Undermining Rivers: Sydney’s Drinking Water Endangered by Longwall Coal Mining — 18 July to 11 August 2007

Artists: Deborah Vaughan & Toni Warburton with Patrice Newell and Julie Sheppard of Rivers SOS

Opening conversation: 18 July 2007 with Patrice Newell & Julie Sheppard of Rivers SOS
Also screening of short film, Rivers of Shame.

 

Rivers in Sydney’s sacrosanct water catchment areas have been cracked, drained and polluted: undermined by underground coal mining. Sydney Catchment Authority has no power to stop mining directly under and beside the rivers and dams of the upper nepean catchment area. until recently it was fundamental that protection zones applied to essential drinking water catchments. Then the nSW Government approved longwall leases for the world’s largest resources company BHP Billiton (Illawarra Coal), and the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy (Metropolitan Mine), under Sydney’s water catchments.

The Upper Nepean and Upper Georges River Catchment areas include the dams Nepean, Avon, Cordeaux and Cataract that supply 20 per cent of Sydney’s drinking water. Although these special catchments are normally hidden from view, dramatic photographs by environmentalist Julie Sheppard showed subsidence damage caused by longwall mining: vanished rivers and creeks, poisoned water and barren ground. Once the gargantuan longwall machine has made its cut of up to 2 km long and passed, the roof is allowed to fall.

The Illawarra escarpment meets the sea at the historic Bulli coal seam. The Appin longwall colliery has a dubious history of unsuitable technology, inadequate regulation and resultant devastation of the Avon and Nepean river systems. In their installations, artists Deborah Vaughan and Toni Warburton raised moral questions. As Deborah Vaughan’s work Train Schizzes (2007) underscored, coal supplies are no abstract issue but one close to our heart. Her looped footage of empty and full coal trains eternally running up and down the Illawarra Line to the Kembla Grange BHP steelworks suggest the conflict: computers, stoves and heating run on cheap coal-fired electricity.

In Toni Warburton’s Wall Chronology: Transactions to Catchment (1990-2007), a sculptural figure of a boy in 18th century dress drank a beaker of water. He seemed to read a poetic wall-text describing the sheer sensual pleasure of his drink. Alongside, an elegant wall installation of ceramic, glass and artists’ books connected the ancient beaker form and purification rituals to the natural science of water filtration. Saint Hedwig (d.1243), queen and patron saint of Silesia, was assisted by her moulded and cut glass beaker. The Hedwig beaker had the miraculous property of making ordinary water taste so pure that it seemed like an exquisite wine.

Rivers SOS, a coalition of environment and community groups formed as a result of the wrecking of rivers in NSW by mining operations, campaigns for a safety zone of at least 1 km around all rivers to protect them from ongoing damage. The short documentary film Rivers of Shame (2006) showed the wider impacts of this greed for coal to six river systems by linking the southern coalfields with similar collapse of riverbeds in the Upper Hunter. The damage involves multiple cracking of river bedrock causing water loss and pollution as ecotoxic chemicals are leached from the fractured rocks. Aquifers may often be breached. Satisfactory remediation is not possible.

The associated exhibition Grounded: Art, Activism, Environment (Campbelltown Art Gallery, 2007, curated by Lisa Havilah and Jo Holder), brought together artists and community activists from south-west Sydney to reflect on the compromised state and reckless development of their local environment. The eclectic installation wove historical connections between fine arts, crafts and resident actions to highlight the Iemma government’s poor performance on over-development, water and energy resources management in the lead-up to the 2007 state election. Expanded for the increased scale of Campbelltown Art Centre, the exhibition traced Sydney’s fast-sprawling growth corridor upstream to the Nepean headwaters, the Wingecarribee wetlands in the Southern Tablelands of NSW and related Sydney water catchments extending down to Sandon Point in the Illawarra.

The sculptural figure of the ‘wild boy’ In Toni Warburton’s Wall Chronology: Transactions to Catchment now faced a vast wall. Behind the drinker an elegant wall installation of largely ceramic and glass, related the beaker form to sedge, wetlands and the natural science of water filtration. Toni Warburton studies peat, an ancient and essential purifying filter for wetlands, as a component of her ceramics practice. She showed how the dredging of Wingecarribee Swamp by a mining lease- holder and the removal of part of its structural fabric weakened the entire peat land and in 1998, after heavy rains, most of the swamp collapsed. This ecological disaster also compromised the local drinking water.

Once the gargantuan longwall machine has made its cut of up to 2 km long and passed, the roof is allowed to fall. 

Further west at St Marys, local conservationists/ amateur artists painted exquisite botanical illustrations to sell as cards to help fund the protest against the Australian Defence site sell-off: a significant remnant of urban bush with high levels of biodiversity, including roaming mobs of emu. The exhibition was accompanied by aerial maps, historic photographs (from Lend Lease, a massive corporate developer long- active in the region, and William Blandowski’s natural history loaned from Campbelltown Historical Society), a taxonomy of endangered local birds and the sound of an increasing volume of water trickling, burbling then running and crashing out to sea.

Strong curatorial strategies are particularly important when blurring the traditional distinction between practical and discursive arts—as when art, community and economic
development combine with landcare and employment or education programs. In NSW, 23 new coal projects are proposed with
total production capacity equivalent to 15 Adani-sized mines. Ten Adanis’ worth of these projects are proposed for the Upper Hunter. Calls for a moratorium on new coal approvals is growing louder—an essential step if we are to meet our obligations to a world with net zero emissions in 2050. Instead schizophrenic governments make one step forward while taking two steps backwards. 

 

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Julie Sheppard, Map showing proposed longwall coal mines that threaten rivers in Upper Nepean and Upper Georges River Special Catchment Areas, NSW, 2007. Printed map, pen and collage.
Toni Warburton, The Drinker (detail), 1990–reprised 2007. Toni Warburton, Catchment Studies: volumes 1-5, 2002–2007. Collage, paper, cardboard, gesso photocopies, watercolours, coloured pencil,  ink, graphite, glue, book binders’ muslin, buckram. Artist books bound by Newbold and Collins.

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Deborah Vaughan, Train Schizzes, 2007. Installation, variable dimensions.

Mining diagrams courtesy Black Diamond Historical Museum, Bulli.

Toni Warburton, Catchment Studies: volumes 1-5,     2002–2007. Installation view.
   


Artist Notes on Catchment Studies and CATCHMENT: a field of beakers for St Hedwig of Silesia and for Wingecarribee swamp (edited):

The austerities of Saint Hedwig (d.1243), Queen and patron saint of Silesia, were assisted by her moulded and cut glass beaker. The Hedwig beaker (there are reputedly eleven in the world today) attained the status of a relic as it had the miraculous property of making ordinary water taste so pure that it seemed like an exquisite wine.

Peat, an ancient and essential purifying filter for wetlands, was dredged from Wingecarribee Swamp in the Southern Tablelands of NSW under the cynical jurisdiction of a mining lease, despite ten years of public outcry. This removal of part of its structural fabric weakened the entire peat land and in 1998, after heavy rains, most of the swamp collapsed. This ecological disaster also compromised the local drinking water.

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Notes: Four tributary rivers, the Cataract, Bargo, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers, flow into the Upper Nepean River.

The four big Upper Nepean dams—Nepean, Avon, Cordeaux and Cataract—supply 20% of Sydney’s supply of drinking water.

Water is pumped from the upper Nepean River through the Nepean Tunnel to Broughton’s Pass Weir on the lower Cataract River, and on to the city’s Prospect Reservoir. Two dams also supply drinking water to the Illawarra region.  

 

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Julie Sheppard, Waratah Rivulet: Cracked, Drained, Polluted, 2007. Colour photographs.

Note: The Waratah Rivulet in the Sutherland Shire south of Sydney makes up about 30% of the Woronora Dam catchment.

The Rivulet is dry because of the impacts of underground longwall coal mining 500 m below the surface.  

 

Special Thanks


Patrice Newell, Climate Change Coalition, and Julie Sheppard, secretary Rivers SOS. Thanks also to Dave Burgess, Total Environment Centre; Bob Percival, Woolloomooloo Film Society; Lisa Havilah, Campbelltown Art Centre; and Vivian Vidulich, Wollongong City Gallery and Black Diamond Heritage Centre, Bulli.

Exhibitions

The Trouble with the Weather: UTS Gallery, 2007 at www.utsgallery.uts.edu.au
Alison Clouston & Boyd: www.burragorang.org


Rivers and Water Campaigners (Sydney and NSW regions)

The Total Environment Centre www.tec.org.au

Save the Drip www.savethedrip.com

Sutherland Shire Environment Centre www.ssec.org.au

Rising Tide Newcastle www.risingtide.org.au

Nature Conservation Council www.nccnsw.org.au

Lock the Gate   www.lockthegate.org.au

Land and Water Future www.landwaterfuture.org.au

POWA (Protect our Water Alliance) – www.protectourwateralliance.org/damage-to-the- catchment