THE one thing everyone could agree on at the Singleton Heights Diggers Club yesterday was the fact the state’s planning laws are flawed.
Speaker after speaker at the Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) hearing into Rio Tinto’s Warkworth and Mt Thorley Continuation Projects spoke of their disappointment or frustration with the existing system.
No matter whether the speaker was in support of the two mines expansion plans or against the projects, they all voiced their disapproval of the way planning decisions are currently being made.
PAC was in for a marathon sitting over two days with more than 80 speakers and the three PAC members Paul Forward, chair, Lynelle Briggs AO and Gordon Kirkby were like everyone in the room on Friday morning – feeling the heat.
Not from the tense atmosphere but an over stretched air-conditioning system having to cope with a room full to overflowing with people wearing high-vis shirts, politicians, Bulga residents and the media.
The Warkworth and Mt Thorley Continuation Projects will extend the life of the mines for a further 21 years and extract 259 million tonnes of coal with the bulk of that coming from the Warkworth open cut mine.
It is the Warkworth mine that has been mired in controversy since plans for its expansion were first proposed in 2010 because it involved the mining of land, most notably Saddleback Ridge, covered by a company and government signed Deed of Agreement which stated the area would never be mined.
The 2010 plans were approved and then appealed by the Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association (BMPA) in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The court’s Chief Justice Brian Preston heard the case and disallowed the approval, saying the plans posed too greater risk to the community and the environment.
Rio Tinto appealed that decision in the NSW Supreme Court and, in April this year, their appeal was rejected.
The company submitted new plans for the project and, in his opening address to PAC yesterday, Rio Tinto’s Coal Australia managing director Chris Salisbury stressed how long the company had been working towards this project – five years and how important the projects were to saving the 1300 workers currently employed at MTW.
“Uncertainty has shadowed the workforce and the community for five years and this approval, if granted, will provide security and certainty,” he said.
“We have been inundated with support for the mine from many sections of the community; and that is humbling.”
Commenting on the economic benefits, he said MTW spent $335 million with more than 600 NSW suppliers and close to $190 million with more than 230 suppliers in the Upper Hunter region, adding the mine paid $90 million in royalties to help fund community infrastructure.
As to the arguments the latest proposal is simply the same as the one rejected by Chief Justice Preston, Mr Salisbury told PAC the company had addressed the courts findings in its latest plans.
“Our commitment to positive environmental outcomes as part of this application sets a new standard,” he said.
“We have provided an 1800-hectare offset property that provided provision for addition to a National Park as part of our extensive offsets package.
“This is on top of offsets of more than 1000 hectares and undertaking rehabilitation to 2100 hectares of disturbed land.”
Barrister Robert White, who represented the BMPA in the NSW Land and Environment Court and spoke at the hearing yesterday, said in no uncertain terms the project should not be approved.
“The real issue is that this application is not any different to the original proposal, which was thoroughly considered for 14 days in the Land and Environment Court, with expert witnesses called and numerous submissions heard,” he told The Argus.
“And at the end of this process Chief Judge Preston found it would cause significant harm to the environment and the community.
“His decision was then upheld by the Supreme Court and, now, Rio Tino has come back with substantially the same application.
“Just because the planning process has been played around with, it doesn’t change the fact the impacts of the project are unacceptable.”
He said it does not matter if the government has a new offset policy; the direct impact of clearing the Warkworth Sands Area is unacceptable.
“Surely a judge sitting in the Land and Environment Court for 14 days is better placed to assess this application than the PAC at a two-day hearing,” Mr White added.
“The economic benefits of this project have also been repeatedly overstated as they are based on flawed modeling – the declining price of coal has not been considered.”