By Rosemary Penwarden

THE dairy industry has a problem. We know they've messed up our rivers, but less obvious is the mess they're making of our atmosphere.

They peddle clean and wholesome dairy for life, yet use the filthiest fossil fuel on the planet to dry the milk to make the formula to feed the world's babies.

Fonterra's use of coal is a great big dirty secret you won't find on their TV ads or websites.

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But their use of coal makes the dairy industry the second biggest user after Glenbrook Steel, burning more than 534,000 tonnes of coal a year.

Around 95 per cent of the milk produced by New Zealand's cows is exported, mostly as milk powder made by burning coal. Fonterra burns coal in all its South Island dairy factories and three of their North Island factories (the rest use gas, which is not much better).

As the world's babies grow up, the coal that dried the milk to make their infant formula will help destroy their world.

Thanks to Fonterra's massive CO2 emissions from burning all that coal they can look forward to more melting ice caps, cyclones, floods, droughts and rising seas as the atmosphere continues to heat up. We have international climate commitments to meet, a clean, green image to try to resurrect, and the technology and know-how to move to a carbon-free economy. Coal has no place in today's world.

Since the demise of Solid Energy, Bathurst Resources has emerged as the biggest mining company in New Zealand, primarily to meet Fonterra's demand for coal.

Their mines hide from view behind tall earth bunds in Nightcaps, Southland, up obscure dusty roads that say KEEP OUT near Glentunnel, Canterbury, and other hidden-away places, to feed Fonterra's factories. But they won't get away with it for much longer.

Coal Action Network Aotearoa held a "Coal, Cows and Climate" summer festival recently in Ashburton. As part of a national "Summer of Action" against more fossil fuel exploration and extraction, Cana members chained themselves to the coal entry gate at Fonterra's Clandeboye factory to bring the spotlight fair and square onto Fonterra's use of coal.

Fonterra is quite rightly getting a hammering over water. New Zealand's rivers belong to all of us. I never felt more alive than when dive-bombing into the sparkling rivers of my childhood around Whanganui.

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Today I can't let my grandson do the same for fear of him catching campylobacter, giardia, stomach flu or maybe even meningitis.

Everyone can see the pollution in our rivers. We all know the stories of waterborne illnesses, of the degradation of our aquifers and threat to health of too many cows on land that cannot safely contain them. That is the visible pollution and it is unacceptable.

Coal is the invisible pollution that Fonterra burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week and dumps into our atmosphere.

Rosemary Penwarden is a Whanganui-born grandmother. She currently lives near Dunedin, where she writes, is helping to build her own electric car, and -- with friends -- is transforming 5ha of old sheep paddock into a local food-producing paradise.