Image: Map of the area
Since 1989 the company known as Coalpac has been operating in the Lithgow area of the central Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Over that time there have been some environmental issues with the Invincible Colliery. When Coalpac applied for a modification to its mining license to allow for an expansion in 2010, there arose a number of concerns amongst the local community. These concerns were of an environmental nature and the community began lobbying the NSW government to deny the application. Coalpac commissioned an environmental impact statement which satisfied the government requirements by early 2013 and it seemed likely that the application would be accepted (Coalpac 2014b). What happened next is an example of the ethical and professional dilemmas faced by archaeologists employed within the mining industry.
In 2010, Coalpac as part of the environmental impact statement conducted an archaeological survey of the area concerned. The survey was conducted by two archaeology consultants from a mining engineering firm, employed by Coalpac and three representatives of the Wiradjuri people, the local Indigenous community (Coalpac 2012:4-5). In April of 2014 members of the Lithgow Environment Group found a stencil of a handprint in a cave which had not been identified by the Coalpac survey. The presence of the hand stencil was raised with the NSW government as was the validity of the heritage assessment undertaken by Coalpac. The stencil was described as being ‘obvious’ and distinct from the rock face, so how did the survey team miss it? (Hepworth 2014).
Image: The hand stencil in question
The original consultants were called in again to have another look and they concluded that the hand stencil motif did not match with other rock art in the area. Furthermore since the rock wall was prone to cracking and flaking due to water flow the stencil could not be of ‘significant’ age. Coalpac declared the motif to be only 3½ years of age at most (drawn since the original survey in 2010) and went as far as declaring it to be a phony (Coalpac 2014a). It should be noted however, that if the stencil was real and the original team missed it the first time, why use them again? Coalpac appeared to acting based on an assumption that the stencil was fake before conducting the second survey. If that was the case was the survey team instructed or encouraged to find that the stencil was modern? Certainly the Australian mining website jumped onto the bandwagon and ran a series of articles immediately following the release of the second survey report, declaring the stencil to be a phony and suggesting that it was simply an attempt by self-serving environmentalists to block a project which would create hundreds of jobs for the community (Hagemann 2014a).
After the second survey the Blue Mountains Conservation Society commissioned an archaeological consulting firm to conduct a third survey of the rock art site. The third survey team found additional hand stencils in other parts of the cave wall as well as scatters of stone tools on the floor. Their conclusion was that the site was used by Indigenous peoples over a long period of time for shelter and that all the rock art in the cave including the ‘phony’ stencil were of considerable age (Blucher 2014). These results were subsequently verified by a representative of the Office of Environment and Heritage which has the final say on matters of Indigenous heritage. So how is it that the results of surveys both conducted by trained archaeologists could differ so radically?
Image: Stone tools found on the cave floor in situ.
The environmental group opposing the expansion called into question the due diligence and competence of the original survey team. Furthermore perhaps their status as being ‘independent’ consultants should be questioned as well? In addition a representative of the Wiradjuri council claimed that the representatives involved in the original survey were not from the area of the mine and were not familiar with the Indigenous sites located there (Hagemann 2014b). If Coalpac had been serious about protecting Indigenous heritage and following due process surely they should have taken the time to consult with Indigenous people with proper levels of knowledge of the area?
So why did this happen? The answer perhaps lies in Coalpac’s financial situation, the company is currently insolvent and the two open cut mines including the Invincible Colliery are currently not in operation. Energy Australia has declared its willingness to buy Coalpac and re-open the open cuts if the expansion plan is greenlighted. It is entirely possible that Coalpac may have put the archaeological consultants they hired under pressure to produce results that would not cause problems for the expansion plans. Or they may have restricted their time and funding to such an extent that the consultants did not have the resources to conduct more than a preliminary survey of the hand stencil. If that was the case how was it possible that the NSW government was ready to approve the expansion plan, should they have not realized that the heritage assessment was lacking? The author will leave the reader to form their own opinion on the issues raised in this blog but it does highlight the ethical and professional dilemmas faced by archaeologists employed by the mining industry.
Blucher, A. 2014 Mine’s Aboriginal ‘rock art’ found to be authentic. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from Mine’s Aboriginal ‘rock art’ found to be authentic – ABC Rural (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Coalpac 2014a Community Newsletter July 2014. Lithgow: CW Print on behalf of Coalpac Pty Ltd.
Coalpac 2014b Company Website. Retrieved 26 August 2014 from http://cetresources.com/
Coalpac 2012 Environmental Impact Statement. Retrieved 26 August 2014 from https://majorprojects.affinitylive.com/public/637aed249f70dea6ec7b53b2235ef77e/10.%20Coalpac%20Consolidation%20Project%20EA%20-%20Main%20Report.pdf
Hagemann, B. 2014a “Aboriginal” art stopping coal expansion found to be phony. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from “Aboriginal” art stopping coal expansion found to be phony | Mining Australia
Hagemann, B. 2014b Coalpac’s claims about age of Aboriginal hand stencil in dispute. Retrieved 27 August 2014 from http://www.miningaustralia.com.au/news/coalpac-s-claims-about-age-of-ben-bullen-hand-sten
Hepworth, A. 2014 Mine’s ‘rock art’ just 3½ years old. Retrieved 1 September from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/mines-rock-art-just-3-years-old/story-e6frg9df-1226964358502#