The Gunnedah shire, which sits on one of the largest underground coal seams in New South Wales, is 150km wide and stretches 500km from Wollongong to Narrabri. While much of the Gunnedah economy is based on agriculture, according to Gunnedah Shire Council economic development manager Chris Frend, coal has also played an important part by providing a safeguard for the local economy.
“Coal has provided a buffer to fluctuations in the agricultural economy caused by commodity prices, droughts and more. Coal levels out the troughs in the town’s economy,” he said.
While coal mining has been in the district for more than 100 years, it wasn’t until the 1980s when three mines were operating in the region that it really had an impact on the area.
“When coal is booming there is a lot more disposable income. When coal mining in the area declined during the late 1990s we found a lot of the businesses that rely on surplus expenditure closed,” he said.
Frend said he had “certainly seen renewed interest of late” with a number of firms that have moved into the area now all associated with coal mining or providing services to the coal mining sector.
This time around Frend believes it will be a different scenario to the 1980s because of the increased mechanisation in the industry and the amount of proposed opencut mines that are less labour intensive.
While current and proposed mines are scattered around the shire, Frend said the town of Gunnedah remained the focus. “A lot of the companies are gravitating to Gunnedah because we have not only the infrastructure but also the businesses that have been associated with mining or who have had experience with mining operations in the past.”
He said the towns of Quirindi and Werris Creek would benefit from the new Werris Creek mine and Narrabri would experience spin-off for proposed mines in the northern part of the shire.
The Gunnedah shire is also doing its bit in supporting the coal sector. “We [the Council] are very mindful of attracting and assisting companies that want to move here. We have a Business Partner Program that offers assistance to businesses, especially as an employment-based incentive scheme for new and existing businesses to expand or change direction,” Frend said.
Like all areas where coal mining comes into contact with people and their property, the council and companies alike are mindful of community concerns about mining. Frend listed subsidence as the most significant issue the community raised over mining.
“Subsidence is something to be considered and it does have some implications in regards to agricultural use and underground water. The shire and community members are very aware of underground water supply in the area.”
While community concerns have been raised, Frend said because the area had experienced mining in the past it was “something the community is used to and I guess knows what to expect”
Just this week, the area received a huge boost with the New South Wales government awarding mining giant BHP Billiton with a 5-year exploration licence to the Caroona coal area.
BHPB plans to invest $A2 billion on capital works and infrastructure in th area, with first coal production expected in 2014.
Over the five years, BHPB will conduct a four-year staged exploration with up to 300 boreholes to be drilled by 2010 and extensive hydrological and other environmental studies to be completed over the licence period.
Feasibility studies into necessary infrastructure upgrades are required, including track improvements, a potential tunnel through the Liverpool Ranges and potential upgrades to coal loading infrastructure at the Port of Newcastle.