If you have a chance to tour the enormous working at the Leigh Creek Coalfield, machinery and equipment appear may like small white ants in a big black hole. Huge truck which can carry over 240 tonnes of overburden material. The coal is loaded by even bigger electric shovels.
The process of mining coal and removing overlying material (overburden) is going on 24 hours a day seven days a week. The whole workforce is now less than 200 people, reduced from about 750 people in 1988. The mine can produce over 3 million tonnes of coal a year, which is transported by rail for over 250 km to Port Augusta to fuel the Port Augusta Power Stations. The power generated produces a large proportion of South Australia's electricity.
powering a state
Coal from Leigh Creek was a vital component in the industrialisation of South Australia. For South Australia it meant to be independent in electric energy. Leigh Creek and its power stations in Port Augusta remain major job providers in the north of South Australia.
Mining at Leigh Creek made the development of infrastructure necessary. A good highway, a large sealed airport, a railway system, a reliable water supply and a modern township provide services to the far northern communities of South Australia. The current infrastructure in Leigh Creek has the potential to help making the Far Northern region of South Australia as an important tourist destinations. The diverse landscape around Leigh Creek has the potential as one of the best filming locations in Australia.
When the State Bank of South Australia collapsed resulting in billion dollar losses to the State, the sale of government assets like ETSA became an attractive option for the government to reduce its debts. At the same time federal government's desire to develop a competitive integrated electricity network for Australia. After long heated debates in Parliament, the governments plan to privatise the states electricity industry finally got the go ahead. On the 3rd of August 2000 Flinders Power (a former part of ETSA) was purchased by one of the world's leading electricity generators, the USA based NRG. Flinders Power became NRG Flinders again. During late 2006, Babcock & Brown took over the assets of NRG.
The large coal resources and massive resources of high-energy shale may one day make Leigh Creek the site of the largest power station in Australia. Whilst current technology could make such an option possible, it would require massive investments and bold vision. In the meantime coal will be mined 24 hours a day.
The Government of South Australia promised that privatisation of ETSA would lead to cheaper power. Since privatisation of ETSA, power prices have increased sharply! It is a good demonstration that politics remain politics and that telling truth has never been strength of our political leaders. The introduction of terrace mining has meant that overburden is dumped back in the mining pits. It also means that massive coal resources will remain buried forever until in-situ gasification or other energy suitable energy harvesting methods become available.
"Sponcom" or spontaneous combustion of coal and overburden material has been a big problem in coal mining across the world. In Leigh Creek, the problem was very serious, because for most of the mining history no active rehabilitation of overburden dumps was carried out. Whilst spontaneous combustion occurs throughout the year, the problem is serious when during calm winter days, when inversion layers stop the toxic smoke from escaping into the atmosphere. During the 90th, some workers managed to get the problem into the public arena, forcing the State Government (then owners of the coal mine) to undertake investigations. Workers claimed that the smoke from the coal and overburden fires would cause serious health problems, which included cancer.
where smoking is free
The State Government undertook a scientific study which could not proof any direct links between spontaneous combustion and ill health of workers. Whilst the problem was serious during the winter, the study was carried out during the summer. This may have been coincidental or the timing may have helped to provide the desired results for the State Government. For many workers at Leigh Creek, the issue has remained a concern. They cannot understand that passive smoking can be harmful to health, but that working for 12 hours shifts in heavy smoke is harmless!
In the meantime other issues have emerged in the media and the health concerns of workers at Leigh Creek has been put asleep.