Farmers say Whitehaven Coal’s push to expand operations at Vickery in the Gunnedah Basin of New South Wales poses serious risks to water resources and agricultural land.
The coal corporation’s application to expand its Vickery operation between Gunnedah and Boggabri in north-west NSW was recommended for approval in May. It is now with the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson Georgina Woods said the department made the wrong decision given that the proposal is for a mine in one of Australia’s most productive agricultural area in the Liverpool Plains. The IPC held public hearings on July 2 and 3, with written submissions accepted until July 10.
“The large-scale ownership of rural land by coal companies has reached unsustainable proportions”, Woods said. Lock the Gate’s analysis of the Namoi region found that Whitehaven coal owns more than 61,050 hectares over 471 freehold titles — a land area about the size of Singapore. This area does not include land owned by other coal companies in the Namoi, notably Boggabri Coal.
“Coal mining is already competing with agriculture for water in this district and building another huge coal mine there will be a big mistake,” Woods said. Even the department admits that, in dry times, there won't be enough water in the Namoi district to supply the mine, she added.
Simon Nicholas from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said the fact that Whitehaven Coal has said it will not give a financial commitment to the mine until 2021 “tells a story of an industry in decline”. “It’s not a great time to be expanding or even opening a coal mine,” he said.
David Watt, a farmer who depends on three bores to irrigate part of his 600-hectare holding told the ABC that Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine is impacting farmers’ ability to access water. “It’s unviable now for farmers to pay $1000 a megalitre for water,” he said.
Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter from People for the Plains told the IPC hearing that Whitehaven did not undertake any reduction in its production when its Maules Creek mine was running low on water last year. “Never once did they consider producing less coal and not using so much water,” she said. “We saw them aggressively buy out water in the market, paying three times the usual prices.
The IPC decision is expected in August.
Farmers’ scepticism about Whitehaven’s adherence to conditions laid down by the IPC was borne out in the days following the hearings.
On July 2, the state’s independent water regulator announced it was taking action against Whitehaven Coal for activities at Maules Creek near Boggabri for breaches of the law for allegedly taking water without an access licence between 2016 and 2019. The maximum penalty for a company breaching the Water Management Act 2000 is more than $2 million.
Natural Resources Access Regulator Grant Barnes said the company’s alleged failure to obtain licences for the water taken, impacts other water users and the environment — especially during severe drought.