Hunter wastesa quarter ofits mined coal – $2bn a year
Hunter coal production figures
HUNTER mines throw away more than a quarter of the coal they dig up each year, dumping about 30million tonnes or almost $2billion worth as waste.
As the fight for land and water resources intensifies in the region, the Newcastle Herald can reveal that mountains of coal are discarded into voids, tailings dams or pumped back underground.
Experts describe the waste as ‘‘disgraceful’’ and call for legislation to ensure resource use is maximised.
Ross Garling, of Green 4 Ever Pty Ltd, has spent 20 years recovering saleable coal from mine tailing dams or similar repositories, and said vast quantities of the valuable commodity were being wasted.
‘‘I don’t think it’s acceptable at all. I think the mines should have to look at their existing circuits to make it more efficient,’’ he said. ‘‘They should be recovering all that coal, they should be recovering everything they can. It was given to them to maximise the yield, it’s just wasteful to throw away a resource that could be sold.’’
Data obtained by the Herald reveals that on average Hunter mines sell about 75 per cent of the coal they dig up.
Some mines throw away almost half of what they mine, while others sell 100 per cent.
Different coal types, quality, geology and technology used account for the vast differences.
Mr Garling said the tide was slowly turning with two of the major players in Australian mining recently seeking advice on recovery systems.
A NSW Resources and Energy spokeswoman confirmed there were no guidelines on how much coal the mines had to use once it was dug up. She said it was in the industry’s ‘‘interest’’ to sell as much as possible and coal recovery was ‘‘improving all the time’’.
Coalmining veteran Colin Randall, whose weekly journal Hunter Valley Coal Report records the industry in detail, said recovering coal from rejects had to be economical.
He said inventing technology to maximise coal recovery had been ‘‘pursued vigorously’’ for more than 50 years with varying success.
‘‘People have been looking for years at ways of improving recovery, but it’s very complicated because each mine presents a different set of situations,’’ he said.
‘‘It has to be economical and that’s been the difficulty.’’
Separating saleable coal, from clay and rock, is one of the biggest challenges and millions have been invested in research and technology.
With coal prices slumping, swallowing what was once described as ‘‘super profits’’, many believe the industry must continue to innovate.
‘‘Production at all cost is no longer the story,’’ Mr Randall said. ‘‘When prices are high it doesn’t matter how inefficient you are because there’s still an opportunity to make a lot of money. A period of low prices will refocus people’s minds on innovation, the big push for the last eight years has been more tonnage.’’
As mines push for expansion in the Upper Hunter, disaffected residents – fed up with the noise, dust and pollution – ask how much more the valley can endure.
As at March 2012, open-cut mining had disturbed about 120square kilometres in Singleton and 53square kilometres in Muswellbrook.
Camberwell resident Deidre Olofsson, whose battle with mining goes back more than a decade, said the industry’s massive financial contribution to the economy and state coffers made it appear untouchable.
She said there was a need for stronger controls to make miners maximise the region’s resources.
‘‘In many ways the community feels like it’s being eaten alive by the constant push for expansion,’’ she said.
‘‘When I think about the Hunter, I think they have destroyed it. The environmental legacy being left behind is a major concern.’’
Retired coal processing operations manager John Parsons agrees an ‘‘enormous amount of coal’’ is being thrown away because mines don’t invest in recovering it.
‘‘You expend an enormous amount of greenhouse gas to get a product out of the ground and then throw some of it away – it’s far from efficient,’’ he said.
‘‘We need legislation that says if you mine so many million tonnes of coal, give us a guarantee you will use a certain percentage of it.
‘‘The cost of recovery is slightly greater than the cost of ripping it out of the ground and putting it on a boat and tailings dams are a huge environmental liability.’’
Research conducted at Stratford mine in 2008 by Phil Crisafulli and Tony James found that, on average, in excess of 10 tonnes of coal per hour was not being recovered.
An Upper Hunter mine executive, who declined to be named, said coal companies were responsible to shareholders focused on profits.
He said mines were interested in unlocking billions of dollars’ worth of extra coal to extend the industry’s life.
Chairman of the Australian Coal Preparation Society, Wayne Barnett, described maximising yield as the ‘‘holy grail’’ of mining, but said it was an extremely difficult science due to the vast differences in coal at each mine.
‘‘There is no doubt that it always comes down to economics,’’ he said. ‘‘But we are always striving to find better ways to process coal more efficiently and more cost effectively. It’s all about the quality of the coal and what you can use it for. There has to be a market.’’
The NSW Minerals Council declined to comment.
DOWNTURN: Tom Allchurch.
TOM Allchurch learnt the hard way about the lack of Australian interest in recovery of waste coal.
His UK-based firm RecyCoal, in operation for more than 40 years, set up an office in Brisbane several years ago. It lasted three years, until the coal price slump.
RecyCoal specialises in recovering waste coal from active mines, abandoned spoil heaps and mine washery discard.
It aims to increase coal production and clean up mine waste.
‘‘Our system is designed to take a small amount of coal out of a large amount of dirt,’’ he said.
‘‘We can take a mine spoil heap that has been poorly rehabilitated and remove all of the nasties including leachates and combustibles.
‘‘But at the moment the industry is not looking to innovate because it involves spending money.
‘‘To make any headway environmentally you have to have a good economic proposition and we had that,’’ he said.
‘‘But it was difficult to get a hearing in boom times as no one was interested … commercially it was not significant enough to attract enough attention.’’
When the price slump hit mines went into cost-cutting mode and Mr Allchurch said ‘‘everything was shelved’’.