A TOWN LIKE ALPHA
Australia, April 29 -- The huge machinery of mining is advancing through the Australian outback, sweeping up towns, farms and communities and changing them to their fundament. Next on the frontline is the sleepy town of Alpha, in central Queensland.
According to the Mineral Council of Australia the resources boom is worth $121 billion a year and represents over half of the nation’s exports. It employs two hundred thousand people directly and over half-a-million indirectly.
But for towns like Alpha, it can also mean
* spiralling prices
* huge pressures on infrastructure
* population influxes
* a culture of alcohol and drug abuse
* unfetterred profiteering
* issues with fly-in, fly–out (FIFO) and drive-in, drive out (DIDO) workers.
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Last year I was travelling through remote Queensland and couldn’t find a hotel. Every town was overrun by prospectors. I drove two hours out of my way to get to the first empty room, in Alpha, a hamlet of 350 residents.
While eating dinner, the waitress told me she had just received the government land valuation of her fibro house. In 2010 it was worth three thousand dollars, this year it was worth more than thirty times that, ninety thousand dollars. ‘The miners are coming,’ she told me. She said the whole population felt the same, excited by the potential and money that the mines would bring, scared at the cost.
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There are four mines due to start operating around Alpha, the first starting later this year. The local council says they no idea of the number of workers to expect. The town lacks infrastructure, has no airfield or even sewerage. Water supplies are often stretched with the current population. Construction of a new pipeline to supply water to the mines and the towns is about to start. The water will be piped 276 kilometres from Moranbah, but won’t be ready until 2014. Until then it will have to be shipped into the area.
When I suggested to the waitress that this was an opportunity to make money, she replied that she doesn’t live in Alpha to be rich, ‘it’s the community, the quiet way of life. I’m not a businessperson.’
She asked me not to name her, which was common among the locals I spoke to. Alpha is a small community and she didn’t want to appear negative; ‘I have to live here, and want to continue to.’
Speculators from out of town have been buying up property and rumours abound of landlords evicting locals, and the elderly being sent into aged carer. Houses that were leased out for eighty dollars a week in 2010 are fetching close to a thousand now.
But despite these fears, the population seems to be supportive of the mining development.
One local who is happy to be on the public record is Paola Cassoni.
‘Its like it’s unAustralian to criticise the miners. The town has been depressed for so long, the locals don’t want to hear us saying, “your kids shouldn’t have the opportunity to earn huge salaries on the mines."'
Cassoni is co-owner of the Bimblebox Nature Refuge, which is under mining lease from Waratah Coal, and will most likely become a large open quarry.
In Queensland, land ownership only extends to a few centimetres below the ground. Below that everything belongs to the state. When the government issues a mining licence, the owner has no legal ability to stop miners entering, prospecting or mining on the property.
Cassoni has been running a campaign to preserve the Refuge, and she told an audience at a showing of the documentary Bimblebox in Brisbane.
‘Coal is a valuable commodity, expended and its extraction determined by economics, not ethics, nor honour, nor health. Our place is sacrificial.’
In the dying days of the Bligh government, the Queensland premier promised to protect the refuge. The policy of the new government is unknown.
Cassoni says that some locals are fatalistic. ‘Graziers are just giving up and leaving rather than fighting … while others (townspeople) are saying “bugger it, I’ll get a good salary for a couple of years and then get out.”
Paddy Dingo, is a second generation grazier and believes anyone who supports the mining companies is a ‘dickhead’.
‘Sorry for the language, but that’s how we talk here in the north,' he says.
‘There is a lot of coal out there but it won’t help this town much … they just fly the miners in and fly them out … ‘
The Federal Government is currently running an inquiry into the practices of shipping workers into communities in the mining industry. FIFO and DIDO workers are bought into towns for intensive periods, commonly fourteen days straight working twelve-hour shifts.
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One source within the local council says they have asked the mining companies for 30% of operational workforce to live locally but are ‘not getting a lot of love’ from the mining companies.
Paddy Dingo lived through the last time the town become the focus of miners. In the 1970’s the town was poised to become a centre of mining, but Lang Hancock pulled out after the energy crisis.
‘(Mining leases) puts every one who owns those properties in limbo and you have got no say, I have never yet seen a mine that returns it to natural state. It is just a big mess. The mines either go broke or sell out and move somewhere else and the land is just left, just a big pile of rubbish’.
Dingo says effects of the developments are already being felt in Alpha.
‘You go down the street and there’s some smart-arse fella on the piss and drugs carrying on. The town’s full of drugs and poofters.’