Information provided by the NSW Water Office indicates that if the Bylong coalmine in the Upper Hunter region proceeds, there is a real danger of the Bylong River and local creeks drying up.
The Bylong coalmine, a project of South Korean government-owned company Kepco which supplies coal to the electricity industry, involves open cut and underground extraction of up to 6.5 million tonnes of coal for a period of 25 years. The Planning and Assessment Commission’s hearing of Kepco’s application was completed in May last year and its review report was completed in July.
On May 14, the ABC reported on the release of documents following an FOI request from Locaway Pty Ltd, which owns a farm in the Bylong Valley and has the largest water entitlement in the area. The company is owned by the family of corrupt former Labor politician Eddie Obeid.
The documents contained a series of warnings from NSW Water Office that the mine would salinate the aquifer for at least a century and "would potentially result in significant sections of the Bylong River ceasing to flow". Emails between NSW Water Office staff identified the drying-up of the river and surrounding creeks as "the main risk to the environment".
In spite of these warnings, the Department of Planning concluded that on the basis of Kepco’s water modelling that "groundwater quality is not expected to be significantly affected, given the relatively modest salinities of overburden and waste materials". It said the project was "unlikely to significantly affect groundwater and surface water resources, water users or the environment" and recommended that it proceed.
However, minutes of a meeting between Kepco's consultants and the NSW Water Office revealed there could be an 11% increase of salinity in the groundwater, which it noted was "greater than the Aquifer Interference Policy threshold" for 100 years after mining ceased.
A Kepco spokesperson said the Department of Planning had "confirmed the veracity of the [water modelling] technical work" the company had provided and that the creeks and streams within the project's catchment "currently regularly experience zero flow".
The Department of Industry, which includes the NSW Water Office, said it passed on all concerns to the Department of Planning and made them public in its submission to the mine's planning application.
Georgina Woods from Lock the Gate said the documents raised questions that needed answering. "These documents show that the impact of the Bylong coalmine on the water on the Bylong Valley has been underestimated by the Department of Planning quite dramatically."
Lawyers representing the Obeids’ company said they were seeking "to do all things legally available to protect the 865 megalitres of [water] licenses" attached to their Cherrydale Park property. The statement said the documents showed Kepco's mine would likely not have enough water for its own operations, let alone to supply other properties with water too.
"It will not be physically possible as Kepco Bylong will pump the aquifer dry," the statement said.
"Locaway also questions whether these documents were provided to the Planning Assessment Commission when it conducted a review and public hearing in relation to the Bylong Coal Project in May 2017.”
Local residents said the documents showed the Department of Planning should reject the mining application. Local farmer and member of the Bylong Valley Protection Alliance, Warwick Pearse said: "We would like to see it not to go ahead. It's just crazy really."