By Nick Bryant
The open cast mines that are carved into the earth are so vast that they make the house-sized trucks transporting the black coal from the face of the seam to the surface look like small toys.
Cargo trains then take the coal down the valley to Newcastle, the largest coal export facility in the world. At the entrance to the port, massive bulk carriers often queue for weeks to ferry the coal to countries like Japan, China and South Korea.
The 34 mines in the Hunter Valley not only generate lucrative profits for the mining companies but relatively well-paid jobs for the local communities which have come to rely on the resources sector.
Then there are the huge royalties of over $1bn (£0.6bn) which swell the state coffers of New South Wales.
But prosperity comes at a price: the health impact on local communities, and especially children, from the poor air quality in the valley. The fear here is that the very thing that makes the region rich is also making it sick.
We went to the Upper Hunter Valley on a stunning late autumn day with pristine blue skies. The only clouds came from dust billowing up from the mines.
After a few hours in the region, we started experiencing a metallic taste and a thin layer of grime inside our mouths. After a few hours spent filming very close to the open cast mines, there was also a slight irritation in our eyes.
Pollution is suspected of causing the problem. Last year, more than 100 tonnes of toxic metals, including arsenic, lead and cobalt, belched into the air from mines and power stations in the Upper Hunter Valley.
For the people who live here permanently, it is causing a major public health problem – or a public health crisis, to some.
In May, the government of New South Wales released a report on child health showing that nearly 40% of nine to 15-year olds in the Hunter Valley and New England region had suffered at some stage from asthma. That is 12% above the state average.
The study did not make a direct link between mining activity and the above average levels of asthma, but locals have drawn their own conclusions. They have been complaining for years about the health impact of the open cast mines in particular.
‘Feel for her’
Take the experience of Courtney Gee, a schoolgirl who lives on a farm close to an open cast mine.
She suffers from asthma and has to take a concoction of drugs, including Ventolin and Seretide, which help her breathe. When the attacks come on, she says, it feels like breathing through a straw.
We were at the house when she returned from school and watched as she rushed, coughing and spluttering, to the medicine cabinet in the kitchen.
Her condition eases when she goes away on holiday, but became so bad last year that she missed three months of school.
Recently, a big orange cloud rose up from the local mine and drifted over the farm. She immediately started to experience headaches, a runny nose and watery eyes.
Her mum, Di Gee, started to well up as she described her daughter’s condition.
“Sometimes you wonder if she will wake up,” she said. “They do say that there can be deaths through asthma.
“And I really feel for her, because what she goes through I don’t think she should have to go through. But it’s just something we have all had to deal with.”
Peter Kennedy has been a miner all of his life, and works for one of the big mining companies in the valley. He prefers not to say which one for fear of being disciplined or sacked.
Now he is campaigning against the expansion of the mines, because of the impact on air quality in the valley.
“What we are seeing is increasing asthma rates especially in our younger generation, and bronchitis. All those sort of lung conditions,” he said. “We are seeing more and more evidence of this… [the] community’s health is gravely at risk.”
The New South Wales Minerals Council says the mining companies try to minimise dust, that there is constant on-site monitoring and it takes the potential health impacts of mining very seriously.
It notes the industry is strictly regulated and that it is hard to quantify the impact of one industry on air quality.
The New South Wales government has recently announced it will monitor air pollution more closely, and has installed more air quality monitoring devices in the region.
Last week, it also blocked the planned development of an open cast mine near the town of Scone, which had been opposed by local land-owners and particularly the thoroughbred horse breeding industry.
Campaigners like Peter Kennedy believe, however, there is a clear conflict of interest: that the New South Wales does not regulate the mining industry as strictly as it should because it has become so dependent on royalties from resources. Campaigners want to see an independent body carrying out the monitoring.
On the day we were in the Hunter Valley, we witnessed the most stunning twilight.
But as the sun slowly disappeared between the range of mountains in the distance, another huge dust cloud rose into the air from a nearby mine.
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