A Faustian bargain

Max Bourke, AM reviews The Sacrificial Valley – Coal’s Legacy to the Hunter, by John Drinan, Bad Apple Press (2022); available from sacrificialvalley@gmail.com

The author of this book is first and foremost a ‘Hunterian’, his family having  lived in the Hunter regions for five generations. But he is also a scientist, educator, rural manager and environmentalist. This book is a powerful indictment of man’s inhumanity to nature and through that to him/herself.

Sacrificial Valley could have been written in a rage of anger but it is not. Instead Dr Drinan chooses to use the tone of scientists, the words of the companies themselves, of the bureaucrats who administer the numerous pieces of legislation that relate to mines and mining and the weasel words (frequently) of politicians trying to convince a sceptical public. It is a triumph of control that I could not match.

Once the convict William Bryant discovered coal in the then un-named Hunter in 1791, the region became of interest. By 1799 the first serious shipment of coal to India was under way. In 1804 a settlement was established, later to be called Newcastle on a river named to celebrate Governor John Hunter.

But for tens of thousands of years Aboriginal people had lived in this lush and fertile valley, presumably observing small and slow variations as sea levels changed the mouth of the river and the distance to the coast. Over millennia, they adapted their lifestyle, tools and food to these changing circumstances.

The Australian Garden History Society prides itself as not only interested in gardens but also landscapes, natural and cultural. Here is a landscape crying out for attention.

With a forensic approach, Drinan tells the story of how it came to the current state of affairs. He describes the history and geology, how coal is mined and how miners are given title as well as responsibilities. This is set against a backdrop of the real-world impacts on not only the landscapes and livelihoods of other users and inhabitants of the valley but also their health and well-being.

Over and again the controls and consequences of mining are traded off against the profitability of the companies and the huge flow of royalties to governments of both major political parties. Assessment of impacts always seems to come up against the argument that any further impost would be unprofitable and cause the venture to collapse.

In regard to good environmental management for health, for ecosystems and even for the aesthetics of the valley, the cost of any intervention is utmost in the minds of managers, politicians and bureaucrats; the short-term cost/profitability is always the yard stick. As Drinan says:

             In the very unlikely case that coal companies could not afford this cost, they would surely have to be assessed as marginal businesses not worth the collateral costs they generate and leave for the future.

Drinan does give credit where it is due, for example in the case of the company Glencore, which is trying to do something about re-shaping the landscape in a satisfactory way after mining has finished. Sadly these instances of ‘good behaviour’ are a long way apart.

Many of us who drive through the valley have had a brief glimpse, often partly hidden behind high wire fences or even a few rows of recently planted trees, of the visual impact of current mining systems. What you see are the truly remarkable landscapes (moonscapes?) now emerging. What you do not see are the fractured and disappearing water sources, the slow steady leaching of salts, acidity and some very toxic minerals into the streams and aquifers, the dust and its attendant health effects

The truly shocking, but well-documented, outcome of this relentless assault on the Hunter Valley is the way ‘we’ and I really mean ‘we all’ are allowing this massive cost transfer for both rehabilitation and restoration to be passed on to future generations. We are talking billions of dollars here to repair air, water, plants, animals, oh yes and landscapes, back to something sustainable, all being kicked down the road to our children and grandchildren.

But I need to emphasise Drinan is no misanthrope. He devotes considerable space to ways both the disasters of the past (and there are many) as well as the current physical, and environmental awfulness can be redressed and prevented into the future. By the bye, in case you think the current rhetoric about facing up to climate change means we will see this all going away quickly, you are seriously mistaken. These mines could well be around for another 30 to 50 years and their  legacy will continue for thousands of years.

Drinan again assesses the cultural history well when he says:

         The damage done by early mining in the Hunter might be forgiven: it was committed partly in ignorance of the risks posed by a poorly understood geology; and partly because of a less educated, less informed society. Our governments today cannot claim these excuses…

The end of coal mining for power production will happen, as a significant majority of citizens of Australia demand, but the end of the industry will still leave behind remediation work that is certainly way beyond the funds of the bonds placed with government by the mining companies.

Drinan spends the last part of the book shining  an optimistic light on how we can repair, even if never restore, the damage done to the Hunter.

Highly commended reading.


Max Bourke AM has a background in science and the arts, having worked as an agricultural scientist, broadcaster and rural businessman in his long career. For many years, he was on AGHS management committees nationally and locally. Disclosure: Bourke and Drinan worked together as young science graduates in the NSW Dept of Agriculture at Trangie Research Station more than 50 years ago.