The Planning Assessment Commission has given Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth extension the green light sparking another battle between the miner and the small country town of Bulga.
The company was originally granted permission to extend the mine in 2012, but this was overturned by the NSW Land and Environment Court in April 2013 after it found the project would have significant, diverse biological adversity, noise, dust, and social impacts on Bulga.
The decision to halt the expansion came after a legal challenge from the Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association.
Justice Brian Preston, chief judge of the Land and Environment Court said the group’s appeal should be upheld as the impacts ''would exacerbate the sense of loss of place, and materially and adversely change the sense of community of the residents of Bulga and the surrounding countryside”.
Residents of the small town celebrated at the time and were said to be “over the moon” with the decision.
‘‘Everyone on the progress association is over the moon, it’s a massive relief,’’ said local business owner Margueritte Hannaberry at the time.
‘‘We’ve got a lot of happy people who were born and bred in Bulga today.’’
Residents thought this was the end of their battle but, Rio was still committed to ensuring the project could go ahead.
The company fought the ruling in the NSW Supreme Court, but in April 2014 it ruled that company was not allowed to go ahead with the expansion.
Since then NSW government have changed laws relating to mine planning approvals, the State Environmental Planning Policy, to give greater consideration to economic concerns when challenged by community concerns about the impact of new mining operations.
Local residents of Bulga have cried foul on the legislative change, claiming it has enabled Rio to reapply for the expansion.
Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association spokesman John Krey claims “the SEPP amendment was invented to offset the findings of the Land and Environment Court and we believe that was pressure from Rio Tinto.”
“There’s no secret that there were several sessions that Rio Tinto had with the government,” Krey said.
Rio has attempted to sweeten its most recent application deal with a biodiversity offset package which includes a donation of 1800 hectares of land to be made a national park.
The company has also said it will upgrade its diesel powered heavy equipment with noise attenuation kits by the end of 2016 and offer voluntary acquisition to those residents who were granted acquisition rights under the 2012 Warkworth planning approval.
However some locals have accused the miner of not listening to their concerns.
Krey said Rio had resubmitted the same application rejected by the Land and Environment Court.
In particular, locals don’t want to see mining occur in bushland next to the town that was previously intended to be set aside as a conservation area.
“These new plans totally ignore everything the judge said, it’s exactly the same footprint, same demolition of the Warkworth Woodlands and there is absolutely no protection provided for our community,” Krey said.
Current planning approvals mean the mine can only sustain existing production and employment levels until the end of 2015.
The company says the new applications will provide it with an integrated operation which can sustain mining within the existing footprint for the next 30 years.
It says the plan means the 1300 employees and contractors who work at the site will have job security.
In its assessment of the project, the Planning Assessment Commission said Rio’s plan to extend the life of mine was consistent with government policy and legislation.
However the PAC said approval is subject to the provision of additional information on a number of matters prior to determination as well as the imposition of stringent environmental requirements.
These include more information around a clear and transparent biodiversity offset strategy to ensure ecosystem and species credit requirements will be met. It is also recommending that Warkworth be required to provide evidence substantiating the viability of the proposed regeneration of important Endangered Ecological Communities and associated costings.
Further, the commission said the final legacy void should be reduced in size.
The commission said it recognises that the project will result in adverse social and economic impacts, particularly on the Bulga village and its residents, who are experiencing increasing mining encroachment from these and other mines.
“These impacts are likely to include impacts on property values; on the ability of residents to be able to sell their properties in the future; and environmental concerns, including notably noise and dust impacts,” PAC said.
“In light of these impacts, the Commission is of the view that consideration should be given to options to compensate residents and ameliorate as far as practicable these impacts.”
The Commission noted that the relationship between the miner and the Bulga community has “deteriorated to the level where constructive discussion to resolve issues of significant concern to the community is difficult”.
The Commission says Rio “would be well advised” to pursue appropriate initiatives to rebuild their relationship with the local community.
It wants to see the miner commit to honouring the acquisition and mitigation rights provided to the residences under the repealed Warkworth Extension project.
PAC also says effective mine rehabilitation will also be important in getting the community back on side.
In justifying its decision to approve the mine expansion, PAC said the project would result in significant social and economic benefits including increased direct and indirect spending in the region of $719 million; the generation of around $617 million in state royalties; and a net economic benefit to NSW of $1.488 million.
NSW Minerals Council chief Stephen Galilee welcomed PAC's decision.
“ 1300 workers at Mount Thorley Warkworth and their families are relieved to know that their economic future is a step closer to being secured for years to come,” Galilee said.
“The decision by the PAC is great news for the mine employees and also for the ongoing economic stability of the the Upper Hunter. In 2014, Mount Thorley Warkworth spent $188 million with more than 270 suppliers in the Upper Hunter region.”
But Krey said the community is extremely disappointed at the decision.
"This recommendation for approval has been the result of two years of work between Rio Tinto and the government in changing the rules to get a project, previously considered by the courts as unapprovable, recommended for approval," Krey said.
"It went through the Land and Environment Court, it went through the Supreme Court, and both those said the impacts are too great.
"And yet, now, we read in the recommendations that, considering everything, the impacts don't outweigh the financial side of it.
"So, clearly, the government is taking the money and they don't give a bugger about the people in the communities that have to live around these open cut mines."
Krey said the local community was committed to fighting the mine.
"We are looking at, firstly, the conditions that are being proposed and clearly there are some there that can be argued," he said.
"We will continue to fight this, as far as submissions to the Planning Assessment Commission, and to the Department of Planning.
"We've invested five years."
One option put forward by the PAC to “relocate” the small country town has been met with incredulity by locals.
‘‘Such relocations are already undertaken in dam approvals … any relocation decision and associated planning would, of course, need to involve the residents of Bulga,’’ the commission’s panel wrote.
‘‘It is recognised that this option is not an approach that would generally be considered, however, the commission believes that in this instance there are a unique and unusual set of circumstances that make it worthy of serious consideration.’’
Though the mine has not yet received final approval, Krey said some residents were already toying with the idea of leaving before it was forced upon them.
Bulga residents have called on NSW Premier Mike Baird to make three key pre-election commitments that will protect the town from the mine expansion.
They want the Mining State Environmental Planning Policy to be abolished, and a Commission of Inquiry to be held into planning agencies.
They also want the suspension of the current Warkworth and Mount Thorley DPE assessments of the PAC requirements and defer the PAC final decision until the above steps are taken by the Government and an outcome determined.
“No acceptable decision can be made based on assessment rules which unfairly favour one party against another and which cannot protect the environment,” Krey said.
“The assessment process must provide a balance between the Environment, Social and Economic considerations.”
Residents are also mulling a last ditch appeal with the help of the NSW Environmental Defendors office, but it is said to be high risk.
‘‘It would be a big risk, but we don’t have an alternative. We might as well walk away from Bulga,’’ Krey said.
However any future legal challenge will have to wait until the PAC delivers its final report on the project, meaning a long and anxious wait for Bulga locals.
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