Adani’s Australia Story: How a Massive Coal Mine is Sparking a New Wave of Environmental Concerns

With the $16-billion Adani coal mine dividing the Australian public, The Wire looks at the country's environmental concerns and how the Carmichael project adds to them.

Australian rock band Midnight oil holds up a "Coral not Coal' banner. Credit: StopAdaniAlliance.

Australian rock band Midnight oil holds up a “Coral not Coal’ banner. Credit: StopAdaniAlliance.

This is the third story in a five-part series that examines the controversial Adani and Carmichael coal mine. Read the first and second part

In 2005, 48-year-old Lindsay Simpson, along with her husband, Grant Lewis, decided to move to the warmth of north-eastern Queensland from the relative cold of the southern island state, Tasmania. The couple bought a boat and decided to earn a living by operating tours to the Great Barrier Reef from Magnetic Island, eight kilometres off the shore from Townsville, the largest city in Northern Queensland. They took tourists out to sea, where they snorkeled and explored the diverse ecosystem of the reef. “Initially, the reef was breath-taking. It was gorgeous. It was colourful. Tourists would flock to see the beauty”, Simpson told me over the phone recently. Gradually, though, Simpson saw the reef lose its colour – it went grey – and thus, its charm. “By 2015, people stopped coming”, she said.

Simspon and Lewis decided to move 270 kilometres south to Whitsundays, where the reef is relatively less damaged, and where they now run their operation. “Things are okay for now. There are a decent number of tourists who come here”, said Simpson. But she is nervous. “Climate change has already damaged large parts of the reef. If the Adani coal mine is built, the reef will die entirely. In fact, a lot of tourists say that they have come to see the reef while it’s still there”, she said, echoing local concerns.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the great natural wonders of the world. It stretches over 2,300 kilometres in length and spans over an area equal to 344,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Germany. It consists of 2,900 individual reefs and is home to 10% of the world’s fish species. It is a remarkably bio-diverse ecosystem, and is the largest structure in the world made up of living organisms. It is even visible from outer space. Unsurprisingly, it attracts over two million visitors each year, giving shape to a tourism industry that contributes A$ 6.4 billion to Australia’s economy annually – about 0.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). It supports 64,000 jobs in tourism.

The reef is dying already, with or without the Adani coal mine. “The Great Barrier Reef is a sensitive eco-system and has borne the brunt of climate change for the past several years. For it to survive, we need to take drastic steps to reduce global warming by moving in the direction of zero emissions, and not build this massive coal mine”, said Imogen Zethoven, Great Barrier Reef campaign director at the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

The Great Barrier Reef has witnessed successive mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, with 30% of its corals dying in 2016 and an additional 19% dying in 2017. Bleaching events occur as a result of unusually warm sea temperatures that cause the corals to expel the algae from their tissue under stress. The corals turn a pale white as the algae is the source of their colour. They are also more susceptible to diseases as the algae is their primary source of food. Since the corals are compromised, if the water does not cool fast enough to allow the algae to grow back, the corals suffer mortality.

In 2016, Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef, led a team of scientists that conducted aerial and under-water surveys of more than 1,000 of the 2,900 reefs in the Great Barrier Reef. “I was shocked by the extent and the severity of the bleaching. Fifty-five percent of the reefs that we surveyed had bleached. It was very confronting”, Hughes said.

Protesters hold a 'coal kills coral' banner underwater at the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: StopAdaniAlliance.

Protesters hold a ‘coal kills coral’ banner underwater at the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: StopAdaniAlliance.

After the mass bleaching event of 2016, another bleaching event in 2017 did not help matters. “It was a huge set-back to have back-to-back bleaching events because that ensures that the corals don’t come back to life”, he said. Hughes also believes that chances of the reef coming back to its pre-bleaching structure are slim as global temperatures continue to rise. “Given the rise in global temperatures, there is the likelihood of another bleaching event in the next decade or so. We need to start moving quickly on climate change and that means no Adani coal mine”, said Hughes.

The Carmichael Coal mine proposed by the Adani group, if built, would be the largest in Australia, and among the largest in the world. 2.3 billion tonnes of coal would be extracted from the mine over its lifetime, causing 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. According to estimates, the remaining global carbon budget to limit global temperature rise below two degree celsius above pre-industrial levels as agreed in the Paris climate agreement, is 850 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The Adani coal mine will, on its own, use up 0.53% of that budget. According to a 2014 report by Dr Chris Taylor and Professor Malte Meinshausen submitted to the Land Court of Queensland which was hearing objections to the granting of mining lease to Adani, “The cumulative emissions related to this mine are amongst the highest in the world for any individual project, and – to the knowledge of the authors – the highest in the southern hemisphere”.

Terry Hughes is of the view that parts of the Great Barrier Reef can be protected if global temperature increase is limited to 1.5 degree celsius above pre-industrial levels. “It will not look the same as it did 30 years ago, but we will still have a reef,” he said. “But staying below 1.5 degree celsius is a huge challenge in itself. We need to lift our game. And we certainly cannot afford this coal mine”, Hughes added.

In addition to the climate change impact, say marine ecologists, the mine also threatens the Great Barrier Reef more directly due to the impact that the proposed dredging and the increased shipping activity will have. The Adani group plans to expand its Abbot Point coal terminal, a process which will involve dredging of 1.1 million cubic metres of sea-bed near the Great Barrier Reef marine park. “The process of dredging stirs up the bottom of the ocean and the muddy water can kill corals and other organisms in the area. It clogs up their gills. It smothers them”, Hughes told me.

The proposed coal mine would also lead to increased shipping activity from its Abbot Point coal terminal through the Great Barrier Reef as the Adani group plans to export most of the coal to India. “There is the risk of marine accidents where ships run aground. The anchor of the ships also damages sea-grass beds. Then, the ships have toxic paint which is again a threat to marine life. Noise of the ships is disruptive to many marine organisms. So, the risks posed by shipping also are significant”, said Hughes.

Concerns about the negative environmental impacts of the Adani coal mine are compounded as the mine could potentially pave the way for extraction of coal from eight other coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee basin. The project, officially referred to as the ‘Carmichael coal mine and rail project’, involves the construction of a 388-kilometre rail-link between the mine and Abbot Point coal terminal, which, if built, can be used by the other mines potentially making operations economically feasible for them.

The hitherto largely untapped Galilee basin stretches over approximately 247,000 square kilometres, larger in size than the United Kingdom. It contains an estimated 20 billion tonnes of coal, which if loaded onto a single train, it would stretch up to 2.5 million kilometres. If all the proposed mines in the Galilee basin were built, they would emit 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, making it the seventh largest polluting country in the world, if it were a country.

Using up precious ground water

The Great Artesian Basin is one of the world’s largest underground fresh water reservoirs. It underlies a vast 1.7 million square kilometres of area, occupying 22% of Australia. It is the only reliable source of fresh water supply for large parts of the arid and semi-arid regions of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

In March, the Queensland government granted the Adani group an unrestricted license for sixty years to use groundwater from the Great Artesian basin for the purpose of the mine. It is estimated that the Carmichael coal mine could use as much as 26 million litres of water a day from the basin. The awarded license candidly acknowledges that the use of water from the basin will have an impact on groundwater levels in the region during the life of the mine and for a period after.

Credit: Reuters

The Adani coal mine could use a great amount of groundwater for the coal mine. Credit: Reuters

Bruce Currie is a cattle farmer in the arid and drought-ravaged Galilee basin who relies on the Great Artesian Basin for fresh water supply. “We have two bores on our property and if even one of them is impacted, we will end up losing water supply to half of the farm”, Currie told me in a phone conversation. He fears that if the Adani coal mine is built, it could mean that the other mines in the Galilee basin also start operations. “It would be disastrous. If Adani starts, the other mines will start too and our water supplies would be destroyed for perpetuity”, he said.

In March, Currie, along with three other Australians, travelled to India and met landowners around the Adani group’s Mundra power plant. “They told me that the water quality had been severely impacted. The mangroves had been destroyed. The fishing stock was dying. Fly ash was causing disruption in farms”, he said.

The visit to India led Currie to be more proactive than earlier in his opposition to the Adani coal mine. “I was even more concerned after my visit to India. Adani is a company with questionable conduct and blatant disregard for the environment”, Currie alleged. “Why would you destroy a water basin in the driest continent of the world?”, he asked.

According to Matthew Currell, senior lecturer in hydrogeology at the School of Environmental Engineering, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, the use of groundwater by the Adani coal mine will make it difficult for people living in the area to access groundwater. “It involves the extraction of approximately 12 billion litres of ground water in a semi-arid environment with strongly seasonal rainfall. Anybody with a ground water bore will be impacted. It will make it significantly more difficult for them to access groundwater”, he said.

Currell argues that the use of groundwater by the Adani coal mine will also impact some of the ecologically and culturally significant springs and rivers. The Carmichael river, the Doongmabulla springs, and the Mellaluka springs, are a vital source of water in the region, and are also considered sacred by the traditional owners of the land – the Wangan and Jagalingou people. “The Mellaluka springs will disappear according to Adani’s own environment impact assessment. For the Doongmabulla springs, they said that the impact will be little. But, their assessment was not based on solid data,” said Currell.

The Wangan and Jagalingou people, who are also fighting a court battle to retain their right over their land, are of the view that if the Adani coal mine is built, their cultural heritage will be destroyed beyond repair. “The land, the springs, the waterways, the mountain ranges, are not just physical forms for us. They are remnants of our ancient culture. If the mine is built, there will be no record of us ever having been there”,” said Adrian Burragubba, spokesperson of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council. They said that they are prepared to battle it out for as long as it takes. “Every inch of that land is mine. Every blade of grass, every drop of water, each leaf on a tree, each bird, each animal, is mine. And I am going to fight for it. I want to tell Adani – I am not your slave,” an animated Burragubba said when I met him in Brisbane in late July.

Environmental breaches in India

Those opposed to the mine in Australia often mention the Adani group’s track-record of environmental breaches in India as one of the reasons for their concern and opposition. In the past, the Adani group has been fined Rs 200 crore by India’s environment ministry for causing damage to mangroves and creeks in the vicinity of its Mundra port. A report also found that there has been mismanagement of fly ash from the thermal power plant in Mundra Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

Geoffrey Cousins, millionaire businessman turned conservationist and now president of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), was one of the four Australians who visited India in March. “We met with people who had been impacted by the Adani group’s ports and power plants. The fish had disappeared from their fishing grounds leaving their livelihoods impacted. Mangroves had been destroyed. Fly ash was everywhere. The breach of environmental conditions was extraordinary,” Cousins said.

In August, the Queensland government fined the Adani group A$12,190 for unauthorised release of coal-laden storm-water from its Abbot point coal terminal. The Adani group has decided to contest the fine.

“The fears are already coming true. The mine hasn’t even started yet, and the Adani group has already been in breach of environment regulations in Australia,” said Zethoven.

Adani’s response

Ron Watson, spokesperson for Adani Australia, in a phone conversation, responded to the environmental concerns that have been raised by the individuals quoted in this article.

Responding to the concerns raised regarding the threats that the mine would pose to the Great Barrier Reef, Watson said, “UNESCO has said that the Great Barrier Reef is not under threat. Another report has said that the reef is recovering. We have been through so many different processes. There have been 1800 clauses and regulations imposed upon the Adani project. It is the most investigated and probed coal project in Australian history. What more can we do?”

Responding to the concerns regarding the direct impact of proposed dredging and increased shipping activity as a result of the coal mine, Watson said, “Shipping has been going on in Australia for many years. And there has only been one incident where the reef has been damaged. As regards dredging, there is no dredging in phase 1. There will only be dredging in phase 2. But, there will not be any dredging in the reef. There are no corals there. It will only be a one off dredging. Our port does not require maintenance dredging”.

On concerns about the Adani coal mine opening up a pathway for other mines to start operations in the Galilee basin, Watson said, “The prospective demand for coal in your country (India), Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan, is huge. The International Energy Agency said so. If the activists want to challenge that, good luck! In response to the allegation that we are polluting the environment, I will say this, if we do not mine the Carmichael resource, we will buy coal from Indonesia or other sources which is a lower quality. It will actually increase the amount of pollution. What we are saying is that we will replace that with cleaner coal from the Carmichael mine. And that terminology sticks in the throat of the environmentalists. But, the fact is our coal is higher energy release and lower emissions than Indonesian or Indian coal. So, we are replacing lower grade coal with higher grade coal. Therefore, we are actually contributing to India’s commitment to the Paris accord on lowering carbon emissions. If you want to increase the amount of emissions then stop the mine. These projects are about creating jobs in Australia and are about creating better life style for the people of India. If anybody wants to oppose our project, they are opposing an increase in standard of living for 300 million people in India. That is what they are opposing”.

Responding to concerns regarding the granting of an unrestricted water license for 60 years for the use of groundwater, Watson said, “That’s not true. It’s not unrestricted. We have water coming into our coal pits, we are allowed to take that water out. We can then store that water and use it for washing or other things. We are then actually reducing the amount of water that we need to take from the Artesian basin. The water that we actually take from the Artesian basin, we pay three times the amount of money that the graziers pay. We also have to pay upfront A$ 25 million that farmers are not required to pay. All this talk about the unrestricted license is propaganda being spread by activists who are living in the comfort of air-conditioned apartments”.

“We have been through 1800 environmental terms and conditions that have been placed upon this project, and that includes the water. We are covered by some of the strongest and strictest environmental regulations in force anywhere in the world. And we are a bit tired of being lectured by people about the use of energy when they are sitting in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms,” Watson added.

Responding to concerns about the Adani group’s track-record of environmental breaches in the past, Watson said, “In response to that, I will quote the Queensland minster for natural resources, Dr. Anthony Lynham – ‘Adani is under the control of Australian regulations. They are in my backyard now’. In other words, we operate in Australia under the laws of the country. So, don’t worry about what may have allegedly happened in other parts of the world. As regards the fine that the Queensland government put on Adani, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection subsequently found that there was no environmental harm. There is no flow of sediments into the Pacific ocean. The matter is in court, so I will not say too much about it”.

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Kashmir Walla, The Times of IndiaMintAl Jazeera English and The Caravan. He can be found on twitter @kabira_tweeting.