In the humble local court of Newcastle, Australia on 31/1/2011 a major battle in the war on climate change began. A court is a theatrical space where we can overhear the clashing narratives around a central event.
The defendants were six of the seven men and women from Rising Tide who, dressed as workers, had entered a coal loading facility before dawn on 26/9/2010 and locked themselves on to the equipment 30 metres above ground.
The magistrate, Elaine Truscott, said that she accepted that they were “well intentioned”. However , as each of them bar one, had been to court before for similar activities, no more requests for leniency could be requested and they were fined $300 each and costs. A great pile of abseiling equipment was tendered as evidence of their crime but they did not speak in court.
This hearing had been sought by Port Waratah Coal Service under the Victim’s support and rehabilitation act. They wanted the $1,800 paid for a cherry picker to get the seven protestors down and $525,000.00 for loss of opportunity to load coal.
The coal loader’s narrative was the one heard by the court. As their lawyer said “It’s simple”, the Port Waratah Coal service is an aggrieved party like the victim of a break and enter, “it’s just that the quantum is different”.
And here is what that quantum difference adds up to.
Train loads of coal are brought into Port Waratah around the clock, 365 days a year. To assemble a cargo, the operations manager Shaun Sears, described the 20 trains, each loaded with 6,000 tonnes of coal that unload to create a stockpile. The pride in his work and his meticulous accounting inspired admiration as he explained the complex of conveyors leading up to the ships. You could imagine the pyramids of coal and the ships, some so deep that they can only leave with their loot at high tide. If it wasn’t coal; leaving in its wake destroyed farmlands and aquifers, lung cancers and asthmas from the particulate dust and exporting with it, the huge potential for climate changing pollution, then you’d be proud of his contribution to our prosperity.
Mr Averre, the defendants’ lawyer never hinted at the nasty side of the work. He was fascinated with the details of the victim’s loss. He accepted that 13 hours loading time had been lost and although one loaded vessel left the port at 8am, another was delayed for 8 hours even though Mr Sears admitted that it did leave with its anticipated tonnage.
Apart from protestors were there normally any other reasons for lost capacity and who bore the cost?
The answer was that apart from weather and maintenance, if performance was down for any reason then the coal service reduced the allocation of time and passed on the loss to the coal producer.
In this instance, they sent a note to coal exporters that a “force majeure” event had decreased their capacity by 2 shiploads of coal at $3.75 per tonne in September. He told us that they were the largest coal loaders in the world and that the short fall in lost capacity was never made up.
The counter narrative to this was only to be heard at a press conference where one of the seven , Carly Phillips, portrayed the mining industry as a bully, trying to stop the growing opposition to Australia’s addiction to coal. She said clearly that coal was our major contribution to global warming. She described the Australian government as having “caved in to the coal industry” and said “The hour is upon us to phase out fossil fuels and rapidly transition to renewable energy.”
This article was first published in Green Left Weekly.
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