Friends of the Upper Hunter want Dartbrook project evaluated in light of Rocky Hill ruling

Gloucester residents opposed to the development of the Rocky Hill open cut mine adjacent to their township are celebrating the decision by the mine's proponents not to appeal a court decision that refused the mine.

Meanwhile Upper Hunter communities are anxiously awaiting looming decisions from the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) on a number of mining projects which could have a significant impact on the region.

Gloucester residents jubilant after their win in the Land and Environment Court in Sydney against the proposed Rocky Hill open-cut coal mine in Gloucester on February 8, 2019 Photo: Janie Barrett

Gloucester residents jubilant after their win in the Land and Environment Court in Sydney against the proposed Rocky Hill open-cut coal mine in Gloucester on February 8, 2019 Photo: Janie Barrett

Projects currently under review by the IPC are Rix's Creek, United Wambo, Bylong and Dartbrook - some of these are continuations, re-opening or a totally greenfield mine in the Bylong Valley.

In the Rocky Hill case Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court, Justice Brian Preston refused approval of a new open cut coal mine to be built.

It was a landmark decision as it was the first time an Australian court had refused consent for a coal mine on the basis of its climate change impacts.

Groundswell Gloucester chairperson Julie Lyford said that the community of Gloucester and most importantly the affected residents are absolutely delighted that they can now get on with their lives.

The uncertainty and anxious waiting is over she commented on the decision by the proponent Gloucester Resources Lid not to appeal the judgement made by Justice Preston in February this year..

"The decade long fight to protect their homes, families and the beautiful Gloucester valley has been arduous and distressing," she said.

"The community can now move forward with progressive and sustainable industry. Indeed, since the news in early 2016 regarding AGL not proceeding with their 330 well gas field, and then the refusal of the Rocky Hill coal mine, house prices have risen and housing stock as well as new builds are in hot demand. Tourism visitation this Easter weekend was very strong. Service industries and light industrial business continue to grow.

"Gloucester has always been a desirable destination to visit, live and grow the economy.

"With climate change threatening everyone and everything on the planet, we owe it to this and future generations to step away from fossil fuel, embrace renewables and work towards just transitions".

Environment Defenders Office, NSW David Morris, CEO, welcomed this final conclusion to a long process.

"It's been a long, arduous - but ultimately successful - road. It's a sweet moment for our client and a huge win for the lawyers who have toiled long and hard on their behalf," he said.

"The judgment is a game changer - both for what it says about climate change and also social and cultural heritage impacts. There's no longer any doubt hanging over the legality of that decision. The focus must now shift to the Government's response, which should be to codify the reasoning adopted by Chief Judge Preston, providing certainty to industry and other communities like the one in Gloucester".

The question now is what impact will the Rocky Hill ruling have on the Upper Hunter coal projects now under review. No doubt mining companies will be hoping very little as they argue their mining approvals will provide jobs, royalties and other numerous and substantial economic benefits.

They will also argue the environmental impacts of these mines can be mitigated. These arguments are backed by the mining union, workers and businesses reliant on the coal industry. In the Singleton Local Government Area mining accounts for 65 per cent of the economy.

For those opposed to further mining expansion in the region they argue enough is enough.

In regards to the re-opening of the Dartbrook underground coal mine near Aberdeen community feedback on that proposal was overwhelming against such a move.

"Having done the numbers I can say with confidence that we've never seen a reaction like this for a modification in the history of the Independent Planning Commission, or its predecessor, the Planning and Assessment Commission," Friends of the Upper Hunter Chairman, Doug Robertson said.

"The Independent Planning Commission posted a whopping 1290 objections and comments against the mine - that's in addition to the 40 speakers who presented against the mine at the public meeting in Muswellbrook on 9 April," Mr Robertson said.

"Against that there were only 40 submissions in support and 446 form letters in support - we can't actually tell if they came from local people or were sourced elsewhere.

"Even if you take the form letters at face value the objections outnumber the supporting submissions at nearly three to one."

"We've never seen a reaction like this on a brownfield project in the Hunter Valley or the rest of NSW. It's a clear vote of no confidence from the wider community."

The reaction to the Dartbrook Underground modification is similar to some of the biggest greenfield mining campaigns such as Rocky Hill, Hume and Drayton South.

"The breadth of reaction showed that concerns weren't limited to any particular group in the community," he said.

"We've seen objections from farmers, coal miners, parents, grandparents, thoroughbred breeders, business owners, students and tourists who love this area - really every segment of the friends and residents of the Upper Hunter has been represented."

This comes in addition to the public meeting on April 9, where 40 of 45 speakers were opposed to the mine's re-opening.

Following that meeting the IPC' has requested additional information from the Department of Planning and Environment.

We're pleased that the IPC seems to be taking the community's concerns seriously - particularly around safety, air quality, groundwater and the weak economic case for this mine said Mr Robertson.

The Commissioners have asked for confirmation from the Department on the frequent air quality exceedences being experienced throughout the area and whether further emissions should be approved in that context.

"We're very interested in the Department's answer, given the well documented links between particle pollution and poor health outcomes. There should never be a situation where the health of thousands of people is compromised for the profit of a few," he said.

"The Dept has also been asked to complete an independent economic analysis which among other things will look into the rehabilitation costs of the mine.

Katherine Brooks and Doug Robertson from the Friends of the Upper Hunter group

Katherine Brooks and Doug Robertson from the Friends of the Upper Hunter group

"The Australian Pacific Coal CEO confirmed at our public meeting on April 7 that he had no idea what the full rehabilitation costs are for this mine and that the only money allocated for rehabilitation is the relatively small bond that sits with the NSW Government.

"It's a relief that someone is finally going to look at this. The last thing we need is a proponent re-opening this mothballed mine without sufficient funds to be able to safely close and rehabilitate it."

Friends of the Upper Hunter were also pleased that the health and safety of local workers was being taken seriously.

"This company and their environmental consultant, Hansen Bailey, have made some fairly cavalier comments about safety," Mr Robertson commented .

"We don't think it's sufficient for them to pat the community on the head and ask us to take them on faith.

"We need to know how this untried company will protect our family members, friends and neighbours who might work at this mine where three people have already died.

"It extremely odd, given the long standing and well documented issues with spontaneous combustion, that this was barely touched on in the documentation from the company or the Department. We're pleased to see that the Commissioners were also curious about this."