No amount of modelling or scientific assessment can foresee the full extent of the damage that will eventuate if the Adani Group’s Carmichael Coal Mine goes ahead. It would be the largest coal mine ever built in Australia and amongst the biggest in the world, extended over a thirty-kilometre-long area and comprising six open cut pits and five underground mines. An estimated 2.3 billion tonnes of coal would be removed over the sixty years of its operation. The Galilee Basin wouldn’t know what had hit it.
Hinterlands are the servants of contemporary coal mining. They are a physical variation of the corporate veil, disguising the way in which mining profits are actually gouged. Behind the veil, the maw of corporate coal eats at the very meaning of worth. This is fossil fuel capitalism, bleakly accounting through a one-way ledger. The true meaning of its losses should shake us to our core. Food bowls, lively natural places, aquifers, and traditional lands are victims of mining hinterlands. Big coal corporations excavate craters, strip topsoil from areas the size of small townships, blast open the earth’s crust, and destroy ecological communities and waterways in their paths. It is a scorched earth deployment flattening our worlds. All the more insensible given our renewable future. Imagine what a $1 billion investment in renewable technologies and storage could achieve.
Investments in best-practice environmental care are unmatched by the amounts spent on best-practice extraction machinery and technologies. Rehabilitation bonds are rarely sufficient to cover environmental damages. When they walk away, mining corporations leave legacies of poltergeist mines, dystopic cavities, and ecological wounds across Australia. Gestures made to rehabilitate some of the mines insert a different, thinner type of nature; a stand-in for what was extinguished.
Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has described the Galilee Basin as ‘a dry, dusty part of Queensland’, just a ‘dust bowl’. Disparaging nature as a wasteland not worth worrying about is a common trope used by politicians and the mining corporations they serve: the mine won’t make much of a difference because the nature here is not much chop. It is difficult to visit the remote Galilee Basin to witness the complex, cultural, and relational ecologies at stake, which might lead some people to accept Frydenberg’s misrepresentation.
I was lucky enough to visit the Galilee Basin recently and can report that, while it is sometimes dusty, it is not a ‘dust bowl’. The place murmurs with a stubborn, enduring beauty: an ancient land of lagoons and Cabbage Palms, rich ochre pits, spooky bustards, wallabies, and emus. Some of the open scrub patches and tracks are cattle-worn; bull dust soon powders vehicle bonnets, windscreens, and boots; tyres slide around some bends. River gums have colossal roots, and their dry calloused arms snake from the top of the banks. Smudges of blue-green and dusty leaves dangle from long wiry branches. Over several hours driving from the nearest town of Clermont, passing bottle trees and roadkill, through stock gates and over river crossings, we arrive in a woodland area with lagoons hidden in the shade of dense thickets. Amongst the sparse tea trees and eucalypts stands a tall Waxy Cabbage Palm, its ruffled head of bluish-green fan-leaves poke the sky. It is quite special to see them here, because their seeds disperse in times of abundant water flows, and many of the smaller stream banks are as dry as old bones. Here, though, a hidden spring provides a good soak into which the Cabbage Palms can take hold. Not far from the palms, a spring gurgles out between rocks nestled deep in mud, then pours into a small stream fringed by delicate bright green grasses and moss. At a nearby bog, thick scales of dried mud give way under foot, hinting at a deep soak beneath. Springs and lagoons are life generative and critical in arid, drought-prone regions. Life cycles, breeding seasons, mobility, spawning, and colonising abilities are all affected by the flow of fresh water.
The Galilee Basin is a place imbricated with cultural and ecological relations, etched into the history and memories of Wangan and Jagalingou people. Family members are ineluctably linked to the living ecologies, waters, and geologies of their ancestral lands. Wangan people are the bottle tree people, and Jagalingou people are the eel people; their totems are manifested through the lively relations of this place. For the Wangan these totems are possums, bees, and sand goannas; and for the Jagalingou: carpet snakes, scrub turkeys, and echidnas. The Waxy Cabbage Palm and melaleuca are tree totems and they only come to life in water. Water connects people to people, people to place, trees to earth, and rivers to sea to rains. Long-finned Eels bring memory of the ocean with them as they swim up rivers, into streams and creeks to arrive in remote, central Queensland; then return again to the sea. These are beautiful, generative stories and cultural connections unique to Australia, unique to this particular part of the world.
Carmichael’s water usage would irreversibly impact, or completely dry up, the natural Mellaluka Springs and the complex of over sixty fresh water springs that make up the Doongmabulla Springs, one of the most sacred places for Wangan and Jagalingou people.
Their water comes from the Great Artesian Basin, which sits beneath the Galilee Basin’s coal deposits. This ancient, deep reservoir holds water in sandstone layers and its covering of marine sedimentary rock traps and pressurises water in the aquifer. As the water makes its way through the pores and tiny hollows in the sandstone, it squeezes between grains and pushes up through splits in the rocks to flow into springs and streams.
Unfathomably, the Queensland government granted Adani unlimited water licences. Even if they use more than their application for 12,000 megalitres of water per year, they will not have to apply for a new licence. As well as draining springs and lagoons, and severely impacting water pressure, Adani’s water usage would be yet another radical intervention by a corporation on Queensland’s share of the Great Artesian Basin aquifers. This includes the more than 40,000 coal seam gas wells expected to puncture the state over the next forty years.
Other serious environmental concerns about the Carmichael mine include the staggering material volume of carbon, both in terms of disinterred coal and the associated CO2 emissions. Adani have approval to mine up to sixty million tonnes per year of thermal coal, most of it destined for India. If burned, this would potentially release up to 120 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Adani proposes to transport the coal to the Abbot Point export terminal, south of Townsville, via a purpose built North Galilee Basin Rail. Trains four kilometres long would each haul 240 wagons carrying 25,000 tonnes of coal. Adani’s coal trains provide a good way to visualise the weight of CO2 that would be emitted annually, if this coal were burned. Imagine the weight of a 9,600 kilometre train hauling 576,000 loaded wagons skyward into our already thickening blanket of atmospheric pollution. It would be equivalent to Australia’s planned greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction efforts between 2020 and 2030. Additionally, if the Galilee Basin ‘coal province’ were opened up to the nine mines already in line, the combined production capacity would be over 300 million tonnes per year.
Politicians such as Matt Canavan (when still federal resource minister) argue that India needs the coal; that GHG emissions would happen anyway, and if Australia doesn’t supply the coal someone else will. However, exporting emissions makes little sense – our atmosphere disregards national borders. Beyond carbon emissions, those fighting Adani’s mine have a range of serious concerns: Wangan and Jagalingou ancestral lands would be destroyed, as would ecological habitats, waterways, and aquifers, and the already vulnerable Great Barrier Reef. There is also concern about Adani’s record of environmental negligence and global compliance breaches. Politicians and miners disparage the diverse cohort of opponents, including educators, scientists, conservationists, farmers, students, tourism operators, lawyers, doctors and economists, as ‘élitist wankers’ (George Christensen), ‘online inner-city activists’ and ‘professional protesters’ (Matt Canavan), ‘green activists’ (Josh Frydenberg); and ‘professional activists’ (Adani).
It is time to call out the state sanctioned environmental violences that are contemporary coal mining. With one permissive mining licence and cavernous pit after another, we void our world of ecological diversity and complexity. When coal mining corporations flatten lively worlds, it seems odd to highlight the risks of losing individual endangered species such as the Southern Black-Throated Finch, the Ornamental Snake or the Yakka Skink, or the many migratory birds. Which of them, which places, and how much more are we willing to lose?