Sunday 4 January 2015

RSWUA submission to Warkworth PAC Hearing 18/12/2014

Below is the text of the submission presented by RSWUA Secretary, Jolieske Lips, at the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission’s public hearing into the future of the Warkworth and Mt Thorley Continuation Project in Singleton on 18 December 2014.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this PAC hearing.

I should not be here. I repeat, I should not be here. This mining application has already been rejected in the courts twice. The current proposal is just a variant of the original proposal. It is an insult to our system of law, to the Australian sense of fairness and justice and to the people of Bulga. That the Dept of Planning even accepted another application means the community can no longer have any faith whatsoever in the whole planning process. What is it about the word no, a very simple word, probably one of the first concepts a child learns, that Rio Tinto does not understand? No means No.

Members of our association are so incensed about this whole process that I have made the three hour journey to come to speak here today.

Running Stream is almost due west of here, on the other side of the Great Divide. The area includes Mt Vincent, a basalt topped plateau, identified as Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land. The water source is hundreds of springs that sustain a vibrant agricultural (primarily beef) community. These springs are also the source of eight major creeks, six of which flow west to the Darling. The other two flow east to the Hawkesbury. The Association was formed 22 years ago when the first coal mine threat appeared. Five years ago three more exploration licences were granted over the area. Mining under such an important water resource is madness and we are fighting to protect our precious water for future generations. Our slogan is Coal for a Decade or Water for Life?

RSWUA therefore has taken a keen interest in the processes involved from the granting of exploration licence through to mine approval. We have watched other communities battling to preserve their livelihoods, their health, their community and their ability to pass on to future generations truly sustainable ways of living. What we have learnt, in particular about the planning process and how government operates, makes for a great deal of anger, disgust and cynicism.

What we have learnt is that the law is a changeable feast at which the rich and powerful dine.

I grew up believing I lived in a country ruled by law – that somehow this was fixed, immutable and gave security to everyday living. How naive I was! I now understand that society makes the laws, and as society’s values change, so the law changes. But that is not where the naivety lay. The naivety lay in not realising that in many cases it is the rich and powerful that change the law, not society as a whole. This is exactly what has happened in Bulga’s case.

Some decades ago society decided we should live under the principles of Ecological Sustainable Development, the foundation principle of which is that equal weight is given to economic, social and environmental factors when setting policy and making decisions. As far as I know there has been no open, transparent discussion in the public arena that this foundational principle should be scrapped. Instead a powerful multinational company, following a rebuttal in the court system heavies the government to change the law – this has happened twice now – first the Caroona case and now Bulga. So the SEPP gets changed and in addition behind closed doors conditions are changed so promises made by the mining company to safeguard a community and important remnant biodiversity become null and void.

We no longer live in a democracy but a plutocracy. If you are not familiar with that word, a plutocracy is a society ruled by the small majority of the wealthiest citizens. But we actually need to coin a new word: corpocracy, a society ruled by international corporations – they are not even citizens!

So what RSWUA has learnt by following the Bulga and other cases, is that if you don’t have lots of rich people in your community helping you, and you are not part of a multi-billion dollar (read horse racing) industry, you will be rolled. The mining company can get away with incomplete studies, incorrect EIS, sometimes reports written by compliant consultants who produce what the mining company wants and undertakings and promises that will not be carried through. You cannot believe what they say. It is, to use the Australian vernacular, a load of bullshit and the planning process is a farce!

However we are also optimists and so we continue to fight to maintain our valuable agricultural land so we can still produce food into the next century and beyond, long after the coal has gone or, as society sees the climate writing on the wall, long after coal has lost its value.

So that is the first point I want to make – I should not be here.

Limited time prevents me from addressing all the other issues: biodiversity, flaws and mistakes in the EIS, including incomplete studies and lack of data, the list goes on. So RSWUA totally supports the submissions of other groups and individuals arguing the case for the rejection of this application (yet again). In my remaining time I will address just three concerns; adverse impact on water resources in the area, the proposed final void, and the shifting of costs to the private sector and future generations.

Impacts on Water: These have not been adequately addressed:

  • The proponent relies on flawed water modelling. Computer models are only as good as their input data and as very little water studies have been done, the lack of data can only mean the modelling is inadequate. It does not reflect the true situation.
  • Removal of Wollombi Brook catchment, which is a stressed river fully allocated under the relevant Water Sharing Plan, is not properly acknowledged. Over the proposed life of the mine some 3 billion megalitres of water will not flow into the Wollombi Brook. As the Brook makes a serious contribution to the water for the Lower Hunter this will have an adverse impact on the Lower Hunter as well;
  • The groundwater assessment for this project showed that in 2035 that there would be “river leakage from Wollombi Brook and groundwater flow towards the pit.” (2014 Groundwater Assessment) This is another unacceptable impact on this important waterway, which is crucial to the life, economy and culture of this part of the Hunter Valley.
  • The mine does not have adequate water and needs to buy more entitlements. Scarcity of water in the Hunter Valley is an issue as a result of increased mining water demand. We are aware the NSW Government is looking at this issue and undertaking research. This research must be finished with its findings translated into policy before any further mining approvals are given that will increase demand on the River, or remove or divert water from the alluvial aquifers of the region.
  • It appears that in one section of the Hunter River alluvial aquifer the mine will encroach so close that it will cause a 5 metre draw down. This is far in excess of the minimal impact criteria in the Aquifer Interference Policy and must not be allowed.
  • Impacts on Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems due to increased salinity have not been adequately addressed.

A Final Void of 950 hectares is totally unacceptable. 950 hectares may be difficult for people to imagine. It is nearly three times the size of my property which incorporates a small valley and its surrounding hills. A void at this scale is outrageous and totally untenable for the following reasons:
  • Already there are (or will be) 26 other such mining voids in the Hunter Valley.
  • There has been no study of the cumulative effect of the number of voids that have now been approved. The lack of any such data and the fact there is no requirement to take into account cumulative effect clearly demonstrates how flawed the current planning process is. Decisions are made in a vacuum of knowledge. One void might be accommodated – 27 cannot be.
  • The proponent argues a 300m deep void will have no effect on the aquifers. This may be true in the short-term, but intergenerational equity means we need to consider the long term. Eventually the hydraulic pressure will force contaminated water into aquifers and thence into Wollombi Brook and the Hunter. This is unacceptable.
  • There is ongoing contamination from the heavy metals associated with exposed coal seams – this has not been addressed. There are already a huge number of derelict mines in existence with major environmental impacts. I give just two examples: the acid drainage from closed mines in the nearby Cessnock Kurri area and the infamous Woods Reef asbestos mine at Barraba.
  • It is time the mining industry stopped leaving a toxic legacy on this huge scale for future generations to deal with. There must be no residual void and I quote the Independent Expert Scientific Committee which considers “that best environmental practice is to backfill voids” (Advice to decision-maker, 1 Feb 2013, Moolarben Stage 2 development application.)
  • The company argues it is too expensive to fill the void. Well, hello, welcome to the real cost of coal mining. The cost of remediating mine affected land must be included as part of the mine plan. This brings me to my third point.

Shifting of costs to the private sector and future generations is unacceptable. This shifting of costs is never considered, but it should and must be. We are sick of hearing of how coal produces the cheapest energy. It is so called “cheap” because flawed accounting ensures many costs associated with coal are never accounted for in any cost benefit analysis. Some of these hidden costs include:
  • Health costs, both physical and mental. There is a huge amount of literature demonstrating the detrimental health impacts of coal mining – who pays these? Not the multinational corporation! It is the individual. Who ever tallies the cost of the mental stresses of ongoing uncertainty, let alone pay for it?
  • Financial costs– even if properties are bought, decades of planning, dreams and labour are never fully compensated. A sixty year old cannot reproduce the efforts of their younger selves if they try to start out again somewhere else.
  • Cost of stranded assets – the people next door to the property bought by the coal mine. The coal mine won’t buy their property, nor will anyone else. This another cost passed on to the individual.
  • Cost of lowered property values - even before mine approval, as soon as the exploration licence is granted (unless you are Eddie Obeid) the value of your property falls. Already people at Running Stream have suffered such a loss.

Costs Shifted to Future Generations: No-one talks about this! Who pays to remediate the acid drainage? Who will pay when the void starts to contaminate aquifers or overflows and poisons surrounding agricultural land? Who pays for the damaged health of kids? Not the multinational corporation – they will have long gone.

In Conclusion RSWUA recommends that this proposal be rejected. The old furphy of jobs, jobs will be trotted out. Yes there are jobs involved, the number usually over inflated or double accounted and never balanced against the jobs and businesses lost. Yes, there are jobs, but they are insecure jobs as many in the Mudgee region have discovered - a downturn in the coal price and many of the jobs are gone. Let’s instead keep the jobs and communities which we have and which can continue into the next century.

However, acknowledging the power of the mining lobby, should this project be approved the following vital conditions must be attached:
  • The scale of the continuation is reduced.
  • Water needs are met within existing allocations currently owned mines.
  • The Deed to protect the Warkworth Sands Woodland is reinstated, enacted and enforced.
  • Best environmental practice is undertaken resulting in no final void.
The Dept of Planning has recommended this project goes ahead with certain conditions and the proponent has agreed to a number of ameliorating actions. But what guarantees are there that any of these will in fact happen? Why should we have any faith that Rio Tinto will do what it promises, given it has broken promises in the past? And what guarantees will the Dept give that the imposed conditions will be met and not simply altered when it is discovered they haven’t been met?

No should mean No.


This media release on the EDO website gives some background on the Warkworth case, and there is a report on the hearing in the Singleton Argus.

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