Long list of Upper Hunter concerns

FINDINGS from a stakeholder survey funded by the New South Wales Minerals Council as part of the Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue indicate there is a lot of work ahead to improve the perception of the coal industry.
Long list of Upper Hunter concerns Long list of Upper Hunter concerns Long list of Upper Hunter concerns Long list of Upper Hunter concerns Long list of Upper Hunter concerns

Australian Coal Association chief executive officer Nikki Williams.

Blair Price

Carried out by the Australian Centre for Corporate Sustainability, the survey was based on 93 phone interviews including 22 respondents from the coal industry.

Environment and residents action groups accounted for 15 respondents, while 13 community consultative committee members took part along with two indigenous representatives.

Members from industry and business associations were the next biggest grouping with 12 respondents, senior government representatives accounted for seven, and 10 “individual opinion leaders” were canvassed.

Agribusiness respondents only numbered three and there were five respondents in the community/education/media group.

The survey was based on quantitative market research, along with qualitative research as open-ended questions were asked and significant comments were included as part of the report.

Out of the qualitative findings, the issue of dust and air quality was the most important concern raised with 95 mentions, followed by employment opportunities and development with 90 mentions.

While the need for management of cumulative impact only had slightly more than 40 mentions, there was a high level acceptance from all the groups when they responded to a set multiple-response question on the matter.

An interesting finding from the survey was that there was a relatively negative overall perception of the coal mining industry, but respondents comparably rated relationships with specific companies or mines more favourably.

The open-ended questions generated some strong insights from the varying stakeholder groups.

Comments in the report

One of the issues with cumulative impact assessments is that they require effective participation between neighbouring minesites.

“We would like to say we are working well together [on cumulative impacts] but in reality we are not,” a mining company representative said.

“All the mining companies think they are better than the others.”

A member of the industry/business group chipped in to the ongoing land use debate in the region.

“The way I see the Upper Hunter, we have a balance of rural and mining industries,” the respondent said.

“I think if we lose that balance it will be a catastrophe. At the moment it’s in the favour of the mining companies and I think we need to look at that.”

There were many fears about the level of dust coming from open cut coal mining in the region.

“The other problems are lung cancer and respiratory problems,” an individual opinion leader said.

“If you have cancer in Newcastle they think it’s just bad luck, but in Singleton they think maybe it is due to the environment and the air quality.

“People wonder why when they go on holiday with their kids they are fine but when they return to Singleton they are coughing badly.”

The water impact from mining is another long-running issue.

“I know a lot of the older guys, their wells have dried up,” a community consultative committee member said.

“They’ve been in the area for 80 years and the wells have never run dry until the mining started in the area. The water is so salty. The quality of the Hunter River below Singleton is just terrible. When I was a kid it used to be crystal clear and beautiful.”

A CCC member said it was a very depressing time in regards to the issue of proximity to mines and land acquisition.

“A friend of mine has gone into bankruptcy because the land is unsellable. It’s very difficult for people to sell.”

The growing criticism of the coal mining industry is also prompting fears of a moratorium on mining expansion.

“Our greatest concern would be that we, as a company or industry, find that the level of community opposition or overall opposition is such that it won’t be able to continue to operate,” a mining company representative said.

“If we can’t operate, if it’s too hard, and we decide to no longer operate it would flow on to employment to the people and flow on to other direct benefits to the community.”

One respondent from the community/education/media group commented on the issue of industry transparency on planning processes.

“I can’t comment on relationships with the individual mines because they are prohibited from talking directly,” the respondent said.

“I understand we need to have coal, but we also need to be a bit more open with what is going on and have a greater level of trust between the local coal companies.

“They are all too frightened to talk to anyone. I will say that I commend the NSW Minerals Council for taking this step [the survey].”

The industry group’s chief executive, Nikki Williams, said three working groups had been established to address the priority issues identified in the survey.

“While individual companies are managing environmental impacts and working with their local communities, the feedback from this survey shows that we have much more to do,” she said.

“The results tell us that there is a high degree of concern that we need to thoroughly understand. It is positive though that most participants agreed on the need to act collaboratively. Working through these issues with the community is one of the most important priorities for us in 2011 and beyond."

The full 40-page survey report is available on NSW Minerals Council website.

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