Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Surrounded by coal, camped near Mordor.

My image of Mordor is a region of never ending, noisy, repetitive production, ceaseless activity by blank faced automatons, endless mechanical sounds, the ear jarring screech of metal on metal, the deep rumbling, stomach-churning thud, thud, thud of heavy machinery and a pervasive stench, which permeates and taints the air for many kilometres around. An odour hard to remove from clothing by washing and which seeps into pores, eyes, nose and lungs relentlessly.

I never expected to visit, and camp beside a lake which conjured up exactly that image, despite its beguiling beauty, the active birds and deceptively welcoming water.
We thought it'd be good to camp beside water for a change. Lake Liddell appeared, from the guide book, to offer swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, fishing and other cheery, family friendly, water based activities, and we figured that if we arrived lateish, and left early, it could be a peaceful place for a night.

There'd be frogs, water birds wading merrily and diving for fish, the quaking of ducks and no crocodiles ... most enticing!

How wrong we were.

We were greeted by a friendly, welcoming woman, who explained in a frank, forthright manner, that under no circumstances should we have anything at all to do with the lake water. No fishing, no wading, no kayaking and definitely don't splash it on your face, or allow any droplets at all to enter your nose. There's something in the water that can enter your brain and kill you. It doesn't happen often, but when it does - whammo. She told us that all taps in the camp ground which would normally use lake water had been locked off, and even if we discovered that one had been overlooked we should definitely NOT use it. She reassured us that the showers were safe to use, as the water in the amenities block had been trucked in and was perfectly fine!

This wasn't what we'd expected.

What we also hadn't been aware of (strangely, the guide book is quiet on this aspect of the park) was that just over the toxic lake, then over the hills in front of our tent is a coal mine which operates all day and night, every day of the year. To enable this to happen, massive massive lighting systems are used, so it's a bit like the glaring illumination from a large city which, unlike Paris, doesn't dim its lights during the wee hours. When he noticed, my husband commented drily "It's good the coal industry only runs 9-5".

So much for the anticipated tranquil night's sleep.

The mine's ceaseless activity ensures that what appear to be kilometre long coal trains, with not quite fully enclosed wagons, rumble and clang their way around the camp ground not far from where we set up camp. All day. All night. Seemingly every 1/2 hour or so. They come from between the hills in the distance to our left, slowly grunt and clatter their way along and rumble off, somewhere to the back of us. By daylight, we can see the mountainous tailings from the mine.

The steady, deep rumble, rumble, rumbling from the incessant trains, drowned out the cheeping, quacking, croaking and flapping of every living creature around, including, earlier in the evening, the raucous partying of a large group of young campers. That's quite an achievement. Between trains, the persistent mechanical hum from the generators of the power plant over to our right is the constant background noise. Very Mordor.

I woke early (I didn't get much relaxing sleep), and as I walked along the shoreline in the crisp morning air, there was the distinctive smell of what I think of as briquette dust (well known to those of us who grew up in Melbourne in the 60's and 70's.) It's a smell which lingers unpleasantly and it wasn't possible to avoid.

This is the scenario which the current federal government supports and wants to extend. Not only that, but they also persistently run smear campaigns against renewable energy, particularly wind. A couple of weeks ago we stood next to a wind generator farm wondering what the fuss was about. No smell. No threat of fire and toxic pollution. A whooshing noise as the blades turned, and that was the sum of the experience.

I wondered as I walked, if I was tempting fate and that my steps would disturb the lake's lethal legacy and some vapour droplets would find their way into my nostrils. I lengthened my stride to reach higher ground a bit quicker than normal.

How privileged I've been. I've never lived near where coal is mined and used for power generation. The coal mining lobby and their political allies insist coal is here for the long term, and are desperate to extend mining and other fossil fuel extraction into prime agricultural lands. It's hard to be as enthusiastic knowing the extensive, reputable, well researched negative health and environmental impacts.

We have alternatives. We don't need to put all our eggs in the one basket. Companies want to invest in clean energy. People want jobs in the renewables sector. Citizens want to support sustainable options. Coal mining is scarring the land, having a massive impact on water (which is used extensively in mines and plant) not to mention the potential for fire as happened at Hazelwood Victoria. (Here and here.)

I'm glad I've experienced what it's like to live near a coal mine and coal fired power plant, and I'm so, so grateful we can leave; this is too close to my vision of Mordor for comfort. 

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