Undermining Rivers: Sydney’s Drinking Water Endangered by Longwall Coal Mining — 18 July to 11 August 2007

Artists Deborah Vaughan & Toni Warburton with Patrice Newell and Julie Sheppard of Rivers SOS.


Opening conversation: 18 July 2007 with Patrice Newell & Julie Sheppard of Rivers SOS.

Also screening of short film, Rivers of Shame.


An exhibition placing works by leading contemporary artists Deborah Vaughan and Toni Warburton side-by-side with activist commentary to ask who owns Sydney’s pristine water resources. Rivers in our sacrosanct water catchment areas have been cracked, drained and polluted: undermined by underground coal mining.

Sydney Catchment Authority has no power to stop mining directly under and beside the rivers and dams of the Upper Nepean catchment area. Until recently, it was fundamental that protection zones applied to essential drinking water catchments. In the midst of a global water crisis what new madness is this?

Although these special catchments are normally hidden from view, dramatic photographs by environmentalist Julie Sheppard show vanished rivers and creeks, poisoned water and barren ground. Longwall coal mining causes this subsidence damage. Once the gargantuan longwall machine has made its cut (of up to 2 km long) and passed, the roof is allowed to fall. The short film Rivers of Shame shows the wider impacts of this greed for coal.

In their installations, artists Deborah Vaughan and Toni Warburton also raise moral questions. As Deborah Vaughan’s work Train Schizzes (2007) underscores, coal supplies are no abstract issue but one close to our heart. Her looped footage of empty and full coal trains eternally running up and down the Illawarra Line suggest the conflict: our computers, stoves and heating run on cheap coal-fired electricity. But we pay with environmental consequences.

In Toni Warburton’s Wall Chronology: Transactions to Catchment (1990-2007) a sculptural figure of a boy in eighteenth century dress drinks a beaker of water. He seems to read a poetic wall-text describing the pleasure of his drink. Alongside, an elegant wall installation of ceramic, glass and artists' books connects the ancient beaker form and purification rituals to the natural science of water filtration. 

If the coal mining damage continues, we will need more than a desalination plant to secure adequate water resources. Global warming has begun and there is more abrupt climate change ahead. Yet our policy makers and state Treasury are reluctant to change their ways.

In recent years, the state government has approved new longwall leases for the world’s largest resources company, BHP Billiton (Illawarra Coal), and the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy (Metropolitan Mine), under our water catchments. More are in the pipeline.

Rivers SOS campaigns for a safety zone of at least 1 km around all rivers to protect them from ongoing damage. Rivers SOS is a coalition of environment and community groups formed as a result of the wrecking of rivers in NSW by mining operations.



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Julie Sheppard, Map showing proposed longwall coal mines that threaten rivers in Upper Nepean and Upper Georges River Special Catchment Areas, NSW, 2007. Printed map, pen and collage.

Toni Warburton, The Drinker (detail), 1990–reprised 2007.
Toni Warburton, Catchment Studies: volumes 1-5, 2002–2007.

Collage, paper, cardboard, gesso photocopies, watercolours, coloured pencil,  ink, graphite, glue, book binders’ muslin, buckram. Artist books bound by Newbold and Collins.


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Deborah Vaughan, Train Schizzes, 2007. Installation, variable dimensions.

Mining diagrams courtesy Black Diamond Historical Museum, Bulli.

Toni Warburton, Catchment Studies: volumes 1-5,     2002–2007. Installation view.

Artist Notes on Catchment Studies and CATCHMENT: a field of beakers for St Hedwig of Silesia and for Wingecarribee swamp (edited):

The austerities of Saint Hedwig (d.1243), Queen and patron saint of Silesia, were assisted by her moulded and cut glass beaker. The Hedwig beaker (there are reputedly eleven in the world today) attained the status of a relic as it had the miraculous property of making ordinary water taste so pure that it seemed like an exquisite wine.

Peat, an ancient and essential purifying filter for wetlands, was dredged from Wingecarribee Swamp in the Southern Tablelands of NSW under the cynical jurisdiction of a mining lease, despite ten years of public outcry. This removal of part of its structural fabric weakened the entire peat land and in 1998, after heavy rains, most of the swamp collapsed. This ecological disaster also compromised the local drinking water.


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Notes: Four tributary rivers, the Cataract, Bargo, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers, flow into the Upper Nepean River.

The four big Upper Nepean dams—Nepean, Avon, Cordeaux and Cataract—supply 20% of Sydney’s supply of drinking water.

Water is pumped from the upper Nepean River through the Nepean Tunnel to Broughton’s Pass Weir on the lower Cataract River, and on to the city’s Prospect Reservoir. Two dams also supply drinking water to the Illawarra region.  



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Julie Sheppard, Waratah Rivulet: Cracked, Drained, Polluted, 2007. Colour photographs.

Note: The Waratah Rivulet in the Sutherland Shire south of Sydney makes up about 30% of the Woronora Dam catchment.

The Rivulet is dry because of the impacts of underground longwall coal mining 500 m below the surface.  


Special Thanks

Patrice Newell, Climate Change Coalition, and Julie Sheppard, secretary Rivers SOS. Thanks also to Dave Burgess, Total Environment Centre; Bob Percival, Woolloomooloo Film Society; Lisa Havilah, Campbelltown Art Centre; and Vivian Vidulich, Wollongong City Gallery and Black Diamond Heritage Centre, Bulli.



The Trouble with the Weather: UTS Gallery, 2007 at www.utsgallery.uts.edu.au
Alison Clouston & Boyd: www.burragorang.org

Rivers and Water Campaigners (Sydney and NSW regions)

The Total Environment Centre www.tec.org.au

Save the Drip www.savethedrip.com

Sutherland Shire Environment Centre www.ssec.org.au

Rising Tide Newcastle www.risingtide.org.au

Nature Conservation Council www.nccnsw.org.au

Lock the Gate   www.lockthegate.org.au

Land and Water Future www.landwaterfuture.org.au