Activists have called for an independent inquiry into the Maules Creek coalmine in north-west NSW and its impact on the surrounding farming community after documents obtained by Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) revealed a litany of environmental licence breaches over the past six years.
EJA applied to access documents known as annual returns, which detail breaches or "non-compliance with [environmental] licence", through the Government Information (Public Access) Act. But Whitehaven Coal, which owns the Maules Creek mine, fought them all the way.
EJA's James Whelan told the ABC: "I was gobsmacked at just how difficult it was to access these reports.
"All we wanted were the pollution reports that the company lodges with the [Environment Protection Authority] each year. These are things that should be in the public realm.
"The fact is it took us nine months of persistence — appeals and counter appeals — as Whitehaven stymied us at every turn.”
The breaches related to a range of environmental failures, including dust and noise levels and pollution of waterways. The company was fined for the most serious breaches.
"Some of the infringements were minor in nature,” Whelan said, “but other infringements were very significant.
"This is a company that has a wide range of penalties and infringements and we believe the penalties have been woefully inadequate to send the kind of signal that would bring the company into line."
For example, in December 2013, the company mined 138,095 tonnes of coal more than its licence allowed and was fined $15,000 — an amount far below the value of the coal itself.
Lock the Gate Alliance National Coordinator Phil Laird, a landholder at Maules Creek, said: “It’s obvious that the Maules Creek mine should never have been approved. It’s been a diabolical neighbour and has torn my community apart as surely as it has torn the Leard Forest and the landscape.
“Whitehaven Coal … has broken its commitments to the Maules Creek community about noise, air pollution and biodiversity, but compliance action by the state government so far has been underwhelming.
“Meanwhile, this rogue company is trying to get approval for another damaging coal mine, at nearby Vickery. They shouldn’t even be considered for any further projects until they are 100% compliant at Maules Creek.
“The EPA released a report showing that there are several actions Whitehaven could and should be taking to reduce dust. They’ve been found to be non-compliant three years in a row and have had two penalty notices already this year, but they still haven’t cleaned up their act. It’s time for an independent inquiry.
“Rural communities are being failed by a planning system that lets mining companies get away with ruining health, amenity and landscape and getting off scot free.
“Maules Creek must be made an example of. We call on the planning minister and his Department to show that they take this seriously by launching a full inquiry and stopping this rogue operator.”