Paul Cleary

August 2012

RRP: $24.99

ISBN: 9781863955706

Black Inc. Books


Review by Ellen Roberts

When federal environment minister Tony Burke made the decision to approve Gina Reinhardt's enormous coal mine near the own of Alpha in outback Queensland, I rang his office to give them a piece of my mind. The minister himself had described the Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the mine as 'shambolic' but saw fit a couple of months later to give the mine the big tick.

The man on the other end of the phone, with infinite weariness in his voice, explained that the mine had been approved subject to 19 conditions that would minimise the impact on the local environment. Unlucky for him I'd just been reading Paul Cleary's book Mine-field.

'You and I both know,' I said, mustering some indignation for this somewhat artificial interaction, 'that environmental conditions on mines in Australia are not enforced, and are just a way for your department to window dress these destructive projects!'

Pause. 'I would suggest that you put your concerns in writing,' he said. He's got no comeback to that, I thought, with some satisfaction.

Paul Cleary's no rabid greenie. He writes for The Australian after all. But the chapters in Mine-field on environmental regulation and enforcement, appropriately titled 'The Tail Wags the Dog' are very useful reading for anyone working on mining issues in Australia. Cleary makes an argument that the mining industry in Australia operates without any effective oversight from government. 'Third world governance', Cleary calls it, and it makes Australia attractive for mining investment.

Cleary gives the example of the expansion of the Olympic Dam uranium mine, which was approved without a plan for how the mine was to manage the 8 million litres of contiminated water that the mine would be releasing into ground water every day. Coal seam gas projects are approved without plans for managing waste or minimising the effect on water tables.

As with Australian political parties, there is a close relationship between the mining industry and the government bureaucrats charged with regulating mines. In his Quartley Essay 'Quarry Vision', Guy Pearse documented the churn of personnel between the Labor and Liberal parties and the fossil fuel industry. Cleary highlights how his happens even at a departmental level: between 2010 and early 2012 the Queensland Environment Department lost 70 staff to resource companies who are able to use the knowledge of these former bureaucrats to ease their way through environmental regulation.

Another book documenting mining in Australia is Sharyn Munro's Rich Land Wasteland, compiled over two years from the stories of people in NSW and Queensland who have been fighting, suffering or living around coal mines. The book is an crucial oral history cataloguing the stories of the hundreds of people.

I was at a meeting on the outskirts of Melbourne about a local coal mining project, and the local group had invited Kate Tubbs from the neighbouring town of Bacchus Marsh to share her experiences of fighting the coal mine there. At the end of her talk she held up a copy of Rich Land Wasteland and urged people in the meeting to read it, to get a sense of mining from the perspective of local communities. Rich Land Wasteland has become an important reminder for coal affected communities that they are not alone and that their experiences are unfortunately shared by many others around the country.

Like Cleary, Munro highlights the lack of governmental control over the mining industry. Communities are now initiating monitoring of coal dust and health studies because there is little attention given by the government to this issue. Pollution from mines into rivers is barely policed and any fines are tiny.

The scale of Munro's book is as bewildering as Australia's mining industry. She interviewed literally hundreds of people. If Munro was interested in writing a second book it would be very useful to have a couple of stories developed in depth to get a sense of how the relationships between communities and individuals and the mines they oppose change and develop over time.  As it stands now, it is an important snap-shot of the human cost of the coal rush.