ALL black coal can look much the same to the naked eye.
But it's not.
As the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal, there are huge differences between different types and qualities of coal. In February, hard coking coal exported for steelmaking was making up to $245 a tonne, while a tonne of thermal coal for power stations brought as little as $68.
With such a price range, it's easy to see the importance of the various inspection, sampling, testing and certification services provided by a relatively small number of coal "superintending" companies.
Cargoes are tested for their calorific content - the amount of heat generated when burnt - as well as the percentages of moisture, ash and impurities, such as sulphur.
Tests are carried out before shipment, and again when the cargo arrives.
Reliable superintending of coal is part of the trust that has been built up over the years between the Australian coal industry and its various overseas customers, who will this year buy almost 400 million tonnes of product, including about 160 million tonnes exported through the Port of Newcastle.
As we are reporting, an otherwise obscure unfair dismissal court case has thrown an unexpected spotlight on the superintending industry, and on allegations that the certificates validating the quality of individual cargoes are apparently routinely "altered" to improve the stated quality of the shipment: this to the benefit of the seller, and to the detriment of the customer.
DONNA PAGE'S reports here:
A consultant's investigation at one superintending company named in the court case, ALS, found that as many as half of the coal tests it examined had been altered to improve the results.
Although ALS and another superintending company, SGS, have denied falsifying reports, ALS confirmed standing down three senior staff members in February.
Others familiar with the situation have described the practice as an "open secret" in the industry.
ALS has reported the matter to the police, but this is an issue that must also be addressed at a higher and broader level.
As well as the fraud implications, it is worth remembering that one of the industry's supporting mantras throughout the climate change debate has been the claim that Australian coal is better and cleaner than that of other countries.
This reassurance risks being seriously undermined if our certification systems cannot be trusted.
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