 1830s steam engines were being used to pump out water and several thousand tons of coal were mined each year. Coal was becoming popular in the expanding colony and by 1831 the first coal-burning steamships began to ply the coast of NSW. Coal was displacing renewable energy forms, such as horses, human labour and the windmills that ground wheat. By the 1840s coal was providing energy for steam mills to grind grain and saw logs. In the fireplaces of homes it was gradually displacing wood, which was becoming increasingly expensive to cut and transport. The colony's most energy-intensive industries, lime burning and salt evaporation, operated at Newcastle close to the coal mines. In 1853, the Sydney Morning Herald installed the first steampowered printing press in Australia with circulation soon rising from 1000 to 6000. By the 1860s Australia experienced its first 'coal rush'. As the richness and vastness of the Hunter seams became more apparent and the price of coal rose, small mining companies scrambled to make money. In 1866 the first law restraining the use of coal was passed in the colony. It was aimed at stopping the dirty, sulphurous smoke caused by burning coal in Sydney.

Coal exports also began early on. While much of the early convict-cut coal was sent to the colony at Sydney, some was sold overseas. When he reported the first coal discoveries, Governor Hunter was instructed to export coal to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. In 1824 an American ship took 250 tons of coal to Rio de Janeiro and in other ships coal was used as ballast and was exported to Bombay, Batavia (Djakarta) and Mauritius.

During the nineteenth century, sailing ships began to give way to coal-burning steamships. Australian coal, much of it from the rich seams of the Hunter Valley, supplied coaling stations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. On land, from the 1860s railways spread from the coastal towns to the interior. Some early steam trains burned wood, but coal soon became the universal fuel. The railways developed a symbiotic relationship with the coal mines by hauling huge tonnages of newly dug coal and using coal-fired locomotives to do so. An early Commissioner of Railways spoke for many in 1875 when he gloried in the discoveries of the coal seams that stretched from Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south, and to the west of the colony at Lithgow:

[The coalfields] are now computed ... to extend over an area of 15,400 square Miles and ... we may without exaggeration claim to be in possession of the most valuable, most accessible and most extensive coal-fields in the Southern Hemisphere which must ultimately make New South Wales the richest of all the Australian Colonies.

For a colony whose first mechanical energy sources were windmills and water mills, this promised much. Today, coal has even more enthusiasts and boosters. But there has always been a hidden price for digging and burning coal.

Paying the gas bill

Today one of the earliest uses of coal for energy has been largely forgotten. From the middle of the nineteenth century, coal was the key ingredient in a radical new technology that transformed the daily lives of Australians. This was coal gas (or town gas), which was produced when the black rock was intensely heated in enclosed iron chambers in the absence of oxygen. The roasting coal gave off a gas, which was then captured and purified. As it was being purified the gas gave off tar and ammonia and, later, even more toxic substances, such as naphthalene, benzene and toluene.

Gas-making first began on an industrial scale at a gasworks built on Darling Harbour in Sydney to supply street lighting through a network of pipes under the colonial town. The new gas technology evoked the kind of enthusiasm, hope and wonder, later heaped on succeeding technologies such as electricity and nuclear power. When gas lamps first lit the Sydney streets in 1841 the Sydney Gazette was lyrical about the 'wonderful achievement of scientific knowledge, assisted by mechanical ingenuity', and added that 'in the absence of our Almighty Maker's sun and moon, there is nothing like GAS'. Indeed, gas was wonderful compared to the weak lamps in shops and streets that burned biofuels such as sperm whale oil or candles made from yellowing animal fat or tallow.

Gas quickly symbolised the aspiration to build a modern, progressive colony, but it also presented problems. The supply of gas was a natural monopoly and the lighting of streets was a public good. Later this meant that some gasworks were government-owned, but the earliest gas companies were private, profit-making ventures, which were often in conflict with the public authorities such as municipal councils. Gas companies relied on councils to allow them to dig up roads and bury their pipes. For their part, councils had no choice but to pay the price demanded by gas companies if they wanted to light their streets. Complaints from councils about high prices and the gas companies' monopolistic position were a feature of the times. At one point, the Sun newspaper argued that 'it is of course foolish and illogical to expect that a huge monopolistic concern like the Australian Gas Light Co. has any wish other than to fill the pockets of its shareholders. To expect [otherwise] would require the faith of a man who looks for mercy in a shark ...' Shortly after this, the government moved to control both the price of gas and the profits of the gas company.

The steady march of coal gas soon reached all capital cities. In 1856 the Melbourne Gas and Coke Company first illuminated the city's streets. The following year gas came to Hobart, where, as well as illuminating street lights, it enabled a butcher to give demonstrations in his window of how to cook meat using a gas flame. In 1863 Adelaide began producing gas from a gasworks at Brompton and in Brisbane the first gas was produced in 1865, initially using coal imported from Britain, rather than developing local reserves at Ipswich. In 1885 Perth was the last capital city to start manufacturing coal gas.

Gas changed the look and feel of Australian society. Walking on the streets after dark lost some of its fears after the small army of lamplighters moved through them, returning at dawn to extinguish the small burning flames.

By 1890 the use of coal gas was booming in places like Sydney where each night 9000 public gas lamps burned and gas was piped to 27000 homes. Australian Gas Light (AGL) was busily installing new retorts to cook hundreds of tons of coal to meet an annual rise of 20 per cent in demand. In succeeding decades other gasworks sprang up on the harbour shores at Manly, Waverton and on the Parramatta River at Mortlake. During the early twentieth century, gas for illumination was unable to fight off the challenge from another coal-based rival, electricity, but it remained a source of energy for cooking and heating water. The other rival to coal gas was 'natural gas', derived from petroleum deposits, and from the 1960s it began to replace coal gas in kitchens and factories.

Today coal is no longer used in Australia to produce gas in this way, but coal gas is still very much with us. Coal gas left a toxic heritage. Until recently, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and dozens of rural towns, the sites of old gasworks oozed dangerous chemicals and tar. This was the real price of coal, unpaid for many decades until it finally caught up with us.

The price of the gas bill has been hundreds of millions of dollars, paid by state governments to clean up these poisoned sites. According to a 2005 study of rehabilitating old gasworks, such sites are 'invariably contaminated' by such things as heavy metals and cyanide. These wastes form a 'black odorous ooze and iron cyanide complexes ... recognisable by their intense Prussian blue colour'. Most gasworks dumped their tar in deep pits and these contaminate local ground water. This was a problem at the old East Perth gasworks site. Cleaned up in 1994 for $17.5 million, it was discovered the site was still spreading toxic chemicals to fish and mussels in the Swan River when tests were carried out in 2011.

Nearly all Australian gasworks were built on rivers and harbours so that coal could be shipped in easily. Today the old gasworks sites have become prime waterfront real estate, such as Melbourne's Docklands. When the Victorian authorities first proposed developing waterfront land, mouthing the usual real estate boosterism, they were soon confronted by the land's toxicity. One local journalist at the time commented that sites like Docklands had everything. They had proximity to the beach and rising property values – as well as cyanide, lead, coal tar residue, naphthalene and much more. All courtesy of the gasworks that operated from the 1880s to 1955. The cost of the gasworks clean-up was at least $46 million, paid for by Victorian tax-payers. On the Brisbane River, the luxury homes of Newstead Riverpark now sit on the old gasworks site, reckoned to be one of the biggest remediations ever undertaken in Australia involving the removal of 1 million tonnes of soil.

In Sydney today the city's proudest development is Barangaroo, a 22-hectare site on Darling Harbour named after one of the early Indigenous inhabitants. Old concrete wharves are being converted to parks and buildings. But part of Barangaroo sits on top of the site of the gasworks which first lit Sydney streets in 1841. In 2004 residents of a nearby apartment block complained of strange odours and headaches. Tests later discovered the presence of cyanide, toluene, benzene, copper and lead close to the underground car park. The area for the flagship project was once known as the Hungry Mile because wharfies looked for work there during the Great Depression. Later it was dubbed the Toxic Mile and the clean-up bill estimated at $100 million.

Gas in the mines

But while the toxic price of coal-fed gasworks only became apparent 150 years later, another price was obvious right from the start. It affected the lives and health of the coal miners and the communities that often clustered around mines. For all of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, coal mining was a primitive process. A coal seam was identified and a shaft dug. Wooden props held up the roof, while ponies or pit boys wheeled the heavy skips along on crude rails to the entrance where it was sorted and sent on trains or ships.

Coal mining in Australia was more dangerous than in Britain and attempts to make it safer met with the determined opposition of the 'coal masters', the precursors of today's fossil fuel giants. While roof collapses killed many miners, the biggest killer was coal seam gas or methane. When ignited, the gas usually caused a gigantic explosion and sucked oxygen from the mine. Reporting on the 1887 mine explosion at Bulli on the NSW south coast, the Sydney Morning Herald said:

In the fiery blast that belched forth from its unknown seat in the bowels of the mountain every object was torn and twirled and wrenched and smitten ... of the poor remnants of humanity that were shrivelled and battered by its cruel might ... imagine a little moth imprisoned in the powder charge of a huge cannon ... A Royal Commission following the Bulli disaster found that it killed 81 miners, widowed 37 women and left 120 children fatherless. The year before 29 miners had been killed in NSW and the year after the Bulli disaster 41 more miners were killed.


Excerpted from Big Coal by Guy Pearse, David McKnight, Bob Burton. Copyright © 2013 Guy Pearse, David McKnight, Bob Burton. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Ian Dunlop,
1 The real price of coal,
2 The strip-mining of Australia,
3 The barons' boom,
4 Charm offensive,
5 King Coal's muscles,
6 'Clean coal' ruse,
7 Overthrowing Big Coal,

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