The Broken Back Range has always been a big part of Sally Scarborough’s life.
She grew up in Cessnock in its foothills, in the middle of the wine country and the Great Dividing Range of the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. But beyond the state forest lay rural farmland – and coal mines.
Now the National Sales and Marketing Director at Scarborough Wine Co, just north of Pokolbin, she fears her little oasis in the Lower Hunter is threatened by continued mining expansion.
Chinese charcoal producer Yancoal has filed an evaluation lease for sites between Pokolbin and Broke-Fordwich, in the heart of wine country. It is now before the NSW government.
Scarborough and a range of local wine producers and tourism operators see it as a call to action. They are fighting against the industrial development of the region and pressure the NSW government to pass legislation to form a circle of protection around the region, as has been done for the Barossa. Valley wine producer in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia.
“We’re not going to take this lying down,” Scarborough said.
“This is my home. We don’t want to run into that in 10 years when there is another exploration license… we want to stop its renewal so that we don’t repeat this process over and over again.
The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance launched its #NoMinesInOurVines campaign this month, claiming any future coal mine would destroy the $ 550 million industry.
Scarborough has never aligned itself with “diehard environmentalists” but says people visiting the Hunter won’t see it as a beautiful pristine region if there is mining “literally right in the middle”.
“It is impossible for viticulture and mining to coexist and work together successfully, there are too many differences,” she says.
“One is an industry that gives back to the natural environment and cares for it, producing a product that holds a special place in people’s memories and hearts … which is at odds with mining.”
“That would never happen in Champagne”
Yancoal is one of Australia’s largest export coal producers, operating 11 sites across New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland. Five are in the Hunter Valley.
It acquired its first mine, Austar, in 2004. At the time, Austar was the only coal producing mine in the wider Cessnock region. It began its transition to closure last year.
Since 2004, Yancoal has purchased Hunter Valley Operations, Mount Thorley Warkworth, Ashton and Donaldson, all in the Hunter. Donaldson has also moved to a “care and maintenance” phase of operations.
The company’s main shareholder is Yanzhou Coal Mining Company Limited, majority owned by Yankuang Group, the fourth largest state-owned coal mining company in China.
Yancoal currently has interests in “several” early stage coal exploration and evaluation sites in Australia, including drilling programs and geophysical surveys.
The company holds two exploration licenses issued by the Government of New South Wales in the Cessnock area and has applied for an evaluation lease on the same footprint.
“The application process… requires several steps before it can actually be granted and it will likely take several years,” said a spokesperson.
“An evaluation lease, once granted, allows for a work program focused on the evaluation and study of a potential resource.
“Yes [an assessment lease] was granted that it would not guarantee… a mining lease in the future. If the potential for future mining arises, any mine proposal would have to go through a rigorous assessment process… with extensive public consultation.
But Sasha Degen, owner of hosting company Hunter Valley Stays, says even the prospect of mining in the area is “inconceivable.”
“I really can’t imagine that another wine region in the world would have this on the table, it would never happen in Champagne, Napa Valley,” she says.
“People would be appalled to know that there is a mine in the middle of the wine country… you don’t want to visit and drive straight in a mining truck.”
A report by the Australia Institute found that the Upper Hunter coal mines were operating at 62% of their approved capacity last year, producing nearly 100 million tonnes less than what they had been granted by the government of New South Wales.
Institute research director Rod Campbell said there was “absolutely no need” for new coal mines in the Hunter. “Existing approvals can easily meet current and likely future demand,” he says.
“The NSW government’s own data shows that Hunter’s coal sales peaked in 2014. The world has been telling us for years… that it intends to use less coal in the future, but governments from NSW did not listen. “
A spokesperson for the New South Wales Regional Department said two coal exploration licenses in the Cessnock area were initially granted in 2003 and 2010.
“Applications have been submitted to renew these existing licenses and are pending a decision,” the spokesperson said.
“If the proponent were to… consider mining, they would have to make a separate application, which would be considered under the state’s robust planning framework. “
“We want to protect it for the next generation”
Degen says people use the term resilient “fluently,” but points out that the Lower Hunter has just been through severe drought, fires, floods and Covid, “now this”.
“We hear this loud and clear when making reservations… guests are looking for world class food and wine, accommodation in spectacular scenery. Noise, vibration, and dust just aren’t part of the experience.
In 2028, the Hunter Valley will celebrate 200 years as a wine region. Degen says you “couldn’t reverse the damage that would be done” if the appraisal lease was given the green light.
Chris Tyrrell’s family has been cultivating vines on his property for 160 years – “around the same time as the mining industry”. Looking out the window, Chris sees the national forest on one side and a block of vines that his great-great-grandfather planted in 1879 on the other.
“Part of the fact that we’ve been here for so long is that we’re not against coal mining per se, we’re just against any new mines in the area. We have a lot of employees who have worked in both sectors, ”he says.
“But if they’re not running at full capacity now, it doesn’t make sense to open more.”
Tyrell says if the proposed site – on the main tourist route – were to be developed, that would mean “more or less the end of tourism.”
“As alarmist as it sounds… we get about two million people a year – having a coal mine and all the infrastructure on the main road would end it.”
It’s not just about tourism.
“Sometimes you take it for granted, but we have some of the oldest grapevine resources in the world,” says Tyrrell.
“You can’t replace that. This is what we are looking for here, we want to protect it for the next generation.