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Issue #1671      February 4, 2015

Liverpool Plains coal mine approved

The Lock the Gate Alliance has slammed approval of a large and controversial open cut coal mine on the Liverpool Plains by the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission.

The Watermark coal mine by Chinese mining company Shenhua will mine 10 million tonnes per annum of coal near Breeza adjacent to some of the most productive agricultural soils in the state. It is fiercely opposed by the local farming community, who have previously turned out in large numbers to protest against the proposal.

Lock the Gate National Coordinator, Phil Laird said, “This is the final straw for the credibility of New South Wales mining law. This mine will jeopardise the rich farmlands on the Breeza Plain, and the productive Namoi Alluvial Aquifer, upon which our food-growing farming communities depend.

“The abject failure of this state to make laws that protect farmland and important groundwater from mining is now on ugly display: the approval of this mine is a damning indictment on the Baird government’s failure to fulfil its promise to protect land and water from coal mining.

“Already, hundreds of properties in the Liverpool Plains, Gunnedah and Narrabri Shire [north west NSW] are owned by coal mining companies, including 85 properties owned by Shenhua on the Liverpool Plains. With this approval, Shenhua may swallow up 11 more properties, including productive black soils farms that should be feeding the nation.

“This time four years ago the government went to last NSW election promising to protect farmland on the plains with no-go zones, which they failed to deliver. This mine should have been stopped at the first hurdle, never should have gone through planning process.

“The unfinished business of mining reform is going to haunt this government throughout the eight weeks leading up to the state election and beyond if they do not deliver action now to stop this madness.”

Background: impacts of the Watermark mine

The proponent has moved its proposed mining away from the black soils of the Liverpool Plains and onto higher ground, but it will damage and change the aquifers that underlie those soils.

The Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) recommended that the boundary of Shenhua’s exploration licence be amended to remove areas that intrude on the black soil plans, but the proponent has said it is not willing to do this, indicating perhaps that it wants to maintain options for further mining, into the black soils, once the project is up and running.

The mine will unacceptably impact the agricultural character of the surrounding area, and result in long-term social and economic impacts, due to displacement of farming businesses, that have not been adequately assessed.

Furthermore, the Siding Springs Observatory has stated that the mine, along with other industrial development in the North West, risks ruining the dark skies needed for the observatory to do their world-class astronomical research and observation. Despite this clear and compelling argument in favour of day-time-only operation, both the proponent and the Department of Planning have insisted that the mine must operate for 24-hours a day to be economic.

By far, however, the most profound impacts of this mine will be on water: The Upper Namoi Alluvial Aquifer is one of the most intensively developed groundwater resources in New South Wales. The Watermark mine will drawdown water from three zones of this over-allocated water resource, which supports irrigated agriculture on the rich and productive food-growing soils of the Liverpool Plains.

The mine is expected to take up to 103 megalitres per year from the Upper Namoi Alluvium, but Shenhua do not currently hold sufficient entitlements in the three affected zones of the Upper Namoi Alluvium to take this water, or to run the mine.

The Independent Expert Scientific Committee said of the Watermark mine that, “The proposed project is likely to result in salinity impacts from overflow of water storages, seepage from the backfilled and proposed open mine voids, connectivity between the alluvium and Permian strata and the removal of woodland from the proposed project site.”

The Committee criticised the environmental impact study for the project for not adequately addressing the cumulative reduction in flow in the Namoi River that will occur if both mines go ahead, equivalent to about half the current surface water extraction from the regulated Namoi River below Keepit Dam.

Cumulative drawdown impacts of the two mines in the Upper Namoi Alluvium Zone 7 are predicted to exceed the 2 metre “minimum impact” of the Aquifer Interference Policy and cumulative drawdown in parts of the Gunnedah water management area will exceed 10 metres. The PAC has put a condition on the mine that it must provide “compensatory water” to landholders.

The proponent has admitted that sediment dams will overflow into the creeks that feed the Mooki River. There will be a 33 percent increase in salinity in Watermark Gully because of “overflows from the project sediment basins during high rainfall events”

The proponent is not proposing to restore the landscape as it is now after mining ceases, but to leave behind a 100 hectare final void. This void will draw groundwater for two millennia after mining ceases, reaching salt levels equivalent to seawater after 400 years.

Next article – Obituary – Ron Barrett – a steadfast comrade

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