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South Australia Is Killing Coal Power and This Town is Doomed

A renewable future won't need Leigh Creek, which is a town built on coal mining. We visited to see how the locals are facing the end.

by Royce Kurmelovs
14 October 2015, 11:57pm

Before 1982, old Leigh Creek sat on an area where the open-cut pit is today. Image via

It was the afternoon of the football grand final in the Leigh Creek pub and men with tanned skin and broad shoulders had brought their families to watch. They drank beer with their wives, or with their mates, and shouted at the TV screen as their ten-year-old sons hung out at the pool table. It was a pleasant vibe, for the most part,except that for the biggest town in the region, it was a very quiet afternoon.

The reason for the quiet is that Alinta is closing shop. Leigh Creek is a company town in regional South Australia and here Alinta is king. The Perth-based energy company runs everything and has made billions over the last three decades ripping brown coal out of the ground from the nearby Telford coalmine to drive South Australia's two last coal-fired power stations in Port Augusta.

The town sign is imaginatively built out of dump truck tyres. Photos by the author

Earlier this year Alinta's CEO had been talking about how at least one of the Port Augusta plants would stay open to 2030. So, when about a month ago the company suddenly announced it was shutting both and closing the mine, it was a shock. Coal was just too expensive, the company said, and there was just too much pressure from wind to justify keeping it open. Alinta's power plants had already incurred a loss of $100 million over the past four years, with $200 million already spent on extending their shelf life. Now, in a state like SA which draws 40 percent of its energy from wind and solar, they just couldn't compete. Even as the federal government under Tony Abbott was mounting a crusade to cripple the sector, South Australia's state Labor Government quietly cornered almost half the renewable energy projects in the country. Now with Turnbull at the controls, there's a sense that business might shift even further away from fossil fuels.

In short, the world around Leigh Creek has changed, and the once-bustling community doesn't fit anymore.

Not too long ago, the idea of Leigh Creek without a coal mine was unthinkable. The mine built everything out here. Before 1982, old Leigh Creek sat on an area where the open-cut pit is today. Then the whole town was moved to where it now stands and the coal pit swallowed everything left behind.

Moving was the best thing to happen to the township as overnight the people living there suddenly had stuff. The mine brought easy work and good pay. It brought a school and a hospital and a swimming pool and sports facilities. The town started to serve anyone for kilometres around who needed food or fuel. Leigh Creek was suddenly important.

Marree, 1.5 hours north. This locomotive was stranded when the train line closed.

Now it's looking more and more like Marree, where the rail closed in the 80s. The mine's operations are due to finish up on November 17 with a skeleton crew to stay on to pack up, clean up, and hand over. Since the announcement, the state government has guaranteed Leigh Creek itself will be supported at least until 2018, but what happens next is anyone's guess.

And all people can do is guess. Ever since the announcement, conversation always turns to the mine. In the well air-conditioned pub, a man ordering a beer learns over the counter to ask the woman serving how long she's been out here. "Six years", she says, but she's only been working for three. She came out with her husband who works in the mine and then talk stops. Both know what comes next.

Steven Hoddell with his daughter

It's no different talking to Steven Hoddel, a pit boss over at the mine. He's a company man and his loyalty to Alinta is complete. He won't talk about Alinta, he says, and it's not hard to understand why. He's given the mine the best years of his life and Alinta has been good to him. All he'll say is that it's a crappy situation, but "there's no more money in it". As far as he's concerned, it's done. What's there to complain about?

Reading between the lines, Hoddel is worried. Work at the mine will dry up soon, but his wife still has a 12-month contract teaching in the school at Leigh Creek. For now, the family has to stay put and Hoddel is about to find out what a sudden surplus of free time does to a working man.

Anthony Brady

Those with more freedom are already leaving town and those who haven't are looking to. Anthony Brady lives out at Copley, about five kilometres up the road. He grew up in Old Leigh Creek and then New Leigh Creek, before moving away to Port Augusta and coming back with his kids to Copley.

The Bradys, he says, have coal in the veins and at least two generations have worked on the mine. So when he first heard it was closing, he thought it was a joke. The mine would never close, he thought, then a few weeks ago news came the whole thing was done. He doesn't work on the mine, but now he's planning to shift his family back to Port Augusta.

Maybe coal's got such a bad name that no one cares about the people who depend on it.

"I've got to follow the hospital," the father of four says. "When Leigh Creek goes, the hospital's going to be gone and there's not going to be much school for the kids now."

Brady has four kids, three girls and an 11-year-old boy with epilepsy who Brady cares for full-time. He had brought them out here so they could grow up the way he did.

"I brought my kids back up this way to get away from city life," he says. "City life is too fast, you know? Out here, it's slow, you know? It's good, they can take their time growing up. In the city you've got to grow up quick or you miss out."

"Myself, I got it easy. Back when the mines were running full strength, when I was a kid, we had everything. Swimming pool, football, sports, it was all there. But this younger generation, these new ones coming up, there's nothing for them."

An abandoned pioneer home and the mine, faintly in the background

It is a bleak future that Nigel Carney, another local at Copley, wants to avoid. Carney sees real potential in a post-coal future for Leigh Creek and the surrounding region. As proof, he points to the state government's three year guarantee and how one company has been talking about produce gas and fertilisers from the remaining coal. There's even talk among some locals about boosting tourism to the Flinders Ranges or growing frankincense. The devil, however, is in the unknown.

"It's the question mark that we want removed," Carney says. "There's some pretty smart people up here and the ideas floating around are realistic. If we get some statements from the government that these ideas are going to be funded, then that question mark goes and we have more a positive flux of energy."

Until that happens though, all the ideas are little more than talk and whether or not Leigh Creek has a life after coal depends on whether anyone out there cares enough to make it happen. On that point Carney is both hopeful and pessimistic. After all, everyone knows coal is evil and Leigh Creek is just another outback town in South Australia, the fly-over state.

"Coal's got a bad name right?" Carney says. "No one wants to talk about coal, but then how do you help mining communities transition away from coal? Maybe coal's got such a bad name that no one cares about the people who depend on it."

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