On Wednesday evening we marked the anniversary of the Mount Kembla mine disaster; a mine explosion that killed 96 miners in 1902. The early economic success of our region rested on the backs of these workers; too many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. Eighty-two lives were lost at Bulli in 1887 and 14 lives were lost at Appin Mine only 40 years ago. Many descendants of those killed still call the Illawarra home.
Coal was first discovered by shipwrecked sailors in 1797 at Austinmer, which they burned for warmth, but it was another 50 years before mining commenced in the Illawarra. By the turn of the century some 15 mines had opened along the escarpment between Mount Keira and Thirroul.
In 1928 a steelworks was established at Port Kembla to take advantage of the deep water port and the coal being produced in the region. Blended coal taken from the Bulli and Wongawilli seams was found to be perfect for steel-making blast furnaces, and this remains the case today.
We often talk about mining as a legacy industry for the Illawarra; something that occurred in the past. But we need to recognise that it remains vital to our future, and that modern, safe and environmentally sound mining practices will allow it to continue for years to come.
Amid the debate on climate change and the effects of mining and burning coal on the environment, we must make the distinction between thermal coal, used in power stations, and metallurgical - or coking coal - used for steel making.
Coking coal has a higher energy content and lower moisture, which means less of it needs to be burned to create the same amount of energy and therefore it creates lower emissions. In the production of blast furnace steel, there is currently no alternative to the use of coking coal.
The BlueScope steelworks at Port Kembla is now the largest steel production facility in Australia, sourcing 90 percent of its coal from Illawarra mines. Steel production provides 3,500 permanent jobs that pay an average salary of $102,000, and is responsible for a further 5,400 local jobs involved in related industries such as defence and manufacturing.
This helps buffer a worrying trend in our region, identified by Wollongong City Council, that over the last five years, higher-wage, full-time jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and mining have been replaced by lower-paying casualised jobs in sectors such as social assistance, education and food services.
And while we currently enjoy low unemployment at 4.9 percent, we still have a jobs deficit that sees 23,000 travel to Sydney for work. Right now across our region there are mining companies awaiting approval for the extension of their mining operations at Russell Vale (Wollongong Coal), Dendrobium (Illawarra Coal/South32) as well as the establishment of a mine outside Berrima (Hume Coal).
BlueScope have been very clear that without access to an 'on demand' supply of local metallurgical coal, their operations become more marginal as they will be required to import it from other markets at greater cost.
There are legitimate concerns about the impact of underground coal mining on the water catchment, and the mining companies themselves are required under legislation to complete rigorous assessments to advise government of any potential impacts and indicate what measures will be taken to protect our water supply.
Ongoing monitoring is crucial to protecting not only the water catchment but also the ground surface water, air quality and biodiversity. All this is regulated by the NSW Government, and the community must put its faith in the experts it employs to make clear decisions on mining approvals.
These decisions are important to the ongoing operation of steelworks, related manufacturing sectors as well as the mines themselves - and ultimately our economy and people's jobs rely on them and they should not be unnecessarily delayed.
An unfortunate confluence of recent political history and Ministerial timidity have seen this process turned into something more akin to 'pass the parcel', as government refers mine applications to an Independent Planning Commission, staffed with experts, which then refers applications back to the department or the applicant and so on.
Rigor is important, but communities and companies alike need certainty, and we have seen this prevarication at its worst in the Southern Highlands where the Hume Coal project is in its tenth year of approvals process and no sign yet of an end to the community's angst or investor's uncertainty.
In contrast, the federal election saw voters make clear their support for jobs at Adani's Carmichael mine. The Queensland Premier stepped in three days later to impose timeframes on the process that saw it approved in less than a month, complete with a groundwater management plan. So where there's a will, there's a way.
(I would like to acknowledge Brian Sheldon and Mark McShane whose excellent website www.illawarracoal.com is the source for much of the historical information.)
Adam Zarth is the Executive Director of the Illawarra Business Chamber and Illawarra First