Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 00:30 UK

Residents' fears over Australian mines

Mining in the Upper Hunter Valley
Mining in the Hunter Valley is hugely profitable - but residents say there is a cost.

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Upper Hunter Valley, Australia

Set in a landscape that is both beautiful and bountiful, the coalfields of the Upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales help explain why Australia is often called the quarry of the world and the Saudi Arabia of coal.

The open cast mines that are carved into the earth are so vast that they make the house-sized trucks transporting the black coal from the face of the seam to the surface look like small toys.

Cargo trains then take the coal down the valley to Newcastle, the largest coal export facility in the world. At the entrance to the port, massive bulk carriers often queue for weeks to ferry the coal to countries like Japan, China and South Korea.

The 34 mines in the Hunter Valley not only generate lucrative profits for the mining companies but relatively well-paid jobs for the local communities which have come to rely on the resources sector.

Then there are the huge royalties of over $1bn (£0.6bn) which swell the state coffers of New South Wales.

But prosperity comes at a price: the health impact on local communities, and especially children, from the poor air quality in the valley. The fear here is that the very thing that makes the region rich is also making it sick.

Asthma fears

We went to the Upper Hunter Valley on a stunning late autumn day with pristine blue skies. The only clouds came from dust billowing up from the mines.

After a few hours in the region, we started experiencing a metallic taste and a thin layer of grime inside our mouths. After a few hours spent filming very close to the open cast mines, there was also a slight irritation in our eyes.

Di Gee
It's just something we have all had to deal with
Di Gee

Pollution is suspected of causing the problem. Last year, more than 100 tonnes of toxic metals, including arsenic, lead and cobalt, belched into the air from mines and power stations in the Upper Hunter Valley.

For the people who live here permanently, it is causing a major public health problem - or a public health crisis, to some.

In May, the government of New South Wales released a report