By Brynn Mathews


The proposed Wongai coal mine on the shores of Princess Charlotte Bay on Cape York (about 150 kilometres northwest of Cooktown), presents a series of conflicting issues for environmental activists.  The proposed mine is located on freehold Aboriginal land owned by the Kalpowar Land Trust, the Traditional Owners for this country, but is situated adjacent to the Lakefield and Cape Melville National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  The property also contains cultural heritage sites and a nature reserve.  The Princess Charlotte Bay, Bathurst Head, Flinders Islands areas feature in Dreamtime stories culturally significant to Traditional Owners throughout the region.

The project will include:

  • a bord and pillar mine at depths of up to 250 metres (this method of mining aims to leave enough intact coal behind to prevent collapse and eventual surface subsidence);
  • a 150 person accommodation camp with all the usual infrastructure for power, water, waste and sewage treatment;
  • a coal handling and preparation plant;
  • a 20 kilometre elevated coal conveyor from the mine site to stockpiles at a barge loading terminal on Bathurst Bay, and lastly, but certainly not least:
  • three off-shore coal transhipment points, adjacent to the Flinders Islands in  the waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, where the 5,000 tonne barge loads will be transferred to large coal ships for transport to customers.

Wongai map


As for jobs, the construction workforce is expected to be 250 persons, with an operational workforce of 200 and a flow-on of approximately 600 regional jobs for a project capital investment of $500 million.  Remember, all this expensive effort is extracting coal not gold.

So, given the location of the mine in an area of outstanding natural beauty, biodiversity and cultural and ecological values it’s a bit of a surprise that the project has been proposed by the Traditional Owners, now also the freehold owners, of Kalpowar.  They have engaged Aust-Pac Capital Pty Ltd, a NSW based investment company, to prepare and lodge the necessary documents to obtain all the approvals required to operate this project and, no doubt, attract the investment required to set it up.

Inappropriate and environmentally damaging projects don’t become more acceptable when proposed by Traditional Owners on their own country.  After Marcia Langton’s recent criticisms of the green movement as holding back the economic development of Indigenous Australia, this has become a bit of a minefield for green activists also pursuing a social justice agenda.  But this shouldn’t stop us from opposing this project on the basis of both its potential impacts on several areas with high ecological values, including National Parks, wetlands and fish habitat areas, and the high risk of damage to the Great Barrier Reef lagoon from introducing barges, three coal transhipment points and additional shipping to an area currently free of such activities.

There are much more sustainable, less damaging ways (not contributing to global warming), and for less capital investment, for Traditional Owners to create economic opportunities that work with the natural and cultural values of their country rather than by destroying them.  You can find out a lot more about this project and get engaged in the referral and assessment process under the EPBC Act by visiting the EBPC referrals page.[1]