Alexandra O’Grady

It has been a race against time and the stakes were high but the fight to save Springvale Coal Mine has been won with miners finally returning to work.

To the outsider, Lithgow could be any small town in regional NSW. As you walk down the main street, the Lithgow Hotel is on the right, the Lansdowne and Tattersall Hotels on the left and all the businesses are owned and operated by locals. Most people have lived here all their lives. It’s the kind of place you raise your children and then the grandchildren. For those who do leave, they’re always coming back because Lithgow is the place you call home.

If you’re a local you definitely cannot walk down the main street without being stopped half a dozen times. The kids are always in the local paper for their latest achievement at school or because they scored the winning try for the Lithgow Storm.

This is definitely the case for local resident Anthony Brown who has called Lithgow home for the past 31 years. He is heavily involved in the community, especially when it comes to sport. When he isn’t down on the football fields coaching, he’s down at the cricket pitch managing and playing there.

But like many people in Lithgow, Anthony is a miner at Springvale Colliery and for the last few months his job along with hundreds of others has been under threat.

Lithgow is a mining town with records of coal dating back to the 1800s. The main coal mine, Springvale Colliery, opened in 1995 and now owned by Centennial Coal, is a huge source of employment for many residents in the Greater Lithgow region. It is the only supplier to Energy Australia’s Mt Piper Power Station, which supplies power to 15% of the state.

Yet there has been a problem that has stopped the miners in their tracks. A gap between the current mining license expiration and the approval for a new license that will extend the life of the mine by another 13 years has meant that hundreds of workers have been stood down for the past 8 weeks.

It has been a long road with Centennial beginning groundwork for the extension back in 2010 when they began collecting baseline data for the Environmental Impact Assessment. In September 2012 they began the formal consent renewal process with the NSW Department of Planning and since then, Centennial has spent $2.5 million on the project. It has been a difficult time, with Centennial forced to put other mines in the area into care and maintenance and made a number of jobs redundant.

Majority of the Springvale workforce was stood down on August 21st, over 1030 days since the process began, putting pressure on many mining families who will be forced to leave Lithgow to find work if the extension isn’t approved.

However, after two reviews by the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC), the application moved from the NSW State Government through to the Federal Government who approved the license last week.

Springvale required an Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation approval from the Federal Government before they could resume work. The main opposition throughout the whole process has been from environmentalists who have raised concerns about the impact of the mine on local swamps and water quality.

Anthony, Springvale Colliery’s Production Superintendent, said the Federal Government’s decision to extend the license is a great relief for the whole town.

“We had been told approval could have taken up to November, maybe end of October in the best case. This early decision has been really good for everyone.”

It was hard to enjoy the time off for miners, as many were forced to use annual leave that they had been saving for holidays with their families.

“I was worried about going on holidays and coming home to find the mine had shut down and I didn’t have a job,” Anthony said.

The Browns know all too well what it would be like to leave Lithgow. Anthony was made redundant from Springvale shortly after the birth of their first child, back in 2000. They were forced to pack up, lease their home and move to Parkes for two years so that Anthony could get employment in a copper mine

“I’d hate to uproot my children from Lithgow again, this time they’d have to leave their school, their friends and all their family.”

The community would also bear the brunt if the approval hadn’t been secured. Life-long residents Rod and Tina of Professionals Real Estate witnessed the effect on local businesses during the shut down from their location on Main Street. However the real impact on their business would be felt if the mine had closed.

“Listings would be high end because the miners earn higher salaries which can devalue properties and it would affect supply and demand,” Tina Case said.

Mayor of Lithgow Maree Statham has been a strong voice for the community during this time and advocated heavily for the extension at Springvale.

“I have never ever thought negative; I thought they didn’t give me enough evidence to suggest it shouldn’t go ahead. I looked at what was given to me on paper, I went down to Springvale and into the mine… and I thought, no this has got to continue,” she said.

“Genuinely what we have to look at is this was an existing underground mine that needed an extension and I think that the anger and the angst in the room that I could feel at each PAC meeting is that we are not asking for something that is incredibly wrong, we are asking for something that we believe is the right decision to have Springvale go ahead.”

Curtis Jones, Springvale United Lodge President, had seen first hand how hard the workers have taken it.

“The morale has been low, the blokes were very uncertain about their futures. As the union rep out there, I get a lot of phone calls. I’ve had to implement the stand down roster. We have only had 110 out of 310 that have been allowed to work each week and we have just had to do it as fair across the board as we could to give everyone a little bit of work. It hasn’t been the best for everyone but we have tried to keep it as fair as possible.”

But the Lithgow community has not been sitting on their hands waiting for bad news. Mark Jenkins, an Operator at Springvale and member of the union, is just one person who has been a voice for miners and his family is right behind him.

Mark and his wife Tennille have lived in Lithgow their entire lives, along with their two children Meleke and Taj. They believed it was extremely important to stand up and support the mine.

“We got involved for our town. Without all of this in Lithgow I’m not sure we would all be here,” Tennille said. “We would probably have to move if Mark lost his job and I think majority of families with our age children would do the same. There just isn’t the jobs that the men would be able to chase in such a small town and we don’t want to move away from our friends and our family.”

Closing the mine doesn’t just impact miners and their families it would be felt across the whole Lithgow district as Mark explained.

“A lot of businesses are related to the mine. Its not just the mine with 310 workers its also the power station with another 200 plus workers, the hairdressers that cut those people’s hair, the butchers the people buy their food from.”

But perhaps the most compelling voice on the issue was year 6 student, Meleke Jenkins, who stood up in front of 200 people at one of the PAC meetings. Meleke shifted the focus, bravely explaining that this was her home. “I wrote a speech about what it made me feel if my dad lost his job and what we would have to do and if we had to move away and I said stuff about how I’d miss sport and other things I did.”

The people of Lithgow have taken the time and worked hard to build a strong, close-knit community and that may have suffered the most had the recent decision gone the other way. Each miner at Springvale donates $5 a week to a charity fund that goes to the community. Things like a new machine for the local hospital and upgrades to the new indoor pool.

“Most guys donate $2 a week to CareFlight,” Mark said. “That’s another thing that would affect a small town like Lithgow if we closed.”

With the Federal approval coming through sooner than expected, things are looking up for Springvale who expect to produce 4.5 million tonnes of coal a year. This will support the existing 310 jobs at Springvale and inject over $335 million into the economy over the 13 years. However, strict conditions will be applied to Centennial to minimise environmental damage.

Lithgow has been lucky to escape the same ‘ghost town’ fate of many mining towns across Australia where residents and businesses have been forced to move to find employment, leaving the once thriving towns behind.

Mayor Statham is looking ahead to create other opportunities in Lithgow and reduce reliance on the mines in the future.

“It is my plan while I am mayor, to start putting in a strategic plan to think about ways we can get some diversification here. There are several things that are going to happen in Lithgow… now what we need to do is look forward to a brighter future so the grand children and other children can stay here.”