An individual risks a $44,000 fine for unauthorised access to Sydney’s water catchments. But the NSW Coalition government has just rammed through a new law allowing Centennial Coal to continue to pollute one of the main waterways in the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment, which supplies water to 4 million people in western Sydney.
Centennial Coal operates the Springvale coalmine beneath the Newnes State Forest near Lithgow. It has a bad pollution track record. The mine has been discharging millions of litres of untreated saline waste water into the Coxs River which flows into Lake Burragorang, Sydney’s major drinking water reservoir.
In September 2015, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) approved a 13-year extension that allowed Centennial Coal to discharge large amounts of waste water containing nitrates, phosphates, zinc and nickel into the river system.
The Environmental Defenders Office, acting for 4Nature, an environment NGO, presented evidence to a NSW Court of Appeal ruling in August that said the damage by the mine to upland swamps was significant.
The court found the PAC decision was unlawful because it could not be satisfied the development would have had a “neutral or beneficial” effect on water quality in the catchment. It also ruled the previous Mike Baird government should not have granted the extension and it was therefore invalid.
Big coal’s supporters pushed back, demanding the mine be allowed to continue because it provides 11% of the state’s electricity. The NSW government agreed.
Now the state government has changed the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (EP&A) to give the Springvale mine “state significant development” consent. It weakens the “neutral or beneficial” test, used to approve the extensions of existing projects within Sydney’s water catchment.
According to the Lithgow Mercury, rather than assessing whether a continuation of a project will have a negligible or improved outcome for the catchment compared to the project not existing at all, the law will ask assessors to consider whether the continued project will have a “neutral or beneficial” impact compared to its current impacts.
The PAC’s interpretation of the “neutral or beneficial” test to mean the latter is what undermined Springvale’s approval in the first place.
NSW energy minister Don Hawin claims the new law includes “significant protections for the environment”. But David Morris of the Environment Defenders Office said the new law would “make lawful an operation that was ruled unlawful because of its impact on the environment”.
NSW Greens energy and resources spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham condemned the new law, describing it as a “significant weakening of protections for drinking water quality”. Allowing a mine to be extended or modified even if it pollutes the water catchment “has significant implications for other areas, such as mining under the Illawarra Escarpment,” he added.
“Once again we see the big coal and energy companies essentially blackmailing the government to intervene in a decision by the courts. The government should let the court do its job”, he said referring to the October 16-17 hearing in the Land and Environment Court between Centennial Coal and the Environment Defenders Office
Buckingham said Centennial Coal is another “rogue operator” with “913 recorded licence breaches at the Springvale mine between 2000 and 2015”. The government should force Centennial Coal to fast-track its waste water pipeline and water treatment plant and commit to stop its licence breaches, he said.
NSW Labor, Lithgow City Council, the Lithgow District Chamber of Commerce and the CFMEU supported the bill, saying Springvale mine needed to stay open. But Shadow Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy Adam Searle said he opposed the government reducing protections to the Sydney water catchment.
The Colong Foundation for Wilderness said extending the life of the Springvale coalmine will risk upland swamps and lock in long-term pollution for Sydney’s water catchment. “Lithgow Council and Centennial Coal have obtained the willing support of the NSW Government to ensure that big coalmines can continue to pollute Sydney’s drinking water with mine water,” spokesperson Keith Muir said on October 9.
He challenged the scaremongering on energy saying that there are hundreds of thousands of tonnes of coal stockpiled at the Mt Piper Power Plant and nearby. “The Angus Place Mine is in care and maintenance but can supply about nine months of coal to the plant without seeking any new approvals,” he said. “This is a phoney crisis.”
Lock the Gate Alliance and the Nature Conservation Council have also condemned the NSW government for weakening laws protecting Sydney’s water supply and warn it could lead to coal and gas mines in the catchment.
There’s plenty of coal being mined in NSW, said Georgina Woods of Lock the Gate. “The idea that a power station cannot secure alternative supplies if a polluting coal mine must be closed to protect the water that supplies Sydney is absurd.”