Opposition to Shenhua Watermark’s unpopular $1.2 billion open-cut coal mine, proposed for the Liverpool Plains in the north-west of NSW, is growing. The Coalition cabinet is split, as are NSW and federal National Party MPs.
Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce, who is fighting to hold his New England seat, opposes the mine. His cabinet colleague, federal environment minister Greg Hunt, signed the mine’s approval on July 4.
Hunt has since contradicted himself about whether the mine has been fully approved, suggesting that the ball is now in the NSW government’s court.
Opponents of the mine are furious that Hunt gave approval to the megamine without Shenhua having submitted a full water management plan. Federal law stipulates that coal seam gas and large coal mining developments require federal assessment and approval if they are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. This is known as the “water trigger”.
Australia’s richest agricultural land
The 35 square kilometre coalmine is proposed to be constructed on Australia’s richest agricultural land — the rich, black soil of the Liverpool Plains — in a state forest near Breeza, between Gunnedah and Caroona.
The Liverpool Plains at Breeza is a landscape with high water holding capacity. It sits next to sandstone ridges and basalt hills, and there are concerns the mine could destroy 789 hectares of box-gum woodland and 148 hectares of other native forest.
Shenhua Watermark paid $300 million in 2008 to buy an exploration licence for the area it wants to exploit. It applied for mining approval in 2011 and since then has faced growing opposition to its open cut coalmine.
Shenhua estimates it will cost $1.2 billion to build the mine. It will produce 10 million tonnes of coal a year — with a potential coal resource of 290 million tonnes — over a 30-year life span. It will employ up to 600 employees during the 18-month construction phase, and about 400 staff in the mine’s operation.
Opponents of the mine include Lock the Gate, the NSW Farmers Association, NSW Greens, Palmer United Party Senator Dio Wang, the NSW National's Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson, former environmental advisor to the NSW government Jim McDonald, and 2GB radio commentator Alan Jones, among others.
Key among their concerns is the company’s use of precious groundwater and the likelihood of it and rivers being contaminated. The mine is next to the Mooki river, a major tributary of the Namoi catchment and the disturbance area for the proposed project covers 4084 hectares.
Others object on broader environmental grounds: more mines open the way for the expansion of coal and unconventional gas mining in this food bowl. More huge fossil fuel developments also limit renewable and sustainable energy projects from being considered or funded.
“This area should never have been made available for exploration in the first place,” said Derek Schoen of the NSW Farmers’ Association on July 15. “Successive governments have failed to step in and do what is needed to protect this area.”
Tim Duddy, a long-time farmer activist with the Caroona Coal Action Group, is another opponent. He rejects the determination of the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) in early February that Shenhua Watermark will not harm the groundwater. The NSW state government gave the mine the go ahead after the PAC declared it would not pollute the floodplain because it would be on a ridge.
“It's not the water that they're taking that's the problem. It's the water that they're harming,” he told the July 8 Sydney Morning Herald. Duddy said the federal government didn’t distinguish between water extracted by farmers, and big coal’s potential for damaging groundwater supplies.
Watermark project manager Paul Jackson said the company’s modelling showed no consequential impacts on the regional groundwater, and that the mine will have a 150m buffer between it and the black soil, and be 900m from the productive aquifer.
Duddy said the PAC’s definition of “flood plain” was expedient and wrong, and that Shenhua’s modelling of groundwater systems was inadequate.
The NSW Farmers Association, along with NSW Irrigators and Caroona Coal Action Group, commissioned the University of NSW water research laboratory to assess Shenhua’s modelling.
It found Shenhua’s environmental impact statement and hydro-geological models were inadequate and overly simplified, and did not sufficiently assess how aquifers were connected. It said that Shenhua’s EIS offered poor predictions of impacts to groundwater.
“Shenhua has modelled its entire water study on a model that it doesn’t have a scientific basis for,” Duddy told
The Land. “[Shenhua] has created an artist’s impression of the local geology, instead of building a model with complete understanding ... But Shenhua doesn’t understand what the permeability and interlayers of the aquifers actually are.”
Rhondda Dickson, the chief scientist of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, believes more research is needed on groundwater. The authority conducted a $1 million study of the Namoi catchment, the largest groundwater system in the Murray-Darling catchment, which includes the Liverpool Plains. It concluded that the understanding of groundwater is nowhere near as sophisticated as surface water.
Fiona Simpson, NSW Farmers Association president, said farmers had no confidence in the NSW approval process. She pointed to the decision by the (disgraced) former NSW energy minister Chris Hartcher to exclude Shenhua and BHP Billiton, which is planning a another huge coalmine in the region, from provisions limiting construction and other activities on flood plains. Shenhua and BHP Billiton are the only companies “operating on the flood plains of all of NSW that don't have to comply with the flood plain definition”, she said.
Hunt under pressure
Hunt approved the mine in early July, saying he was satisfied Shenhua had demonstrated that the mine would not adversely affect regional groundwater. However, on July 16, under pressure from 2GB’s talkback host Alan Jones, Hunt said on air that he had only given “conditional approval”, and that the mine was still subject to final approval from an Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC).
Two IESC investigations have already been done, but without scrutiny of a full water management plan — which Shenhua is yet to provide. Former member of the IESC Jim McDonald told the July 21 Guardian that the mine's impact on underground water creates “huge risks” and “is always open to creating irreversible impacts”.
It is up to the NSW government to determine if and how the mine proceeds. The Baird government is facing a challenge in the Land and Environment Court by the Upper Mooki Landcare Group, which claims the PAC failed to assess the mine's impact on several hundred koalas in the region. The Caroona Coal Action Group is also exploring legal options to stop the mine.
The mine’s opponents are aware that if this mine proceeds, it will be easier for others slated for the region — particularly BHP Billiton’s proposed mine at Caroona.
Duddy, who first rose to prominence fighting BHP Billiton’s incursion onto his property in 2008, disagrees with National Party MP Kevin Humphries’ view that the NSW government does not have an “appetite” for much more mining expansion on the Liverpool Plains.
“That is total and utter garbage,” Duddy told ABC News on July 13. “If one project is built then both will be built. The infrastructure costs will literally halve if both projects go [forward]. There is no way if Shenhua or Caroona is approved it will be done in isolation.”
The billions in handouts from the Coalition government to the fossil fuel sector would seem to back this up.
A report commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation, released on December 8, found that the fossil fuel sector was slated to receive $47 billion in government handouts over the next four years. By contrast, investment in renewables has fallen by 70% since the Coalition took government.
Phil Laird, the national coordinator of the Lock the Gate Alliance, said on July 8 that the Coalition’s decision to back Shenhua meant farmers were losing out to “Big Coal”. “No amount of conditions placed on this project can disguise what is a disastrous decision to approve a mine that will trash farmland and put important water resources at risk,” he said.
Agricultural land where Shenhua wants its megamine yield about 40% above the national average of food per hectare, and contribute approximately $332 million to GDP annually. Laird said: “Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce has rightly described this mine as an ‘absurdity’ but has failed to deliver justice to his electorate.”