Planning Commissioners ask questions at public hearing for the first time

It was standard practice during public meetings and hearings covering coal mine approvals to simply sit back and listen to speech after speech either for or against the development.

Quite frankly is was repetitive, boring and in the end a waste of everyone’s time as was seen by the number of people attending the last two Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) hearings in Singleton concerning Hunter Valley Operations South and United Wambo projects.

Singleton’s large Civic Centre was virtually empty for both hearings – in fact there was probably more people from PAC than from the proponents or opposition, who in the case of the United Wambo hearing ,remained outside voicing their opinion that PAC was a rubber stamp for mining approvals.

IPC chair, Professor Mary O'Kane

IPC chair, Professor Mary O'Kane

Now PAC is gone and we have the new Independent Planning Commission (IPC) chaired by former NSW Chief Scientist Professor Mary O’Kane. The IPC was established on March 1, 2018.

Their roles are very similar as they review and determine state significant developments which include locally all large scale mining projects.

Once a public hearing is held by the IPC into a project it removes all merit appeal rights something that still angers many environmentalists and community groups.

They have long argued that only a Land and Environment Court hearing into the more contentious projects can truly strike a balance that protects the community.

However one of the major changes between the two Commissions is the fact the IPC Commission members may actively engage in asking questions or seek clarification from the speaker/presenter on the subject matter of their oral submission.

No questions or cross-examination will be permitted from other people attending the hearing.

The Commission may engage the use of a Counsel Assisting to assist the Commission in the conduct of the public hearing. As part of assisting in the conduct of the public hearing, Counsel Assisting may ask questions or seek clarification from speakers/presenters.

So we all arrived for the first IPC public hearing to see how the new Commission worked and whether it will provide greater scrutiny and transparency in the approval process for major projects.

The first IPC hearing in Singleton

The first IPC hearing in Singleton

The lucky first project was the Bloomfield Group’s extension of their Rix’s Creek open cut mine just north of Singleton.

In her opening address Prof. O Kane explained a public hearing was held due to more than 25 submissions being received against the project and the fact the proponent had made political donations.

She also explained that all the meetings between the various Departments and company representatives and additional information about the project would be available on the Commission’s website including information about their on-site visit earlier in the week and who they spoke and what was discussed.

Project manager Garry Bailey spoke first which was how it has always been telling the three Commissioners that the mine was an extension of their existing operations which will  continue the life of Rix’s Creek, until 2028, extract an additional 25 million tonnes of coal, employ more workers and provide economic and community benefits to NSW.

It was a standard speech explaining the history and future of a successful open cut however once Mr Bailey finished the Counsel Assisting the Commission Kate Richardson SC starting asking some serious questions.

She was joined in the questioning by the Commissioners seeking clarification and greater details particularly on the final void and whether it could be eliminated altogether which Mr Bailey said would make the mine uneconomic.

Counsel Assisting the Commission Kate Richardson SC asks question during teh hearing

Counsel Assisting the Commission Kate Richardson SC asks question during teh hearing

He said the void would not have a highwall which reduced public safety risks and instead would have a gently slope which improved landuse for grazing.

“We have eliminated one void from our earlier plans and believe this 140 hectare void with a sink of 80ha is very small in comparison to other nearby mines,” he said under questioning.

He also explained at length the mine’s noise management programs that at night involved staff actually on the mine site measuring noise rather than relying on fixed monitors.

The purchase by Bloomfield of the Integra open cut in December 2015 also allowed the company to now run a fully noise reduced fleet, he said.

Further questions covered topics like air quality and the impacts on neighbours. 

His speech was followed by Department of Planning and Environment’s director of Resource Assessments Howard Reed who explained why the department considered the project worthy of approval with the usual final statement saying with strict conditions.

He was also questioned about the final void by Ms Richardson and he said clearly the void was an absolute necessary part of the plan designed to keep saline water on the site post-mining.

“I don’t know how I change that to improve it,” he said.

Opponent Deidre Olofsson called on the IPC to reject the project saying the Department’s report on the project was inadequate and used the words predicted way too often.

“What does predicted mean – a guess and that is not good enough for the residents of Camberwell who will be well and truly impacted if this project is approved,” she said.

She told the hearing that no one ever considers the true cumulative impacts of the 18 existing mines in the region and in this case Rix’s Creek will be joined by recent approvals for extensions at HVO, Mt Owen and the approved Ashton South East Coal Project and Glencore’s plans for an extension at Glendell open cut.

“All these mines are within a few kilometres of Camberwell so just imagine the impacts,” she said.

Hunter Environment Lobby’s Jan Davis followed next listing many similar concerns to those voiced by Mrs Olofsson.

Ms Davis said her organisations concerns related particularly to biodiversity and water management issues in the Hunter regions.

“The mine operator has demonstrated that they are not responsible environmental managers. The illegal disturbance of 96ha of land resulted in a Land and Environment Court case in 2017 has severely diminished community trust in Bloomfield’s ability to manage the many cumulative impacts of this operation in the manner described in the Department’s assessment report May 2017,” she said.

Of the 11 speakers listed eight were in favour of the project.

The good news from the first IPC public hearing was a far better attendance than the previous PACs and the desire by Prof O’Kane to provide a much more forensic approach to the hearings and any meetings between government officials, IPC and the proponents.

Questioning by Counsel and the Commissioners and the fact a senior staff member from Department of Planning and Environment resources Assessment division had to answer questions along with other speakers was a move in the right direction.

We await the Commission’s report with great interest.