The New South Wales Independent Planning Commission’s (IPC) approval for Whitehaven Coal to extend the Vickery coal mine gives the green light to a serial vandal in a climate emergency in which Australia plays a leading role.
On August 12, the IPC decided to allow Whitehaven to increase, by about 25%, or 10 million tonnes per annum, the total amount of coal extracted over 30 years and expand the disturbance area by 776 hectares to 1284 hectares. Currently it extracts 135 million tonnes.
Hours before the IPC’s decision, Lock the Gate Alliance made an emergency submission urging it to take into account 16 new charges levelled at the company.
The NSW Resources Regulator announced on August 11 it would prosecute Whitehaven subsidiaries Narrabri Coal and Narrabri Coal Operations in the NSW Land and Environment Court for alleged breaches of the state’s mining laws.
If found guilty, Narrabri Coal and Narrabri Coal Operations face $1.1 million in fines for each alleged breach of mining exploration licences at a site north-west of Boggabri.
The regulator alleges the companies failed to rehabilitate drill sites, illegally drilled boreholes and built unauthorised tracks at its Narrabri underground coal mine. The NSW Land and Environment Court will look into it on September 18.
Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter said on August 11 that Whitehaven had been “charged with so many offences” and “fined so many times for breaking NSW law with the mines it currently has” it should not be given the opportunity to do more harm.
She said Whitehaven had been fined for “allowing toxic blast fumes to drift over neighbouring properties, polluting air and water, illegal dumping of waste, stealing surface water, illegal clearing of bushland, and worker safety breaches”.
Whitehaven has already faced court five times, Hunter said for its anti-social behaviour, including breached regulations set down by the Environment Protection Agency, the Maules Creek Community Council, the Resources Access Regulator over alleged water theft and workplace safety breaches and South East Forest Rescue over its unfulfilled biodiversity offset obligations.
“This latest announcement makes it the sixth time Whitehaven has been taken to court for bad behaviour at its north-west coal mines.”
However, the IPC said prior breaches of planning laws were irrelevant considerations and that the expansion is in the public interest with the associated impacts acceptable.
It has set down 184 conditions in its approval, including that Whitehaven Coal draft a water management plan and have it approved. Whitehaven Coal CEO Paul Flynn has affirmed that the coal from the expanded mine would be exported.
The approval was condemned by the local community and organisations, many of which participated in a two-day public hearing over July 2-3. The IPC received 1928 submissions: 40% were in favour; 57% against; and 2% “neutral”.
Lock the Gate Alliance slammed the decision saying it was “an indictment of the Berejiklian government’s failure to protect farmland, communities and water resources”.
It said it was more galling because, while Whitehaven has talked up the creation of as many as 450 jobs with significant social and economic benefits flowing to the local area, it had earlier indicated that the collapse of coal prices globally prevented it from making an investment decision this year.
The Narrabri Shire Council opposed mine extension based on its social and economic impacts on the Namoi Valley.
If the company proceeds with the extension, it will irreparably alter the Boggabri farming community and hurt agriculture in the district. Whitehaven would dig up 1284 hectares of land, much of it fertile farmland or remnant woodland.
Serious questions remain over how the mine operators will supply the amount of water — up to 1750 megalitres — it will consume annually.
The NSW Department of Planning outlined in its final assessment report that landholders are concerned that in times of prolonged drought, the company will not have enough water to run the operation. This will lead to it again buying up agricultural water licences, or breaching environmental laws to take water unlawfully as Whitehaven is alleged to have done at the nearby Maules Creek mine.
Maules Creek resident Ros Druce said that given Whitehaven’s track record, it should never have been allowed to apply for a new mining licence in the first place.
Hunter said it was clear the NSW Planning Department, which listed the project as “approvable” before referring it to the IPC, had failed to act in the public interest.
“Boggabri will now essentially be hemmed in from all sides by large coal mines. It will no longer be a farming community in any sense, but a coal mining service centre.
“It is clear the Planning Department and Berejiklian government has favoured the greed of a coal mining company over what’s best for the people of NSW, and our community will be paying the price for that for years to come,” Hunter concluded.