*Content warning: This article mentions suicide.
Nearly 140 years after mining first began at Russell Vale colliery, the drills and machinery on the edge of the Illawarra escarpment have gone quiet, perhaps for the last time.
After a meeting with management in the carpark at Russell Vale on Tuesday, miner Brett Boland said the entrance to the pit was being sealed up.
"That's it. Whatever happens in backrooms after that, if they offer it and someone buys it who knows, but the owners want to close the pit."
Soon after an all-staff email was sent on Monday afternoon, informing employees of the mine's owner's decision to close, workers' representatives and politicians floated the idea of a buyer swooping in to reopen the mine, but mining industry sources have questioned how feasible this would be, and asked whether other Illawarra coal mines could close sooner than otherwise thought.
In a statement released on Tuesday morning, Mining and Energy Union southwestern district president Andy Davey held out hope that the closure may only be temporary.
"We will be seeking discussions with the NSW government at the earliest opportunity to urge a solution for these coal mines that will keep them open," he said.
"The Bulli and Wongawilli coal seams produce some of the world's best metallurgical coal for steel-making. We'd like to see these leases handed over to an operator who can run these mines efficiently and safely."
This was a theme picked up by Keira MP and minister for the Illawarra Ryan Park.
"We do understand that there is some hope that maybe another operator will take control of that mine," he said.
"That will be a commercial decision for an operator and a business to make."
Speaking anonymously to The Mercury, mining industry sources questioned whether this was the case, assessing the coal resource at Russell Vale as "marginal".
"There are structural issues, the site is old, there are marginal seams and there has been an under investment in technology," one source said.
"It isn't clear from public information that the site has a sensible ongoing economic case."
Who would buy it?
Sources questioned that at a time where metallurgical coal prices were at record highs, if Wollongong Resources, led by an experienced and respected operator in current chief executive officer Greg Pawley, could not make the mine viable, then it would be difficult for any other operator to step in.
The only way out, one said, would be for an experienced outfit with a significant local presence to step in. South32, which owns the Illawarra Coal leases that are adjacent to Wollongong Resources, would be the obvious contender.
However, The Mercury understands that the Perth-headquartered miner has no plans to touch Wollongong Resources' mining leases.
This leaves the mine with few suitors.
Former Russell Vale and Wongawilli miner Darryl Best said for miners employed by Wollongong Resources, a re-opening of the the Russell Vale site was their best bet, but he didn't hold out hope for a saviour with deep pockets.
"It really isn't a good outlook," he said. "Russell Vale mine isn't viable, it's really low output, they can't put longwalls in because they're under a Sydney Water catchment area, it's a very gassy mine which means they've got to do a lot of gas management, and that costs money.
"It all costs money."
Without a job
None of this will come as any relief to the roughly 200 miners who were told they were without a job on Tuesday.
Many were hired in the last three years as the company attempted to ramp up production and would be left with minimal redundancy entitlements, if these are paid in full.
If they want to remain in the industry, the options in the Illawarra are slim. Most will be considering a move to mines elsewhere in NSW or Queensland and tossing up the prospect of relocating themselves and their family or enduring the gruelling fly-in, fly-out lifestyle.
Having gone through this process when he was laid off when the mine closed in 2015, Mr Best said this process left scars, many invisible.
"You've suddenly had your source of income taken away and a lot of your self worth as well," he said.
"You can't provide for your family, you can't provide for your kids. That's huge. At Wongawilli, when it shut there were people who contemplated suicide, there were families that broke up. It's really devastating."
While in the past, miners could move between half a dozen mines without leaving the Illawarra, this was no longer the case, with only South 32's Dendrobium and Appin mines, the Metropolitan Mine at Helensburgh and the Tahmoor colliery, operated by SIMEC, continuing.
Efforts to bridge the gap between coal mining and future industries have so far targeted the thermal coal fields of the Hunter, Gippsland and Gladstone, the Illawarra's predominantly metallurgical coal resource and relatively diverse economy has shielded it from the brunt of an industry in transition.
But Mr Best said this had led to a lack of urgency when it came to transition planning.
"There's a lot of complacency, there's a lot of talk from people who hold positions of considerable weight down here that we have low unemployment, different sorts of coal, all sorts of things, all of that overlooked exactly what just happened with Russell Vale."
Transition to renewables
The Albanese government has established the Net Zero Economy Authority to provide a more coordinated approach to the transition, while in the Illawarra the government has funded the Energy Futures Skills Centre at the University of Wollongong and the Renewable Energy Training facility at Wollongong TAFE, to provide the education pathways for former coal miners.
In NSW, the government scrapped the Resources for Regions scheme in 2023 which directed funds from mining royalties to mining regions. The former state government had founded the Royalties for Rejuvenation program in 2021, however, despite the appointment of an Illawarra expert panel in 2022, no projects in the Illawarra have yet been funded.
Last week, after the announcement of $63m for an electric arc furnace at the Whyalla steelworks, Sanjeev Gupta, whose mine at Tahmoor supplies Whyalla with coking coal, said coal-based steelmaking was an obsolete technology.
"Now is the time to phase out increasingly obsolete equipment and technology that no longer has a place in our world and embrace the installation of new electric arc furnace technology that ensures environmentally sustainable steel production in Whyalla will continue throughout the 21st century," Mr Gupta said.
Given this, Mr Best said the end of coal mining entirely in the Illawarra may come sooner than expected.
"My real concern is that we are not going to do anything as a community, because there is so much resistance," he said.
"These people who are working in these jobs, what do they do and where do they go. If they haven't got anywhere to go, they leave."