Stop the Russell Vale Coal Mine expansion on the Illawarra escarpment

The Illawarra escarpment. Photo: National Parks NSW

The Illawarra escarpment and Sydney's water catchment is under renewed threat from coal mining with the NSW Department of Planning giving its support to Wollongong Coal’s Russell Vale Underground Expansion Project on September 15.

The proposal now goes to the New South Wales Independent Planning Commission (IPC), which is holding a public hearing over October 18-19.

The company’s bid to expand longwall mining was knocked back, but its revised plan — for bord and pillar mining — has been supported. This method is supposedly a “lighter touch” than longwall mining, and it reveals that the coal corporation is concerned about possible damage from mines under a water catchment. Wollongong Coal switched to bord and pillar mining at its other coal mine, Wongawilli, after a roof collapse.

Protect Our Water Alliance (POWA) said on September 30 that the mine expansion would threaten both surface and ground water from the Cataract Reservoir catchment. This is a part of the “Special Areas” to which the public is not allowed access.

POWA spokesperson Kaye Osborn said: “Our communities won't see any benefits of this project, only a trashed water catchment and warmed climate for generations into the future.”

Lock the Gate spokesperson Nic Clyde said that it made even less sense for the company to be given the go-ahead, given that it is likely insolvent. He it had recently applied to be de-listed from the ASX, meaning that there is less opportunity to scrutinise the company,

“Its Wongawilli mine was shut down over safety fears and yet the Planning Department wants to trust this basket case of a company with our precious drinking water,” Clyde said on September 15.

“Wollongong Coal has a multibillion dollar debt problem, and would struggle to financially cover the estimated $215 million rehabilitation cost of its existing mine site at Russell Vale.”

Clyde said that Wollongong Coal should have been stripped of its right to mine coal in NSW years ago. “It is grossly irresponsible for the government to recommend in favour of this expansion beneath Sydney and the Illawarra’s dams.”

The NSW government's recommendation to approve the coal mine extension flies in the face of advice from more than 20 scientists and academics who in June called on it to end all coal mining in the Sydney drinking water catchment area.

They warned that coal mining was responsible for “disappearing creeks, bulging valleys and a shifting dam wall”. The scientists raised concerns Sydney’s dams were losing up to 25 million litres of water a day because of subsidence and diversions caused by underground mining.

“Continued mining in the Special Areas creates complex, long-term problems in an area that’s meant to be set aside to protect our drinking water,” Clyde said.

The local trail running group, the Seacliff Coasters, is also concerned about the coal mine expansion and is organising for submissions to be lodged at the IPC.

Mat Wall-Smith, Co-founder of the Seacliff Coasters said Wollongong Coal erected prominent signs prohibiting public access along the Lower Escarpment Trail. “It became clear that local residents could no longer enjoy a run, ride or walk up to Brokers Nose without the threat of prosecution.”

In addition to the extensive environment and climate dangers from coal mining, they are concerned that any expansion of the Russell Vale coal mine will restrict public amenity and access concerns.

The Russell Vale coal mine is located on a beautiful part of the Illawarra escarpment that has become an increasingly popular site for recreational use. The Illawarra escarpment also forms a vital green corridor, connecting the southern end of the Royal National Park to Macquarie Pass National Park and beyond. Native wildlife, including echidnas, wallabies, black cockatoos, reptiles and a variety of other fauna, is abundant throughout.

Wall-Smith said: “The environmental risks [of coal] are too great, the economic value is highly doubtful, and the community will lose access to unique world-class bushland and trails.”

He said the mine should be closed down, remediated and its heritage celebrated. “The bush should be remediated and returned to public use. We want access to our escarpment. We want the right to look after it, to care for it and celebrate it.”

[You can leave a comment on the Independent Planning Commission website here. You can also sign the petition here. POWA and the Lock the Gate Alliance are hosting a webinar on October 6 at 6.30pm.]

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