Save Our Sands: Mining in Rural Communities

Suttons Forest landscape, NSW.
Photo credit: Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC) via Beyond Coal and Gas

Many regional communities in NSW are affected by mining, which is a very distant and abstract concept to people in urban areas. In Sydney, people don’t engage with the health and environmental issues mining creates – they don’t think it affects them. But what happens when Government approves a mine that does affect Sydney, in particular, its drinking water?

The current mining application before the NSW Department of Planning & Environment for Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands is being presented as a ‘quarry’ but Sutton Forest Quarries Pty Ltd is seeking to build a sandstone mine and crushing plant complex nearly two-thirds the size of Sydney’s CBD. The mine, if approved, will be sited right in the midst of residential properties that are falling victim to out-dated zoning regulations. Its construction will be promoted as progress, but for the community living nearby, it’s not their progress. It will create a trivial number of jobs, mostly non-local, while placing already established businesses and farmland at risk.

The proposed mine will contaminate waterways that feed directly into Sydney’s drinking water catchment, used by approximately 5 million people. Dr Ian Wright, a water scientist at the University of Western Sydney, has reviewed the Environmental Impact Statement. He said, “A developer can only put in a submission if it will have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality (NorBE). This development is designed to pollute.” Mining in NSW is leading to increased salinity in water catchments, with the Berejiklian Government recently criticised for its failure to address this. The current NSW Government weakened the NorBE clause, to the benefit of miners, although the NSW opposition are promising to reinstate it. Commonwealth environmental legislation also protects the watercourses that will be polluted yet Sutton Forest Quarries Pty Ltd pays no heed. To miners, pollution is just a part of the business model.

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to live in a community affected by sand mining. It’s been described as ‘like living in a dust cloud’. Then there’s the noise and lights coming from a mining operation working around-the-clock for up to 45 years – with you for the rest of your life. Ultimately, this forces families who can afford it to escape. But what about the families who can’t afford to move and have established their lives there?

Sand mining is particularly concerning when it comes to health. Crystalline silica dust from sand mining operations induces many diseases. Diseases affect the lungs and heart. Disease can take years to appear and when it does, it persists, it’s irreversible and there is no cure. Often symptoms can appear years after exposure to crystalline silica has ceased.

Among other things, silica dust is carcinogenic, creating that pervasive foreboding in those forced to live nearby. If you were a resident living in Sutton Forest, you’d be always scared about the cumulative effects on health, especially with another mine recently approved just 4km away – not to mention the massive Korean coal mine proposed for Sutton Forest.

Sutton Forest is a critical part of the Great Western Wildlife Corridor and home to native flora and fauna. It’s an area set aside for endangered species, including the gang gang cockatoo, glossy black cockatoo, scarlet robin, varied sittella, squirrel glider and eastern bentwing bat. Threats to biodiversity and protecting endangered wildlife have never ranked highly in NSW Government priorities. However, threats to Sydney’s water and health present a whole new level of risk.

Perhaps this proposed sand mine is something worth caring about. After all, the NSW Government has a duty to look after the health of its people and this Government will be responsible for any problems that arise from a mining operation that it approves. Maybe it’s time to put health and the environment up there with money and rampant Sydney development.

First published in Save Our Sands on 30 July 2018

Dr Richard Fitzpatrick is a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

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