The NSW Environmental Protection Authority has slammed many aspects of Whitehaven’s proposed Vickery mine. Having assessed the Vickery Environmental Impact Statement, the regulator believes the air emissions inventory is not transparent and there is not enough information provided. Cumulative noise impacts from surrounding coal mines are not correctly assessed. The EPA has also called on the company to review the rail noise impact assessment and criticised Whitehaven for failing to take into account worst case climatic conditions.
Additionally, the EPA stated in relation to the “final void”, the unfilled mine pit Whitehaven Coal proposes to leave to fester in perpetuity:
“An open water hyper-saline final void could potentially cause toxic and anoxic conditions resulting in longer- term ecotoxicological and amenity impacts from the final void.
Alternate options for the long-term fate of the mine void should be identified and assessed.”
Scores of other submissions reveal blistering take-downs of the adequacy of the Vickery EIS, pointing to old data, and lack of cumulative impacts with other existing mines and future mining.
Boggabri town is just 12km from the proposed Vickery coal mine, way too close for comfort to Boggabri residents already oppressed by Whitehaven’s other two mines just to the north, Maules Creek and Tarrawonga.
The Vickery EIS – 42 days not enough
During late September a 4,000 page technical document outlining plans for the Vickery coalmine just south of Boggabri was published on the Department of Planning’s website, giving the public only 42 days to read and comprehend the information and compose meaningful submissions.
At the same time the mine promoter Whitehaven Coal, which controlled the timing of lodgment of the Environment Impact Statement during this time of severe community stress, was conducting a major mail out campaign to drum up supportive submissions from mine suppliers and contractors.
Landowners from the immediately affected areas were sent into shock over the challenge of responding in the midst of a severe drought, while many were hand feeding stock and having to make nerve-wracking decisions about destocking or slaughtering. Residents from Vickery and Emerald Hill – most affected by a newly announced coal railway to connect with the already stressed Moree to Newcastle line – were in uproar about the fact that the railway is being proposed without any clear information about where the infrastructure will actually go, indeed without a floodplain management plan over an area of the Namoi River known for its major flood events.
Requests for an extension were made to the Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts, by six community groups, and also by the Member for Tamworth, the Hon. Kevin Andersen MP (Nationals) and the Red Chief Local Aboriginal Land Service. The reasons ranged from the duress of responding to the complex Environmental Impact Statement during drought, to the fact that the project had changed substantially from what had been previously proposed. The Minister flagrantly dismissed all of the requests.
The project was not well-understood, the community groups said, as it has key gaps of information, notably the absence of modelling of the flood impacts of building a railway over a wide flood plain and no details of the railway design. It also includes a bridge over the Namoi River to the west – something Whitehaven Coal promised the Commonwealth Department of the Environment last year that they would not do.
News that Whitehaven is planning a new borefield – with ten bores – is a big concern, especially on the back of a controversial dispute over the company’s Maules Creek open cut mine allegedly draining surrounding aquifers into its pit.
The NSW Department of Planning threw the community into confusion on 25th September when it held a standing room-only community meeting at Boggabri Golf Club, and senior bureaucrat Mike Young, the Director of Resource and Energy Assessments, made a series of questionable statements.
Following the Boggabri meeting, the NSW Environmental Defender wrote to the Minister:
“We are also instructed that Mike Young, the Department of Planning and Environment’s Director of Resource and Energy Assessments, made comments to our client suggesting that the community need not vigorously review the EIS due to its volume. Our client is concerned by these comments as it considers that they are likely to undermine the importance and purpose of community participation in the decision-making process.”
That the 42-day exhibition period was insufficient is now clear. A number of local stakeholders did not have time to engage expert assessments of the Vickery EIS. For example, Namoi Water, the body which represents the large irrigators in the region, only had time to lodge a brief interim statement objecting to the Vickery coal mine.
However, while some groups and individuals were making representations to the Minister and Secretary of Planning for an extension of time, pro-mine support was flowing in from hundreds of past and present Whitehaven contractors as a result of repeated email reminders circulated by the company along with helpful links to their website. The pro-mine submissions, which outnumber the objections by around 2:1, appear to have taken Mike Young’s advice. Almost none showed any evidence of having read the Environmental Impact Statement. Nearly all are in the form of a quickly dashed off note.
Pushing for new coal power station
Jesse Hicks of Tamworth echoes a common theme in the pro-mine submissions – a desire to see a new coal power station in the region:
“I believe that farming has had a more significant effect on global warming and has destroyed this country. There are very few trees left and for that matter Koalas. Higher saline soils due to deforestation. The resource industry is a necessity if we wish to hold on to our current lifestyles, i.e. cars, power, phones etc. The economy will not survive on farming alone. New coal technology for power generation will only bring down the cost of power.”
Vickery supporter believes the mine will reduce global C02 emissions
An anonymous supporter from Melbourne spoke of how the Vickery coal mine will help to reduce global C02 emissions:
“I am supportive of Whitehaven’s revised Vickery development plan. This is an important project for Australia to contribute to the reduction in global emissions of C02 caused by the burning of poorer quality coals than the high quality coal from the Vickery resource. Every additional tonne of high quality Vickery coal that can be produced will result in less consumption of poor quality coal from places like Indonesia.”
Mistaken belief that Whitehaven has high standards
The submission of Rick Chorley, of Gunnedah, in its entirety reads:
“I support the WHC Vickery project in order to provide longevity for jobs, community development and sustainability. With precedence [sic] set in the surrounding areas and WHC’s high standards of mining responsibilities, this will be a great outcome for the area and indeed local community.”
Despite living in Gunnedah, “Coal Central” of North West New South Wales, Mr Chorley obviously is not aware that in 2017 the notorious Maules Creek mine had its environmental licence demoted to Level 3 risk by the EPA for polluting, joining two other notorous NSW coal mines – Clarence Colliery and Russell Vale, both of which have been prosecuted for pollution offences.
In conclusion, out of the 412 public submissions supporting the Vickery project, some things are glaringly obvious. It doesn’t appear that the Vickery mine supporters have read the EIS, or comprehended the implications of the mine on regional life support systems like water and air.
They seem to have taken literally the advice of Mike Young, which is not to worry about reading the EIS.
It is going to be interesting to see how much weight the Independent Planning Commission will give submissions that support Vickery mine when they are based on arguments like farming has destroyed the countryside and has a more significant effect on global warming, that Whitehaven has set a precedent for high standards of mining responsibility or that Whitehaven Coal’s mine will reduce global emissions – because plainly there is ample evidence to the contrary in the real world.
Anti-mine submissions – what do they reveal? Top-line issues: flood risks and koalas ignored
While the pro-mine brigade didn’t notice the absence of science on flooding and groundwater risks of the Vickery mine, this was not the case of many Objectors.
Organic farmer and acclaimed hydrogeologist Ken Crawford of Boggabri wrote,
“The Vickery Extension Project should not be given ‘development consent’ because it doesn’t comply with the basic principles of floodplain management… It is not so much as what is in the EIS but what is left out,for example, catchment-wide runoff considerations.”
After scrutinising the EIS and Flood Assessment, Mr Crawford identified several grounds for objecting to the Vickery mine. He said there is a failure to address extreme weather events and potential climate change in practice; failure to address aquifer recharge implications, particularly in aquifer compaction and land subsidence; and facilure to address the principles and implications of floodplain management for a relatively narrow and restricted floodplain.
Mr Crawford, the author of numerous papers on the subject of the Namoi River floodplain, stated outright that the proposed railway
“breaks all the principles of floodplain management” and “Deadmans Gully is a major flood-runner and ephemeral stream and as such must not be interfered with.”
He goes on to state: “It is important to note that the Draft Flood Management Plan for the Namoi (2016) has not been gazetted… The essential ‘ground truthing’ is not complete. There are errors in the case study area and should not be used as justification for any project.”
Says the Emerald Hill Progress Association: “No detail has been supplied on how the pylons will be positioned into alluvium subsoil and if any subsidence will occur.”
When the people from Emerald Hill demanded that Whitehaven front up to a meeting at their community hall to answer questions about missing information about the railway over the floodplain, Whitehaven’s representative Brian Cole, the Director of Project Delivery outraged community members by rapping his knuckles against his head indicating that they were knuckleheads for refusing to accept no for an answer.
The Boggabri Golf Club also erupted when this issue was raised at the Department of Planning meeting, back on the 26th September. A community member told the packed clubhouse, “I hammered Brian for days to get information. It’s very important where the flood water goes.”
The meeting Chair, David Ross, had the final word on the subject when he concluded, “I think they can’t tell you… because they don’t know.”
Department Team Leader of Approvals, Stephen O’Donoghue said: “they have done the flood modelling much different than other developments … without explicitly stating where each structure is.”
Concerningly, Mr O’Donoghue nevertheless appeared comfortable with the prospect of approving a railway with no details of where the pylons will be, and the possible risks of subsidence or flooding.
The pro-mine submissions also did not register the lack of detail on the koala.
Pilliga-based ecologist and koala expert David Paull, said “the assessment of impacts on landscape connectivity does not take into account the extent of surface disturbance”. He said although all the vegetation in the Biodiversity Assessment Report Footprint has been modified/degraded mainly by grazing and historic clearing, as most vegetation on private land is in some form of degraded condition, any remnant vegetation should be regarded as important, particularly as it still provides habitat for the threatened species.
Mr Paull added: “All vegetation in the footprint has a high degree of connectivity in terms of patch size (>1000 hectares) notably Vickery State Forest… Koalas in this environment can range widely in the landscape and commonly use scattered trees as several recent studies have shown. No account of the impact on the koala of the removal of 500 hectares [i.e. equivalent of around 500 football fields] of scattered trees has been dealt with in the EIS, nor any attempt to offset this loss.”
Statements made in the EIS about koala feed tree preference are “outdated by the scientific literature”, he said.
Tania Marshall, who has been involved in trying to map and save the Leard Forest koala population for many years said:
“A coal railway should definitely not be allowed through this landscape. On the contrary, a koala protection program is needed to secure the habitat for the koala population for the future”.
Namoi River at risk of toxic salt pollution
Whitehaven’s modelling suggests about 14 tonnes per year of dissolved solids representing a salinity similar to the coal strata groundwater, will travel 4km downstream. The company predicts this would be an acceptable impact, but local conservation group the Wando Conservation and Cultural Centre disagrees. The group argued in its submission that it will pose a serious and ongoing contamination burden on the surrounding zone and undoubtedly harm to agriculture and native habitat. Notwithstanding Whitehaven’s modelling, there is a risk that salts would travel further downstream and impact even further than the predicted 4km.
Bad reputation of Whitehaven Coal: not “fit and proper person”
Unsurprisingly, pro-mine submissions did not refer to the poor reputation of Whitehaven Coal in the region and how the company is regarded as the region’s worst polluter. This is despite many articles in publications like the Northern Daily Leader, Sydney Morning Herald, and Guardian Australia over the past few years about noise, blasting and dust pollution. The poor track record of the Maules Creek mine is well-known in the region.
It would appear that Whitehaven created a new corporate entity called Vickery Coal Pty Ltd to get around the environmental disclosure rules.
Until 19th July 2018, the mine proponent was Whitehaven Coal Limited and was required to submit a statement that the proponent has had no environmental breaches or proceedings against them. It included a requirement by the Commonwealth Government to declare the Environmental Record of the person taking the action. However, previous proceedings by the EPA against the Maules Creek mine and the Gunnedah Coal Loader and Preparation Plant would have made such a declaration impossible.
In May 2018, Whitehaven registered a new company Vickery Coal Pty Ltd, enabling it to state that “No proceedings under a Commonwealth, State or Territory law for the protection of the environment … have been taken against Vickery Coal Pty Ltd.”
Objectors also challenged Whitehaven on the grounds of not being a “fit and proper person” to hold an environmental pollution licence, following false statements made by Chief Executive Officer Paul Flynn at the company’s 2017 Annual General Meeting.
No social licence: “being deliberately misled or lied to by the company”
The Boggabri Farming and Community Group which represents the townspeople and surrounding farming locality nearest Vickery has made it clear to Whitehaven for over a year that the company has lost its social licence to operate in the region.
Their list of grievances is long, including claims that Whitehaven reneged on commitments made to obtain existing mine approvals, conducting an unsafe workplace, poor environmental record of the company and “having company propaganda forced down peoples’ throats”.
What‘s left out of the Vickery EIS is a huge unknown
It seems that the Vickery mine EIS is inadequate in what it says, and also what it omits.
From the behaviour of the Department of Planning, it seems the Berejiklian Government is content to encourage Whitehaven in this dangerous folly of assessing the proposed train line without any details of exactly where it is going to go, and how it will be constructed.
As the submissions are processed major flaws emerge in the assessment of noise, groundwater, flood, dust and many other impacts.
The next stage of the planning process is that Whitehaven must respond to submissions. How they will respond to the NSW EPA’s drubbing, will be of interest to see.