Above: Tarrawonga mine, with two of its many dams. The mine was deemed to have failing rehabilitation by NSW Resources Regulator and to have “poor revegetation”. With an open woodland rehabilitation objective, the Regulator expects that a mine operating for 13 years would be able to demonstrate significant areas of progressive rehabilitation reaching ecosystem establishment. Image: Courtesy Wando Conservation and Cultural Centre Inc.
Tarrawonga coal mine’s proposed 50km water pipeline sneaked through public exhibition in small print after a modification of its planning approval was advertised in Narrabri’s The Courier newspaper in May.
Few were aware that what is described in the public notice in small print as “Construction and operation of a water pipeline for contingency water supplies” is, in fact, an expansion of the footprint of that mine by around 30km, and close to 50km of pipeline.
The water pipeline is proposed to connect Tarrawonga with another mine called the Vickery Project which is 12km south east of the town of Boggabri. Both Tarrawonga and the yet-to-be-assessed Vickery mine share their groundwater source with Boggabri, raising concerns about the security of critical human water needs for the community.
Vickery mine and coal hub intends to process 14 million tonnes per annum, including crushing, washing and loading to rail. Coming to its final Public Hearing on 2nd and 3rd July 2020, Vickery will also extract an additional 10 million tonnes per annum, substantially increasing dust pollution, and also posing catastrophic risks to the Namoi River catchment.
Stock and domestic water needs in the surrounding valley were sorely tested during the 2018-2020 drought, and people in surrounding localities were in many cases reliant on the Boggabri town bore for water deliveries. Many fear the drought was not just a cyclical phenomenon, and that coal mine expansion in the region is an unacceptable risk to water in the Namoi Valley.
They say there is too much uncertainty about water security, to justify increased easing of access to water by coal mines in the region.
Despite the seriousness of the risk, the environmental impact assessment for the Tarrawonga expansion does not give specific attention to the possibility that Boggabri’s town bore could be impacted by Modification 7 and provides no clues as to the triggers which would sound the alert that Zone 4, and surrounding Zones 5 and 11, could be at imminent risk of over-extraction.
Whitehaven Coal is the operator of Tarrawonga, and has a history of groundwater problems at its Maules Creek mine just to the north of Tarrawonga, and also at Werris Creek, south of Gunnedah where it is alleged Whitehaven irreparably damaged the Quipoly Aquifer.
Whitehaven also stands accused of unlawfully harvesting storm water at Maules Creek, a matter which has been recommended for prosecution by the New South Wales Natural Resource Access Regulator.
In April, Tarrawonga mine was fined for a breach of its Environmental Protection Licence for a sedimentation dam collapse which caused polluted water to escape the site onto the neighbouring property. Details are sketchy as to how the sediment water managed to move offsite. The NSW Environment Protection Authority stated in its media release that the mine had no management plan or inspection schedule for the dam.
There is conjecture on social media about the pollution incident, which occurred after heavy rains in February. Details have not been disclosed as to which of Tarrawonga’s many dams failed, and how the contents escaped.
It is the same heavy rain event during which Whitehaven Coal experienced yet another pollution spill, this time an escape of expandable polystyrene balls (EPBs) used in blasting. A substantial number of the balls escaped into Back Creek, a tributary of Namoi River resulting in an EPA Clean Up Notice and investigation. The incident followed a warning from the EPA last August that the blasting materials were not being stored securely.
The Natural Resource Access Regulator has already sounded the alarm that the triggers for urgent response are inadequate to protect Zone 4 from the cumulative impacts of coal mining: “The initial trigger needs to be set below the approved impact limit with adequate contingency planning to ensure the necessary investigations and any mitigating measures can be implemented to either prevent the approved limit from being exceeded or to enable compensatory/make good measures to be applied as required.”
No evidence of this is available, and the Regional Water Strategy is not specific, so while the risks affect the broader community there is little or (as in the case of the Tarrawonga sediment dam pollution offence in April 2020) no oversight to prevent such happenings.
Is Tarrawonga’s MOD 7 mine modification going to provide Whitehaven with more groundwater?
One aspect of groundwater extraction, which is highly secretive, is the inflows of groundwater into the mine pits through seepage which is often called “passive intake”. This is not able to be metered, as it flows from the naked mine wall into the pit where it is stored and piped to wherever the mine wishes to use it to advantage.
Another source of groundwater, which is not metered as other water extraction sources like river water and licensed groundwater take, is the water pumped from the pit floor to lower the water to enable and facilitate deeper mining. While no doubt the mine incorporates flow meters on these dewatering pumps, it is not obligatory for the mine to report actual meter readings and we rely on the mine’s estimates. Water like this is often stored in the pit and re-routed elsewhere on the mine as needed.
Aerial view of Maules Creek pit, with blasting preparation at left, and (centre) dewatering pump and groundwater sump, pumping water elsewhere on site.
Image: Courtesy Wando Conservation and Cultural Centre Inc
Tarrawonga is a problematically “dry” mine, frequently in danger of running out of water for dust suppression. Whitehaven has previously struck a commercial arrangement with Boggabri Coal to avail itself of Boggabri’s river access to pump water to nearby Tarrawonga.
According to the MCCC, changes to the Tarrawonga pit “will enable the movement of unregulated Namoi alluvium water to or from other mine sites such as Vickery and Maules Creek including water from sites outside the water zone of origin”.
“MOD 7 has all the hallmarks of an old-fashioned water grab of unregulated pit inflow, or the so called ‘passive take’ relied on the recent Maules Creek groundwater investigation”, a reference to one of the NRAR investigations.
Maules Creek Community Council:
“The modification is designed to literally remove all barriers to passive take and to go one step further, building a network of pipelines to facilitate the use of pit inflows all around the region.”
One of the issues highlighted by the Maules Creek Community Council is that the Tarrawonga modification permits Whitehaven Coal to ignore an existing requirement to construct a membrane to control the flow of water from the Namoi alluvium into the mine. This was required under the Tarrawonga mine conditions years ago, but by all accounts was never done and no punitive action ever taken by authorities for failing to implement the condition.
It is now becoming clear that the Tarrawonga MOD 7 is in large part a device to aid the harvesting of groundwater, the latest building block in a comprehensive network of water pipelines connecting farmland, existing mine-owned bores, and several Whitehaven Coal mines including Maules Creek and Vickery. The building of another water pipeline last year created a public furore which exposed the Resources Assessments branch of Department of Planning Industry and the Environment for allowing an unlawful construction and approving it retrospectively.
Once again, Tarrawonga’s new water grab is being done with inadequate environmental impact assessment, and inadequate notice to the public of the true extent of the water harvesting strategy.
In these circumstances, it is clear that safeguarding critical human water needs and stock requirements of the people of the surrounding Namoi Valley is not a priority for regulators.
After the horror drought, Zone 4 residents are right to fear that this is not the time to relax groundwater protections to enable more coal mining and more coal washing.