PAC says coal mine can be approved despite court rejections

The NSW Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) today said Rio Tinto’s proposed Warkworth open cut coal mine expansion in the Hunter Valley could be approved despite the project being twice rejected by the courts.

5 March 2015

The report said “whilst the commission notes that the current application is very similar to the previous Warkworth Extension Project that was refused by the LEC (Land and Environment Court), significant legislative and policy changes have occurred since that time”.

The legislative and policy changes include amendments to the Mining State Environmental Planning Policy which prioritises the significance of the coal deposit as a consideration for the PAC.

A second major policy change is the NSW Government’s offsets policy for major projects which allows rehabilitated mine land to be used to offset the impact of clearing of high conservation value vegetation for the mine. The PAC said: “this is a significant shift in biodiversity policy of which members of the public may not be fully aware”.

The PAC report acknowledges that the proposed regeneration of the endangered ecological community, Warkworth Sands Woodland, is critical to the on-going viability of the Woodland.

“The Land and Environment Court explored this very question with the benefit of leading experts on this woodland community. It found that the regeneration of the Woodland has not been proved viable. We are looking down the barrel of the extinction of this rare and unique woodland community,” said Principal Solicitor EDO NSW, Sue Higginson.

The report also stated that air quality criteria would be breached at a “significant number of mine owned properties”. It noted “NSW Health has raised concerns regarding air quality impacts on tenants of these properties and has recommended tenants be informed of potential health risks”.

After noting the significant negative impacts that the proposed mine extension would have on the village of Bulga, the PAC review report has recommended that consideration be given to the relocation of the village of Bulga, at the expense of the NSW Government and Rio Tinto.

The Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association, represented by EDO NSW, successfully challenged the Warkworth coal mine expansion in the NSW Land and Environment Court which rejected the project on 15 April 2013. The NSW Court of Appeal then rejected an appeal by Rio Tinto and NSW Government against this decision on 7 April 2014.

The Land and Environment Court found the economic benefits of the coal mine did not outweigh the significant impacts on Bulga residents and the destruction of endangered ecological communities, including the Warkworth Sands Woodland, and threatened animal species.

A PAC panel will now be constituted to make the final decision on whether the project will proceed.

CONTACT: Jon Walter 0404647842, 02-90173915 jon.walter@edonsw.org.au