IAN Hedley has lived through five mining downturns since 1981 and built a multimillion-dollar mining engineering business on the back of the boom times.
The Singleton businessman says the present downturn – the worst he has experienced in 35 years – has convinced him that the Hunter needs to look beyond mining for its future prosperity.
But he doesn’t see much vision or willingness on the part of the Hunter’s political leaders to transform the region.
‘‘It’s time for our political leaders to face the facts. The mining boom has come ... and gone,’’ said Mr Hedley, the managing director of Hedweld Group of Companies.
‘‘Now that Singleton has supported the mining industry through the boom and bust times, given up the community’s quality agricultural land, the peaceful landscape, clean air and noise-free rural living, what dividends will it receive to restore the ravaged valley and create sustainable alternatives for the community and residents left behind?’’
When he established Hedweld in 1981, the Hunter’s mining industry produced 18.5 million tonnes of coal from 13 open-cut coal mines, which covered 1724 hectares. The Hunter now produces 142 million tonnes of coal from 42 pits, which cover 31,500 hectares.
In a column in the Newcastle Herald’s BusinessHunter section (Page 20), NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said coal production was increasing, demand for NSW coal was growing among traditional trade partners, and commodity prices showed signs of improving.
‘‘Despite these uncertain times, things could be about to change, and 2015 could be the year that NSW turns the corner and gets back on track, which could be good news for jobs,’’ he said.
‘‘... A number of important mining projects have been approved or commenced operation, securing hundreds of jobs for communities in regional communities.’’
Mr Hedley said he was particularly concerned about Singleton, which had shackled its fortunes to the mining industry for the past 40 years.
In contrast, the former mining town of Cessnock had been busy during the past two decades reinventing itself as a wine tourism destination.
‘‘The large revenue derived from the minerals in Singleton’s land has not been reinvested in any realistic ratio,’’ Mr Hedley said. ‘‘We need collaborative thinking to now plan how we are to rise from the abandoned coal faces with new tangible industry alternatives that will provide a future for our children and grandchildren’s employment and lifestyle.’’
While governments, mining companies and entrepreneurs have reaped untold profits from the valley’s coal deposits, Mr Hedley asks who will be held responsible for the lasting environmental damage.
‘‘There will be over 30final voids left from mining activity in the Hunter, which will cost an estimated $500 million each to rehabilitate.
‘‘How well will this rehabilitation be done and where are these billions of dollars to come from when mining companies are barely breaking even under the current coal prices?’’
Poor air quality has forced him to make the difficult decision to establish a new a precision manufacturing part of his business overseas rather than in the Upper Hunter.
And it’s not only his investment decisions that have been affected by poor air quality. Dust levels got so bad in the Mount Thorley workshop on a windy day three years ago that workers had to go home.
The NSW Minerals Council argues that a strong mining industry translates to a strong Hunter with more jobs, and has urged the state government to do more to support the industry.
‘‘Strong government support for the NSW mining industry has a significant impact on people across regional NSW,’’ Mr Galilee has said. ‘‘Take the Upper Hunter, where in addition to thousands working in mining directly, there are 4000 local businesses in the mining supply chain.
‘‘Support from the government means support for these people and many others who are experiencing a degree of uncertainty due to problems with the NSW planning system and lengthy waiting periods for the assessment of mining projects.’’
The council estimates mining companies directly contributed $5.9billion to the region and supported 4238 local businesses in the last financial year.
More than 3000 Hunter miners have lost their jobs in the past two years.
‘‘When mining is hurting, the whole region hurts too,’’ Mr Galilee said in a recent opinion piece. ‘‘As well as the direct mining jobs lost, the downturn has hit the Hunter economy more broadly, with additional job losses across a range of businesses, including in retail, engineering, and services.’’