Can the Hunter Valley ?engine room? keep puffing along?

The Hunter region extends from 120km to 310km north of Sydney and, according to population estimates by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is home to a population of almost 700,000, 55 per cent of whom live in the cities of Newcastle and Port Macquarie. Nine other local government areas make up the region, including Cessnock, Dungog, Gloucester, the Great Lakes, Maitland, Muswellbrook, Port Stephens, Singleton and Upper Hunter. The region is also home to the Hunter River and its tributaries, with highland areas to the north and the south. The Hunter Valley is one of the largest river valleys on the New South Wales coast.
The main industries in the Valley are coal mining, agriculture, wine making, tourism, horse breeding, electricity, dairy farming and beef cattle farming. The paramount economic activity is coal mining, mostly for export. The port at Newcastle is the world?s largest export facility for coal, most of which is brought to the port via railway, and when I visited Newcastle on assignment in August, I was struck by the huge black stockpiles of coal awaiting departure on the docks and the huge transports and cargo ships that could be seen off the coast. In turn, the Eraring, Bayswater, Liddell, Munmorah, Redbank and Vales Point coal fired power stations play a major role in electricity generation.
Quarrying also plays an important support role in the Hunter region, providing aggregate for infrastructure and road base. There are quarrying pits in Maitland, Maitland Vale, Allandale, Gosforth, Anambah, Karuah, Stockrington, Muswellbrook, Buttai, Speers Point and Martins Creek.
The quarry businesses in the region are a mixture of local, family and national interests. Hunter Quarries specialises in blue metal rock and Karuah Red. Daracon Group operates seven quarries in the Hunter region, including the Buttai quarry, which I visited in August. Quarry Products Newcastle is a family business that has been operating a hypesthene andesite quarry at Allandale since the 1970s and which today services the Lower Hunter region. Boral Country has a concrete and quarries operation in Muswellbrook.
The conference?s theme of Tomorrow?s Resources Today is this week very apt because I gain a sense, both from my recent visit to Newcastle and BlueScope Steel?s recent decision to stand down workers and curb its services in the neighbouring Illawarra region, that the Hunter Valley may be at the crossroads. Until now, the Hunter has been an extremely important ?engine room? for exports in the national economy. However, this will only last so long as the other service industries in the region can survive the current economic malaise being felt in the non-mining sectors.
The other thing that struck me upon my visit to Newcastle was just how quiet it is. It does not have the vibrancy of Melbourne or Sydney and indeed the impression I had was that many retailers and manufacturers have been closing down entirely or departing for other pastures for some time. This should be a wake up call for both the mining and quarrying industries in the region. Without those goods and services, the local quarry industry cannot reasonably expect to continue providing quality aggregates when demand is falling. Perhaps the continued international demand for coal exports will be enough to sustain the mining, quarrying and extractive industries in the short term but the importance of the non-mining sector should not be discounted. No one industry is an ?island?; all industries exist in a state of interdependence.
Perhaps this is an issue that is best addressed at local, state and national government levels. Nevertheless, as we convene for the IQA conference in the Hunter Valley, it is food for thought and an issue I hope is touched upon.


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