Community on the brink: mining proves best and worst thing for community

(L-R) Dr Libby Connors, Rev Dr David Ferguson, Dr Jim Cavaye, Phil Smith, Rev Kaye Ronalds Photo: Matt Gees

The impacts of mining and Fly-In Fly-Out work on communities and the environment was the subject of a new initiative at the 30th Synod. Mardi Lumsden reports.

Whether in the city or the bush, all Queenslanders are effected by mining and fly-in fly-out (FIFO) or drive-in drive-out (DIDO) work.

That was the message given to 30th Synod members during a panel discussion and Q&A hosted by Uniting Green on Sunday 26 May.

Rev Dr David Ferguson, Gregory congregations (Clermont, Capella and Moranbah), Central Queensland Presbytery Mining Impact Task Group convenor and former mining engineer said the churches in these divided communities need to be the peacemakers.

Dr Jim Cavaye, University of Queensland School of Agriculture and Food Science Associate Professor, and Dr Libby Connors, University of Southern Queensland Senior Lecturer and Queensland Greens co-founder, also spoke of the impacts they have seen in their work.

Dr Cavaye said the mining and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) industries have big implications, both positive and negative, for agriculture, communities, and the environment.

He said the rapid expansion of the CSG industry has led to thousands of jobs, but the scale and pace of the expansion leaves communities dangerously balancing who they are and who they are becoming.

"It has happened incredibly rapidly. In the last three years many of these communities have been transformed and it is different.

"If you add a coal mine to the Bowen Basin many of those communities are kind of used to it. But many of the communities in the Surat Basin, for example, are agricultural communities.

"Mining and CSG is very different and it is a real struggle for people to get used to the impacts."

He said the clear benefits to communities are employment, infrastructure, business activity, income, and community funding, but many of these benefits have a 'but' to them.

The key issues in these communities are housing, community identity, people who are disadvantaged, support services, government underestimation, stress and anxiety, adverse impacts despite regulations, what happens after the boom, and adverse impacts despite regulations.

"Community identity is a critical thing.

"People are saying, 'I grew up in this town and I don't want to live here anymore because it has changed'.

This idea of belonging and connection has been changed.

"There is no doubt that employment has gone up.

"Many of these communities have been in long-term decline.

"Now, they have got kids in school, more services and business activity, but it is coming in a way that doesn't necessarily suit the communities and there are many planned and unplanned implications of this."

The increase in jobs does not necessarily filter to the local population and there is competition for labour.

Local people who were unemployed are largely still unemployed and can no longer afford to live in their own community.

"If you work outside the Resources sector you are going to struggle to pay rent. If you run a farm or a small business you are going to struggle to employ someone because you can't pay the wage rate they are demanding and they can't afford to live there."

The improvement of infrastructure (roads, phone coverage etc.) is another benefit of the Resources boom, but there is also a much higher use, and therefore ware, on these services.

One of causes of community division is the massive income difference between people who own rental properties (often resources sector workers) and renters.

This impacts the church directly as landlords owning manses and, sometimes, rental properties.

The benefit of people being on large incomes often does not filter to the local economy because those people don't actually live there. The question of what happens after the boom is also a looming issue.

Churches at risk

As a minister in mining communities, Dr Ferguson said one of the direct impacts for local churches and other volunteer-run organisations will soon be that retirees, often the volunteers, soon won't be able to afford to live in these communities.

"We are a church. We live on volunteers … we are really going to struggle working with social capital in these communities."

He asked how the church will support ministers working in these often isolated communities, with the increase in things like car accidents and the need for community pastoral care.

"The ex-chaplain at Moranbah High School had to deal with three teenage girls dying in a car crash on the Peak Downs, which is now on the UN list of most dangerous roads in the world.

"We as a church are at a crossroads … we have to choose what we are going to do. Are we going to work with the new (FIFO and DIDO) communities or are we going to sit, as we were, with the old?"

Dr Ferguson said the congregations and presbyteries can work together to provide services like childcare and begin to be peacemakers.

Losing our heritage

Dr Connors spoke of the potentially dangerous environmental impacts of mining and CSG, particularly around Gladstone.

She said the speed at which the CGS industry has grown has meant there is a lack of regulation and prior health impact studies.

"There was no health impact assessment done when the Queensland Government gave approval to these projects," she said.

On 23 May this year the Australian Medical Association called for independent health risk assessments before CSG proceeds.

"CSG is not safe for our water, land, health, reef, or other sectors of the Queensland economy," said Dr Connors.

She said Gladstone harbour and nearby Curtis Island are examples of the effects of dredging with visible signs of stress on seagrass, dugongs, and fishing which will, in turn, affect tourism.

She said dredging the Queensland coastline, particularly near Curtis Island on the Great Barrier Reef, to enable tankers to transport resources offshore breaches UN protocols requiring no extractive industries within World Heritage areas.

"That is why we had UNESCO visit in June last year and that is why the UNESCO meeting next month in Cambodia is going to receive a report from their scientific advisors saying, 'we should think about removing the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef'."

Dr Connors is calling for standardised and tighter regulations on the resources sector to slow down the environmental and social impacts of the boom.

Being part of the solution

Dr Ferguson said church members have to realise they are part of the problem also.

"I believe we are at risk of demonising mining if we fail to see that we are part of what is going on.

"You don't dig up coal unless you can sell it."

Moderator, Rev Kaye Ronalds, closed the Q&A by reminding people Jesus came "that we might have life in all of its fullness".

"What does it look like for all parts of the church?" she asked.

"What does it look like for our Indigenous brothers and sisters who probably look with deep sadness at what we have done to the land on which their ancestors lived?

"Our land can't cry out, but it is groaning."

While the Q&A only scratched the surface of the issues it started valuable conversations about how the church could support these communities, recognising that even in the pews there are people on all sides of the issue.

If you would like a copy of any of the Powerpoint presentations used during the Q&A, please email your request to our research officer, Katie Lewis.

Listen to the audio.

Photo : (L-R) Dr Libby Connors, Rev Dr David Ferguson, Dr Jim Cavaye, Phil Smith, Rev Kaye Ronalds Photo: Matt Gees

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