Mining company Rio Tinto has been fined only $50,000 over the collapse of a dam wall at its Mount Thorley Warkworth mine last year.
It is estimated that up to 4 megalitres of sediment-laden rainwater flowed into the Wallaby Scrub Road reserve from the dam. The company blamed the collapse on several days of continuous rain, which softened the dam’s earth wall. However the court found the event was not a major storm but "merely what is regarded as a one-in-two-year rain event".
Activists were disappointed by the verdict, criticising the penalty as petty cash to a multinational company that posted a half-yearly profit of $4.1 billion earlier this month.
Lock the Gate regional coordinator Steve Phillips said: “For the person on the street, this is roughly equivalent to getting fined a buck. One dollar. What kind of deterrent is that?
“Mining companies in the Hunter must laugh when they get fines like this. But nobody else is laughing. We're disgusted.”
The company was prosecuted in the Land and Environment Court by the NSW Environment Protection Authority over the January 6 collapse.
In handing down his decision on August 28, Justice Tim Moore found the harm resulting from the incident was "insubstantial", but the failure of the dam was both "foreseeable and preventable".
When the mine took over a small farm to create the extra dam capacity, neither the design nor the earthworks was undertaken or overseen by an engineer.
"Warkworth did not subject the completed earthworks to an appropriate risk assessment or other quality assurance process," Moore said.