How coal is killing Australia

Rich Land, Wasteland: How coal is killing Australia

Sharyn Munro

RRP $29.99

Jointly published by Exisle Publishing and Pan Macmillan Australia.

Paperback, 453 pages, ISBN 978-1-7426-1099-3

Order from

(See also

Review by Len Puglisi

If you've ever had doubts about what the economic rationalist / neoliberal ethos might mean for Australia, look no further than this book by Sharyn Munro. She has undertaken a wide-ranging spread of interviews with people in many of the agricultural regions of Australia, and has attended untold meetings and culled myriad reports and tribunal/court hearings. She documents a sad tale: displacement of people and loss of community, flora and fauna; severe health effects; loss or degradation of prime land and water courses; and industry intransigence and obfuscation.

Munro describes the scope of mining activity which covers vast areas – especially in NSW, Queensland and West Australia, but also potentially for "new frontiers" in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Mining companies have Gippsland firmly in their sights, writes Munro, plus the Dandenong Ranges and the region around the Bay of Islands Coastal Park, near the iconic Twelve Apostles.

On page after page, Munro reports people's shock, horror and anger at the sudden transformations happening in their lives and their communities, the degradation of the soils and water courses, and the sense of betrayal they feel from government bodies they thought were there to protect them.

It's possible to choose from almost any page in the book for these expressions of dismay. Some examples follow as presented by Munro or out of the mouths of people she interviewed.

For local communities: "In some years' time, what will we have? There won't be any little towns; Chincilla will be a ghost town ... already it's different; so many new people, and rents gone up so much that people have had to leave; it's all out of whack – they have no respect for the social fabric of the small communities."

For individuals' financial situation: "Three mines were each discharging two megalitres a day of mine-water – legally then – into the river. Many Hunter mines are 'wet', and have to get rid of the saline water they come across. This was a dry season, the water in the creek was low, the pump foot valves had to go deep – where the saline water sinks to and lurks. (She) had to dry off half her dairy herd as she couldn't grow feed for them. She was losing more money each year: $40,000, then $80,000, then over $100,000."

For local air and noise pollution: "Now ... half the time it's too dusty to be outside; it's too noisy and unpleasant ... the whole atmosphere of Camberwell is different."

 "There was dust on the grass and on the barley crop. The milk was being rejected because of the dust content in the milk. Refrigerated milk vats had to be washed out with special detergents and the lids left up for so many hours for the odours to evaporate, which is when the dust would come in."

For rivers, streams and wetlands: "The attack on our water is threefold: The depletion or contamination by mining or drilling under or near any part of our intricate, fragile and interconnected water systems; the amount of water they use, extracted to get at the coal or CSG, to process the coal, and to burn it for power; and the pollution from their waste water, the disposal of which is an unresolved problem of major consequence, so it can't be acknowledged as such."

For global warming and CO2 effects: "In December 2006, a young activist ... of Rising Tide Newcastle, won an historic victory in the Land and Environment Court against Planning's acceptance of the 'flawed and invalid' environmental assessment for Anvil Hill. This meant that Planning must consider the climate change consequences in environmental impacts from a mine – not just the direct, onsite emissions, but also the indirect, from the coal's eventual use. The 10.5 million tonnes of coal from Anvil Hill, when burnt, would produce 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to doubling the number of cars on NSW roads. That case is still quoted internationally ... But it didn't matter what anyone did or said, or how evidently right they were, for in June 2007 Planning Minister Sartor approved Anvil Hill regardless, under the villainous Part 3A." ('State significance' decision power reserved to the Minister.)

For historic houses and notable gardens: "It is now over three years since we drove away and watched our home of almost all our lives disappear in the rear vision mirror. A majestic home and property ... that 30 years before was highly prized in a pristine and productive part of the [Hunter] Valley. At the time of driving away the whole area was little more than a dustbowl for the numerous mines crammed in together – a moonscape of open cut mines ..."

For the integrity of governments and government advisers: "... this formidable pair fights to ward off the latest mine as well as to make the others accountable. Consent conditions when a mine is approved are supposed to see to that; it's all part of the spin that rules not only exist but are respected, abided by, monitored, enforced, and their breaches penalised – as occasionally they are, at a slap-with-a-feather level. For example, $1500 means nothing to a company whose profits are counted in billions, and you have to catch them at it first and prove it. And the 'you' tends to be vigilant locals, not the few and under-deployed staff of government agencies like the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) or the Department of Planning , who set the conditions. Every time they boast how many conditions have been placed on a new approval, unless they announce new staff to police them, those conditions mean nothing. The mines monitor and report on themselves. It's like having laws and almost no police force, instead relying on the lawbreakers or the victims to report the crimes."

There are many more sad and confronting examples of these dysfunctional situations throughout Munro's book: intrusion into Aboriginal lands, intrusions in public lands and nature reserves, mal-effects on wineries and horse-racing studs, onerous conditions for fly-in/fly-out and drive-in/drive-out workers and deleterious effects on families, road and rail disruption, health effects from polluted air, effects of infrasound low frequency noise, dredging for ports and destruction around coral reef systems, coal chain power lines, etc.

Rich Land, Wasteland is a major contribution to contemporary Australians' understanding of how the mining industry has seriously dented the wonder and beauty of the country's unique landscapes, as well as causing untold distress and hardship to individuals and communities.

Munro's documentation of events, people and places stands out not only as an instructive coverage of the main areas of conflict around Australia, but it also provides: a primer on the technical terms used daily in the industry; a lead into community fight-back approaches and the players involved; a slice of the attitudes of the industry participants; and a challenge to all governments to get fair dinkum about taming the beast.

The largely unasked question that arises is: having hocked themselves into a mining boom of pivotal proportions for its prosperity, can governments now, if they wanted to, untangle themselves? And in that process of untangling, in their dealings with local and foreign investors, will they face up to the challenge of transitioning all the way to a position of 'de-growth' (World Watch Institute), a Steady State Economy (Herman Daly/Geoff Mosley), 'Prosperity without Growth' (Tim Jackson), or to some such agenda that would see financial actors come off the mining treadmill?

Munro reports various initiatives, emanating from the writings of eminent scientists and leading entrepreneurs, and also from forward-thinking trade unionists, for alternatives to coal and for reducing the amount of power we use. She also introduces the reader to some 'democracy in the workplace' initiatives including for the establishment or spread of workers' co-operatives (see

In a major piece of work, Munro urges: "We can be so much more than the world's quarry, our futures calculated by corporate coal. We need not be helpless to stop it. Speak up for the smart, sustainable and humane Australia we could be instead."

A longer version of this review was published in Social Policy Connections