Stranded Vickery Scoping Paper contains material omissions about tyre landfilling and heritage

Feature image supplied: Steven O’Donoghue, Director of Resource Assessments, spruiked the now-failing Vickery Coal mine at a public meeting, Boggabri, 2017.

A Scoping Paper addressed to Stephen O’Donoghue, the Director or Resource Assessments, NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) on 5th July 2023, contains material omissions in relation to a matter of significant heritage value and falsely claims the revised project would be “substantially the same” as the approved Vickery Extension Project even though the latter does not have approval to landfill tyres. The Vickery mine project is located adjacent to the Namoi River agricultural flood plain between Gunnedah and Narrabri, and its footprint extends to the Namoi River which is at risk if the mine proceeds.

The proponent, Whitehaven Coal, fails to mention in the Scoping Paper that its proposed concrete batching plant would be in close proximity to “Kurrumbede”, the historic manor house which is the former home and inspiration to poet Dorothea Mackellar’s patriotic ode “My Country”. Whitehaven also excluded the Dorothea Mackellar Society from the list of stakeholders to be consulted, in an obvious attempt to exclude heritage consideration from any environmental impact assessment.

Pic supplied: Historic home “Kurrumbede”, now owned by Whitehaven Coal, is threatened by the presence of a nearby concrete batching plant

Despite being approved in 2015 for 4.5 MTPA (million tonnes per annum) coal production, increased in 2017 to 10.5 MTPA, Whitehaven has downscaled its ambitions for Vickery mine. Due mainly to unsuccessfully attempts to raise finance for the project over the past 8 years, the company’s vision for the mine has now been reduced to a much smaller project and has dropped plans for a major railway complex with two Namoi River crossings, connecting with the Maules Creek mine to the north via a network of rail spurs.

Ongoing financing difficulties, no doubt compounded by National Australia Bank’s recent refusal to grant Whitehaven a $1B loan facility, are proving the 2021 predictions of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis that the Whitehaven mine is a “folly” and “stranded project”.

Whitehaven have no mining operation underway at Vickery and its latest Scoping Paper raises the prospect that the company is scratching around at Vickery to look busy and keep shareholders on the hook. Requiring a new mining lease to build the coal railway, which it does not have, Whitehaven now faces the prospect of trucking any coal via the Kamilaroi Highway to Gunnedah amidst heavy regional traffic.

Condemnation of tyre landfilling at coal mines continues

While coal mining at Vickery is illusory, Whitehaven is putting effort into undermining any attempt by the tyre industry, tyre reprocessors like Molycop, research bodies like the University of NSW’s SMaRT (Sustainable Materials Research & Technology) Centre and and the efforts Australian of the Year NSW 2022 Professor Veena Sahajwalla, even the Federal Government, to put an end to mass landfilling of tyres by the coal industry.

Together with the NSW EPA, the coal industry is seeking to legitimise large-scale burials of off-the-road mining tyres and undermining the economic potential of reprocessing them.

Whitehaven’s Scoping Paper follows the NSW Environment Protection Authority granting a succession of approvals to the miner to landfill thousands of off-the-road mining tyres at its other Namoi Valley mines free of the landfill levy that is applicable statewide to other tyre users. The EPA has been actively complicit in giving the coal industry a free ride, refusing to implement a phased ban on landfilling mining tyres or impose the landfill levy.

Image supplied: Maules Creek Coal Mine Open Day, displaying typical mining tyres for scale.

The Scoping Paper for Vickery Modification 1 signals Whitehaven’s intention to expand its existing tyre burying activities, which are the subject of ongoing condemnation since the NSW Government approved three of the company’s other mines in the Narrabri-Gunnedah region to use their open cut pits as de facto landfills at:

  • Maules Creek Coal Mine – Modification 8 (approved on 14 January 2022);
  • Tarrawonga Coal Mine – Modification 9 (approved on 12 May 2021); and
  • Werris Creek Mine – Modification 4 (approved on 12 May 2021)

These project modifications were approved without an environmental impact assessment, only a brief Modification Report produced in-house by Whitehaven and not attributed to any environmental scientist who might take responsibility for its contents, this is because modifications are exempt from using a professional registered under the REAP Scheme the Registered Environmental Assessment Practitioners Scheme introduced under the State’s Rapid Assessment Framework in 2021.

The tyre scandal has engulfed the EPA, which stands accused of ignoring its statutory powers to impose levies on materials being landfilled. This would act as an economic lever to encourage recycling and reprocessing. The regulator has blatantly ignored a succession of recommendations by the tyre industry itself calling for the introduction of regulatory measures that deter landfilling. In 2022 Tyre Stewardship Australia declared that the existing voluntary tyre recycling scheme has reached its peak in its ability to effectively recover and reuse end-of-life tyres and called for governments to take action.

However, acting in concert with Whitehaven Coal, the EPA (whose Chief Executive Officer Tony Chappel is a former senior law officer for Whitehaven) has actively thwarted the circular tyre economy, by resisting calls by the tyre industry for a ban on landfilling tyres.

The EPA continues to ignore Tyre Stewardship Australia’s recommendation of Mining Industry Off-The-Road Used Tyre Analysis January 2020: “Following Chile’s lead, jurisdictions around Australia could implement a ban on the onsite disposal of used mining tyres. A lead time of at least several years (Chile gave a 10-year lead time) would allow time for the establishment of the required recovery infrastructure around the country.”

 New Planning Minister Scully needs to rein in Resource Assessments branch

Stephen O’Donoghue is currently considering the Scoping Paper. He is implicated in years of dubious planning decisions and failures of the Planning Department to note material errors, false and misleading information and in one notorious event in 2018, he allowed an unlawful network of water pipelines to be constructed to feed agricultural water to the Maules Creek Coal mine during the worst extreme of the drought without a modification of the mine’s approval. His excuse at the time, later confirmed to be legally incorrect, was that exhibition and assessment of the water pipeline network was not required under the Mining State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP). After repeatedly being fed false information by Mr O’Donoghue’s Resource Assessments department, via NSW DPE’s unwitting media unit, the regional newspaper The Northern Daily Leader published a scathing denunciation of the NSW planning department.

The Vickery Scoping Paper follows another recent Scoping Paper – by Santos – in which the gas company lodged an application for Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements (SEARs) in which the company attempted to downplay cumulative impacts of a proposed Narrabri Lateral Pipeline on the Pilliga Forest, ignoring the presence of surrounding and contiguous projects like the Pilliga Gas field, the Narrabri underground coal mine and the Hunter to Narrabri gas pipeline.

The past history and current conduct of Resource Assessments in failing to ever force compliance with mining planning conditions, leaving the heavy lifting to agencies like the EPA and the Natural Resource Access Regulator, calls for Ministerial scrutiny. We are supposed to have an “orderly” planning system. Under Stephen O’Donoghue it has been nothing of the sort.

Resource projects need to be closely watched from the scoping stage, not waiting for public exhibition, or else poor decisions will be made by Mr O’Donoghue and his staff, minimising environmental assessment and forming the basis of poor planning decisions.

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