Coal mining’s promise falls through for Dunedoo

Originally published by the New York Times on 08/10/15.

Photo: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times

Photo: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times

 

A flock of pink and grey galahs takes flight over the sports field, but Mark Gallagher does not see them.

Gazing out over the field, soft and verdant in the late afternoon sun, he sees the game last year where the town’s rugby league team, the Dunedoo Swans, battled the Coonamble Bears for the district title, the Castlereagh Cup. It was a perfect spring afternoon and the Swans, which Gallagher managed, had their best team in years, the pride of this agricultural hamlet close to Mudgee and about 320 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

That mine took families off farms. They used to come in here to buy their groceries and small luxuries. Not anymore.

-Trish Booth

Farm gates in the area were festooned then with “Go Dunedoo” signs. Cars packed the grounds and spectators clambered on the beds of two truck trailers that served as makeshift grandstands to cheer on their team. The Swans triumphed, 32-12, taking the cup for the first time in 47 years.

This year, Dunedoo does not even have enough players to field a team.

“It is the saddest thing,” said Gallagher, 46. “After winning the grand final, they couldn’t run onto the field this year to contest the cup. We couldn’t find a coach, and we didn’t have the young men. They left.”

Even before its population declined, Dunedoo was pretty small: a speck of a red-dirt town with one main street, a single grocery store, a newsstand and a hotel. Yellow daisies sprout like weeds through its grass verges, and towering old gums and weathered pepper trees line the centre of its country roads.

Photo: Adam Ferguson

Photo: Adam Ferguson

Dunedoo is an Aboriginal word meaning black swan. A town landmark is the epic, misshapen rubber fowl mounted on the roof of Dunedoo’s single motel, The Swan. Known for its ranches of prizewinning merino sheep and stud cattle, Dunedoo seemed to its residents like the kind of place that would never change.

In 2008, the state government announced plans to build a coal mine here, promising jobs and cheap power. The coal business was booming amid exploding demand from China. The government bought up 458 square kilometres of land for the mine project, boarding up 114 farms and homes.

Since then, coal prices have plummeted to their lowest level in years and the government has not been able to find a mining company willing to open a mine here. In 2013, the government abandoned its plans to develop the mine and last December appointed Goldman Sachs to sell the land.

By then, the district had lost 95 families, about a tenth of its population. A sense of loss pervades the town, and residents feel they are victims of forces beyond their control.

1444981768484

“It is dreadful,” said Trish Booth, who owns the 5-Star Supermarket. “That mine took families off farms. They used to come in here to buy their groceries and small luxuries. Not anymore. I’m fighting tooth and nail to keep my business going.”

Barry Evans, 85, a retired sheep farmer who now lives in town, said plans for the mine had divided the community. Some people wanted the jobs and revenue the mine would bring, but others feared coal dust in the air and an ugly open wound in the earth across the district’s pristine pastures.

“But then it doesn’t come, well, that’s a big loss to the businesspeople here,” Evans said. “It is a poor state of standing for the town.”

Like many residents, he remembers better times, like the night of wild dancing in his wool shed in 2001, an event that drew three-quarters of the town and raised money to build housing for older Australians. “I got to bed at 3 am,” he said with smile.

“I love Dunedoo and all the things I’ve done here,” he said. But now he worries about its future.

As the government closed farms, the local school lost 25 children and has switched to a smaller school bus. A third of Dunedoo’s population is over 60 years old.

“None of my children live here,” Mr. Evans said. “They could see bigger things they could apply their education to outside the town.”

Lou Armstrong, 62, a third-generation sheep breeder, said years of uncertainty about the mine had hobbled businesses. Some of the land for the mine has been leased back to farmers, but the short-term leases, he said, discourage investment.

“Those pastures won’t be improved,” he said. “That’s a loss to the district.”

Two of Armstrong’s three children returned from city boarding schools to work on the farm, but they worry about the community.

“The whole mining affair didn’t help Dunedoo,” Armstrong said. “It is very hard keeping the kids here. They love the lifestyle, but if there’s no profit there’s no lifestyle.”

1444981885592

Photo: Adam Ferguson

The town has been officially compensated for its loss. The NSW state government provided a $6.3 million transition fund to help rejuvenate the economy.

Most of the money has been spent. Construction is about to start on a complex of retirement apartments. A skate park for the town’s children was built. A public bathroom was constructed near a rest stop for truckers, and the gravel road there paved with asphalt. And there are new lighted netball courts near the sports field.

Residents worry that the new amenities will do little to solve Dunedoo’s enduring problems.

“None of what’s been done here is long term,” said Damien O’Leary, a farmer and vice president of Dunedoo’s agricultural show and fair committee. “The transition fund hasn’t created industry or jobs.”

Mr Gallagher, the manager of the Swans, who owns a small construction firm, said that the town’s committees all had a voice in asking for money but that no one came up with a “big-bang industry that could help revive Dunedoo.”

“There’s no work at a skate park, no jobs in retirement living apartments,” he said. “They should have built something big out here, an industry. Now, it is too late.”

One business that may benefit from the improvements to the truck stop is the White Rose Café, across the street from it.

Photo: Adam Ferguson

Photo: Adam Ferguson

“We get the truckers and the gray nomads,” said Karleeta Ryan, 58, who bought the cafe in 2013 with her husband Gerry, 61. Open seven days, early until late, the restaurant, one of two in Dunedoo, serves pulled-pork rolls, lamb pies, beer-battered fish and a bacon, pineapple and banana melt.

“When I found out the mine had stalled, I asked the council to put a shower into the truck stop across the road,” Ms. Ryan said. “It sounds silly, but it would have encouraged the truck drivers to stop for a little longer.”

As the cafe’s tables filled, she rinsed coffee cups and wiped her wet hands on her apron. “Sometimes when one door shuts, another one opens,” she said. “We are waiting.”

Among the young people who have not returned to Dunedoo is Tom Yeo, 27, the former captain and star of the victorious Dunedoo Swans. He moved to Dubbo, a bigger town, where he could find work as a plumber.

He still thinks about that warm September day and how that one game on that one afternoon brought the entire town together.

“This was the culmination of everything for the town,” he said. “It was crazy, to see so many people there. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Everyone got caught up in the passion. It peaked for us with that grand final.”

Still, he said, Dunedoo is blessed.

“Small towns are dying,” he said. “But there are good families in town who work hard.”

 

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