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Food production in Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. I am curious to know if the mining interests are represented in the room today. Does anyone have enough courage to put up their hand to say they are representing the mining interests? No? I would have thought it would be in their interests to be here. I invite the witnesses to state the capacity in which they appear and make an opening statement.

Mrs Duddy —I am from Rossmar Park, Quirindi. My husband is Clive Duddy. The family have lived at Rossmar Park since the 1930s. They take this situation very seriously. For three years we have had the worry and the concern of the area being made available to two separate licences under the circumstances of the property being subjected to the BHP situation and the Shenhua licence just recently, only taken up as late as last year.

If I am allowed to give my presentation, I feel it will cover entirely where I am coming from. You visited the site today. You know that we have been there for nine months. This is not a casual thing that people our age with our interest are prepared to undertake. It is because we appreciate there are quite contradictory activities going on within the state legislation and decision making and certainly in terms of the development of the coal industry within our very valuable valleys. Certainly at this moment in our state forests and on our ridges already exploration is most assuredly being undertaken on a daily basis. So I draw the attention of the Senate to these problems.

I would like to welcome the opportunity to speak to the senators of this select committee on some very special issues—special in terms of local and broader issues encompassing the terms of reference laid down by the Senate in the inquiry into food production within Australia. The people I come from are based on the Liverpool Plains and its surrounding ridges. They are located on some of the richest and most diverse agricultural land in Australia. They are nurtured by predominantly long settled culture—Indigenous, squatters, settlers and graziers, farmers and irrigators. The soils are black self-mulching clays interspersed by red conglomerate and black basalt along pine, box, wattle and gum ridges. The watering systems of this geographic region are unique in terms of the total geographic formation. Creeks and streams rise and flow to the north in an arc from the Liverpool Range to the plains to the west of Narrabri. They fall into creeks such as the Yarraman, the Warrah and the Coxs and then to rivers the likes of Mooki and the Namoi. Transacting this catchment basin is Lake Goran, of which you have just seen a photograph, and it fills an area of over 9,000 hectares in times of significant rainfall events.

The waters in this system all flow to the north-west, eventually to the western reaches of the Darling and then into the Murray. The waters that are left behind infiltrate into the ground and nurture the wonderful and valuable aquifers that set this area apart, making words such as those used in your very terms of reference—most importantly ‘food’, ‘affordability’, ‘sustainability’, ‘production’, ‘impact’—the language that we speak and the culture that we are part of. We are capable, both by geographics and education, to make all these terms of reference both relevant and achievable.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Obviously you have been reading from your submission.

—It is exactly my reading of that.

CHAIR —A beautiful submission and thank you very much for it.

—Thank you.

Mrs Bowman —My submission, which I will send to you later—not being a computerised person I have to wait for somebody else to do it for me—is the story of what has happened to me. I live in the middle of the Hunter Valley in the midst of all those 30-plus coalmines and three coal-fired power stations. In 1984 my husband passed away, aged 51. Within six to eight months I firstly had Energy Australia wanting to put 35 KVA lines right through our lucerne farm and dairy farm, which caused quite a bit of confusion for a while. Then about 18 months later I discovered that right next door with no buffer zone there was to be an open-cut coalmine. We had a very large dairy. This Ashton property was a beautiful property. The northern and western boundaries were bounded by Bowman’s Creek, a well-known creek because it had such marvellous underground aquifers and was never known to really dry out in any of the droughts. The Bowman family have been in Australia since 1798 working on the land.

CHAIR —Did they come from Dunedoo?

Mrs Bowman —They are all part of the same. As for the Bowman’s Creek country, any of the areas around these creeks in the Hunter Valley have beautiful alluvial soils. So our northern and western boundaries were that creek. Our southern boundary was the Hunter River, with the area of black soil, and our eastern boundary was Glennies Creek. It was probably the best watered property in the whole of our area, running a very large dairy plus beef cattle and lucerne production.

In approximately 1998-97 this mine started to operate and with no buffer zone the blasting, being open-cut mining, started. On some days the men living on the property could not see their front gate from their front door due to the thickness of the dust that fell from the blasting and from the draglines that worked within 200 metres of the property. Those draglines kicked up dust as well when they dumped into trucks. At night, because it went for 24 hours a day, lights were swinging on the draglines and of course for the men in the cottages those lights were very unpleasant for them. We then discovered that the dairy herd cattle at one stage would not eat the green irrigated feed. I contacted an agriculture consultant who spent a lot of time and a lot of my money trying to determine what the problem was. We discovered that it was the dust. This particular feed was barley with little tiny hairs on the leaves which held the dust. It meant that the cattle would not eat it, and it just did not matter what we did.

The next thing we found was that the lucerne in the Bowman’s Creek country was dying. We contacted the mine next door because we thought it was because of just too much dust. They brought in a lucerne expert from Victoria who walked along the paddocks kicking the lucerne with his boots saying, ‘You’ve got nematodes.’ When I asked to see the nematodes he just continued to walk on; he could not show me any. But we discovered, a few weeks later, that it was the water. I then discovered that the so-called expert was running a coffee shop with his wife in Victoria, so I was not too sure about the expert part of it.

When we realised it was the water, I discovered that upstream of Bowman’s Creek a number of years earlier Coal and Allied had been allowed to mine under Bowman’s Creek. One of the landholders up there told me that the bottom of the creek had broken and gone down into the longwall. These were not like the longwalls now. They were the ones that left piers. The water was coursing through those, picking up all the heavy metals. It came up again two kilometres downstream in a spring and continued to flow on down to the river through our place, which meant that I lost the use of four irrigation pumps and probably a kilometre of alluvial soil where we grew all our feed. That contaminated water flowed into the Hunter River. Upstream of that convergent point was a mine next door, an open-cut mine, with one a kilometre up further. They were both allowed, each as well as the other, by the old SPCC, now the EPA, to discharge two megalitres of saline water into the Hunter River per day. We had the Hunter River Salinity Trading Scheme after that and we stopped a lot of that.

Our one pump that was left in that area was the Hunter River pump, which of course was getting all of this stuff, which was starting to kill the lucerne on the river. I got a water expert to come and look at it and we were told the only thing we could do was to get a tester and test the water. Every time we turned on the irrigation to see if we could use the water we had to test it. We found that at one stage during one January there were 12 days that we could not irrigate on. If you know anything about dairying, you know that in January and February you have to irrigate every day to keep the feed up for a very large herd. At that stage it was a very dry period and the river had turned into quite a narrow channel. A foot valve for a pump has to go down low so it does not suck up air, which is where the heavy saline water rests. The problem then occurred that we could not irrigate enough to feed the herd so I had to drive off half the herd. We had a share dairyman. He was only making half his income because of this, so he had to leave. I was able to find two retired people to continue with the dairy.

We then got on to the mine next door and said it was about acquisition because we could not stay there. It took nearly five years before that was done with very nasty dealings. I can tell you dealings with mining companies are not very pleasant. I have had to do them twice on the farm and where I lived on a grazing block further down towards Singleton. They are not very nice people to deal with and this particular company was pretty dreadful. Part of the deal was that I had to keep that dairy going because they were going to prove that dairying and mining could coexist. I had to borrow money during this negotiation period to keep the dairy running at half size. We finally sold and two years later the mining company closed the dairy because they realised that it could not be run with the dust and with the contaminated water. So that was the end of a property that the family had had since 1893.

Senator WILLIAMS —Did the mining company buy that property?

Mrs Bowman —We finally made them buy it after, as my solicitor said to me, what were some of the worst deals he had ever had to make with people who were so disinterested in what was going to happen to us. They were probably some of the nastiest people I have ever had to deal with. The thing is that this has not only happened to me. This has happened to many, many other families in the Hunter Valley.

All you have to do is fly over it and look at the 500 square kilometres that look much like a moonscape. There are ridges of rock rubble that are now in place from where they blew up the ground to get the coal. That has brought all the toxic rocks up onto the surface: the rock ledges between the coal mines have the same heavy metals as the coal itself—and if you have driven through there you will have seen how high these mountains are. Every time it rains it leeches those heavy metals out and they go down eventually into the gullies, into the creeks and into our rivers. There is very little really fresh water left in the Hunter now. It was one of the richest and most diverse valleys—although certainly not the richness of the soils up here—from growing various grains; from dairying, which was a very big thing in those days but they have nearly all gone because of mining; and from vegetable growing. You name it; it has been done in the Hunter. And now the Hunter is just like an industrial area; there is very little left except on the east side of Singleton.

Senator FISHER —Mrs Bowman, prior to the sale of your dairy, had you signed an agreement with BHP about the coexistence of your dairy and the mine?

Mrs Bowman —No, it was not BHP.

Senator FISHER —Sorry, with the mining company.

Mrs Bowman —No, they were just given consent to open a mine. When your land is part of an ELA, an exploration licence area, you are not notified; you have to read it in the government Gazette. You are not told. So in our area there are a lot of small blocks and dairy farms, and I do not mean to be nasty but a lot of these people have not had the education that a lot of people up here have had. When there was a new mine proposal, we would contact the people in the area and say we were having a meeting on a certain date and invite them to come and talk about this mine, and they would all arrive and say, ‘What mine?’ Now, I have been down to the departments of planning and mineral resources, and they say: ‘No, no; we couldn’t possibly notify people. They might make extra money out of it.’ That is the ridiculous nonsense that we have had to deal with down here.

We have had a terrible time for the last 30 years, all of us. I started a group called Minewatch in 1991, basically, to help people who did not understand what they had to deal with, because you were not told the procedures, you were not told what was going to happen. Mineral Resources in New South Wales are there to find the metal and dig it out. Partner planning only gives them the conditions to work under. So we farmers were left in the middle of nowhere really. In the days when you could have a commission of inquiry, we could speak out and put our position. But, with our ‘best friend’ Frank Sartor and his part 3A, you cannot do anything now.

Senator FISHER —Is there anything stopping you from speaking about your experience with mining companies to others? Is there any restriction on your speech?

Mrs Bowman —I have spoken. I think people in our area are very sick of listening to me on the radio.

CHAIR —What Senator Fisher is asking you is: you haven’t signed a confidentiality clause that restricts you, have you?

Mrs Bowman —No, I would never do that. But they still do that with people. Now, I live in a—

Senator FISHER —How do you know?

Mrs Bowman —Sorry?

Senator FISHER —How do you know they still do that with people, and who are ‘they’?

Mrs Bowman —Because they tell me. We have meetings all the time. I live in an area now called Camberwell. It is a little village. It was started in the 1820s and there have been people living there ever since. They have a mine over a ridge at the back of them, about 500 metres away. These people have been subjected to the worst noise, dust and everything you could possibly imagine. A lot of people have sold out to the mining company. Others have come in to rent the houses, and they have to sign a confidentiality agreement—or an agreement that if they rent they are not allowed to make any complaints whatsoever.

Senator FISHER —So what do they say the confidentiality clause says—no complaints?

Mrs Bowman —No complaints at all about any environmental problems that they have. But they rent at about tuppence ha’penny a week so they are very happy. They are mostly young people with—

Senator FISHER —So, putting it another way, their silence is bought.

Mrs Bowman —Their silence is bought, and the other thing with these mining companies is that when they are doing a deal in an area where they have to buy a number of properties—these are smaller places—they come to you and say, ‘We will do this deal with you, but don’t you tell so-and-so next door or what we have offered you’—

CHAIR —Yes, we are familiar with all of that. The MISs do the same thing.

Mrs Bowman —Yes, exactly. We call it ‘divide and conquer’. It divides the community.

Senator FISHER —The union movement learnt that long ago.

CHAIR —We get the message. We are going to have to move on. It sounds to me that you got a bit of the Ok Tedi treatment, if you know what Ok Tedi was.

Mrs Bowman —Exactly.

CHAIR —In other words, ‘Up yours.’

Mrs Bowman —One thing I would like to finish with is that in this Camberwell area, with all the dust and the pollution with our three coal fired power stations, the people can no longer drink their tank water. They cannot bear the taste. They cannot bear the smell. We have had it tested, and the first test that I had done showed 20 times the WHO level of lead in one, 10 times in another and four times in mine. But what they do not realise is that I did not do mine—somebody from Newcastle university came and did mine. Since then we have had Hunter New England Health come and do the water testing—after the worst of the drought was over for us down there and after the mining company had cleaned out the tanks, so of course it was fine, wasn’t it? There was no great lead problem. There is an aluminium problem, because aluminium is contained in—

CHAIR —There would be nothing to stop people from getting the test done on the tank water at the right time, though, or randomly? Let’s not clean the tank out. Let’s test the water.

Mrs Bowman —No. People are having it done now.

CHAIR —Would someone be prepared to provide this committee with samples of water from their tanks and we will get them tested?

Mrs Bowman —Yes. We can have them done, but you have to do it in specific—

CHAIR —I have just been razzed here, but we did that with fertiliser. We tested some fertiliser.

Mrs Bowman —That certainly can be done, because a lot of people are very worried.

CHAIR —Listen, you are a very powerful mother-in-law. I have to move on. Mr Lyle?

Mr Lyle  —Thank you. I am a farmer on the Breeza Plain and passionately involved with the area. We have been in the area since 1927 and we are hands-on. I don’t know how much longer I will be hands-on, but I am, with my son Tim and wife, Susan. I will endeavour to pull out bits and pieces that have not been discussed, because I can understand you. I got this down to nearly five minutes, too, which was pretty good.

Senator WILLIAMS  —If the chairman starts talking it will take an extra 10.

Mr Lyle —There are a few things I want to back up before I put forward a few ideas. Firstly, roughly six per cent of Australia is arable. There is virtually none in this country we are talking about here—there really isn’t. You are looking at very, very small areas. I will touch on areas that have not been hit on so far, but I think approximately 2½ years ago or something like that BHP had an open day here in Gunnedah, which I attended. Stephen David was there representing BHP, which he still is, and I put to him the two points that have concerned us—firstly, the aquifers. I will not say that he was out of his depth, but what he said was that it was an area that they had not been involved with to any great degree. So they were in an area where they were looking for a way out, so to speak. Secondly, I put to him the column of subsidence. That is the big problem down on the plain. I said, ‘Stephen, everything drops around about three metres, 250 metres wide—is that correct?’ He said yes, and I said, ‘Right—what are you going to do about that when you pull back out? You’ve been onto the plain God knows how far and you’ll pull back out.’ He said, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it.’ On that comment, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you get the hell out of here and leave us alone?’

Senator WILLIAMS —Politely leave?

Mr Lyle —Yes. So that was that. He stated all that. There is no doubt about that. Farming practices have been mentioned. I think the farming practices in this area, particularly on those black soil plains, is second to none—it really is, with all the no-till farming, tramlining, general conservation and all the rest of it.

I would like to mention too that, from Gunnedah, the chemical liaison committee was set up in 1995 to legislate. All of the rules and regulations that you are meant to go on with, and we do, that are involved with aerial spraying and ground ridge spraying and that sort of thing are now nationwide. That all came from here. The area has always been pretty passionate about what is going on as far as the environment is concerned. You are all very aware about food prices. The farmers do not set food prices. It never happens. It is always supply and demand. We take the peaks and the troughs.

Senator WILLIAMS —We are price takers.

Mr Lyle —It just comes and goes. Now, are we prepared to sacrifice any of this? I think things have gone along reasonably well and you just cannot afford to have any foul-ups anywhere with anything at this stage of the game. Good farmers—and there are a stack of them in this room here—are created over generations. They do not come from books and they do not come from ag colleges. Both books and ag colleges help, sure; but that is not the whole story. They are born, they come into the scene and they are developed over a long, long period of time.

Now, onto the problems. I have put a stack of problems together as far as the whole set-up is concerned. First of all, at the top of my list of problems with what is going on at the moment with mining, is risk management. BHP do not want to know about it. They very, very reluctantly—and I will touch on it later on—agreed to it as far as the Pam Allen study is concerned. Another area that has not been addressed today, and which I really think a lot of thought has to go into it, is freehold land. Freehold land today really means absolutely nothing. It really does not. I always thought that freehold land meant that you had some sort of control over what was going to happen, but it damn well does not. It really does not. Against mining, that is it. Inequities are just incredible with your water, your clearing, pollution and everything else that goes on with the mining sector. They seem to do what they like. I think the federal government—and I do not want to be harsh here—have to walk right away from blaming the states for anything. I think you guys really are our last chance, and I make no bones about that. That has been mentioned today on a few occasions; you really are. But, as for blaming the states for things, I think it has to be put into perspective and you just have to say, ‘We have to do something about this.’

Carbon credits is another very interesting issue that has come up. I am probably putting forward ideas here that a lot of people have spoken to me about before they knew that I was coming here, but I will just put these forward. Surely the answer to carbon credits is that, if you are polluting the atmosphere and you are way over the limit, you are damn well fined. What is the point in trading off one against another and another and another and achieving at the far end down here absolutely zero? Maybe that is a bit too simple; I do not know. We are still surviving competing against the subsidies of the US and Europe. The level playing fields are at an angle, but we are still surviving. There are national vendor declarations now, as was mentioned before regarding cattle. If you are near a mine or that sort of thing, it all has to be stated. It is all coming through. That will certainly go on with the grain belt and what goes on down on the plain.

As far as I am concerned, I am appalled, to be quite honest with you, about what is going on in this area. I just cannot believe it. It is something that engrosses you. You are out there on the farm thinking about it all the time. I have talked to guys involved with mining and it has almost been a bit of a ‘ha, ha, ha’ scene when they say: ‘Oh well, we just go home. We get paid at the end of the week. What do we give a damn about it?’ We are living with it all the time. What the hell is going to happen to the farm? What is going to happen to the neighbours? What is going to happen to the whole area? It does not seem to worry them, but maybe it will one day.

CHAIR —It will one day. We drink recycled water now. Eventually they will have to eat recycled you know what.

Mr Lyle —Yeah. But the day might come too when there are not a hell of a lot of people being employed in the mine itself. Who knows? But it is really out of control. I do not know. As far as the act is concerned, and correct me if I am wrong here, is it a hand-me-down from World War II? I think it was. I think the initial idea was for the government of the day to be able to go in and claim whatever they wanted to as far as the war effort was concerned. I gather that is where it all started and it is still there. I do not think anything has really happened to that.

The Chinese are certainly a worry here, as far as we are concerned. They have openly stated that they want to buy the whole 196 square kilometres of the Watermark area, and I have been in the room when that has all happened. My wife got on the website the other day and I looked at it, and there was a statement from Shenhua in their splurge that they were the main exporters of coal from China. Don’t you find that a bit odd? Here we are digging a hole and yet they are exporting it from China, and that is on the web. If it is wrong, it is on the web.

The water study was brought up a little while ago. I am not on the committee. Michael is and few others were on the committee before. It was asked before mining commences and before the water study is completed, if the water study is not completed and these fellas have done a deal somewhere or other it will go ahead. That has been a very, very sticky point.

CHAIR —What would be the legality behind that?

Mr Lyle —That would be the state government ruling, I would imagine.

Senator WILLIAMS —Can a federal law overrule a state law?

Mr Lyle —That is up to you guys.

Senator FISHER —Yes, to the extent of the inconsistency.

Senator WILLIAMS —The point I make is both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed legislation that, in these areas we are talking about, mining cannot proceed until an independent water study is carried out.

Mr Lyle —I think you will find that is definitely not the case. I agree with you but I think you will find that that might not happen as there is very, very little confidence in the state minister.

Senator WILLIAMS —Can you comment on that?

Senator NASH —That is the wording of the legislation.

Senator WILLIAMS —It has been passed by both houses of parliament.

CHAIR —There are heads shaking down here.

Senator NASH —What Mr Lyle is cleverly alluding to is that there are ways around these things, I would imagine.

Mrs Duddy —We are advised at local government level, do not make the assumption that this water study will hold up this development because it is not so.

CHAIR —We are here to hear every version of events that are around, and we will be recalling the other side of these equations in due course. In the meantime we will give it a shove along.

Mrs Duddy —That is why everybody here is so terribly concerned.

Mr Lyle —You are right, Fiona, in what you are saying. What is going to happen in the water study, who knows? We are onto aquifers and subsidence with the risk element. It must be commissioned as soon as possible, obviously, and it must be independent. At the moment it has to go back to the minister and he is going to give the thing his nod. Why? Everybody in the room—is that correct, Michael?—agreed to what the terms of reference were.

CHAIR —Can I ask a pretty dumb question? If the study is $12 million and the state government has put in one million and a half—

Senator WILLIAMS —The feds have put in one million and a half.

CHAIR —The feds have put in one and a half million. How much has the state government put in?

Mr Lyle —I think at the moment we have one million and a half from the federal government, but I do not think we have anything much else from anywhere.

CHAIR —Someone said this morning that there was a proposition the mines would put the money in.

Mr Lyle —Yes.

CHAIR —Wouldn’t that taint the process?

Mr Lyle —Exactly. We have been saying all along that the state and federal governments should fund it, and no-one else should have anything to do with it.

CHAIR —We can make a recommendation along those lines because if there is $3 billion for pink batts surely we can get some.

Mr Lyle —I just wonder, Mr Chairman, if it is going to cost $12 million could I have a bit of a helping hand?

Senator NASH —Can I just clarify that? There was actually a question that came back from estimates in February on precisely that question of the funding. The federal minister committed that the government: ‘Is prepared to contribute up to $1.5 million towards a study into service and groundwater resources in the Namoi region subject to matching funding from the New South Wales government and the mining industry.’ So they are still hedging their bets.

Mr Lyle —Minister Macdonald at the moment is making a big thing about the fact that he is the one that set all this up; he did this, he did that, and all the rest of it. The Caroona Coal Action Group set this up. They were the ones that started all this, right back. If they had not sat on their dig and done what they have done, nothing would have happened.

Senator FISHER —It still has not achieved anything.

CHAIR —Thank you, keep going.

Mr Lyle —I am nearly there—do not worry about it. As was said earlier on, your committee is really our last chance. We have our backs against the wall big time. You go on and on, and if you talk to people nothing happens.

CHAIR —I understand that. We are grateful for your acclamation, but we are only as good as the evidence we receive.

Mr Lyle —Okay. I do not want to be arrogant here, but I will finish on this question to the committee: do you want us, as farmers, to exist or not? Do you want us to grow food for this nation or not? I am not being smart alec in saying that. It is becoming a very sensitive question that has to be answered, and it has to be answered pretty quick smart. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for coming Gunnedah. I note this is the only hearing out of the cities.

CHAIR —That is not quite accurate. We are very grateful for all the evidence we have received today. The committee represents all the political persuasions in the parliament but, due to other circumstances and not because of any political snub, the Labor, Greens and other members of the committee were unfortunately unable to attend today. This committee, along with the reference committee that Senator Fiona Nash now chairs, is a committee that does not play politics with people’s livelihoods. We do not make political dissenting reports. We try and deal with the facts. The facts that face mankind are that, if we grow the world population to nine billion by 2050, the world food task is going to double; 50 per cent of the world’s population will be poor for water; if the science is 40 per cent right, 30 per cent of the productive land in Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s population is going to live, is going to go out of production; and there will be 1.6 billion people on the planet possibly displaced. If you watch 60 Minutes on Sunday night you will see the first of them, the Maldives, starting to think about packing up. We are in serious trouble with the food task. The world has been concentrating on the energy task. What we want to do is get some focus on the food task. You all have an important role to play in that. We are grateful for your input.

Mr Lyle —Finally, approximately three-quarters of the Gunnedah shire is either under exploratory licence or is going to be. It is a huge area, virtually the whole shire.

CHAIR —You will be famous, and you have the world’s youngest mayor as well!

[2.38 pm]