ICAC urged to investigate Rio’s Warkworth approvals process

Bulga residents fighting Rio Tinto’s expansion of Mount Thorley Warkworth mine have asked ICAC to investigate after the Department of Planning recommended approval for the project two days after the application was lodged.

Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association spokesman John Krey said there was irrefutable evidence that showed the department had shown bias in favour of the miner.

Rio lodged its response to the 1081 public submissions on the project one day after the public exhibition period closed on November 29.

The Department then recommended the expansion for approval on December 4.

The group says this shows evidence that due process was not being followed, Newcastle Herald reported.

"The mine responded within one day, and the government had produced its report within two days, so you'd have to say what in the hell is going on with it," Krey said.

"How is this possible? To us, this appears to be a flagrant abuse of due process.

"ICAC has the power to investigate matters 'concerning dishonest or biased official conduct' and we believe there is irrefutable evidence that the planning department has shown bias in favour of Rio Tinto.

"On this basis, we believe there are reasonable grounds for concluding that this matter may be of interest to ICAC."

More than 950 submissions, many of which were made by the mine's workers, were in favour of the modification.

However Krey said Bulga community members were not given adequate time to make submissions, calling on Planning Minister Brad Hazzard to intervene.

"We would like a proper period of consideration, they only gave us two weeks," he said.

"It's a disgraceful approach and it is really something that needs investigation by the authorities because someone is applying a lot of pressure to the government to do something abnormal."

A Rio Tinto spokesman said the company had followed due process in its submissions to expand the mine.

"The minor modification, which will enable the mine to continue operating as close as possible to existing production levels and protect the jobs of 1300 workers for the next two years, has been prepared as a matter of urgency," he said.

"After four years of consultation and assessment for the Warkworth extension project, it is disingenuous to claim that this minor modification affecting only a very small part of the previous proposal needs to be further delayed."

While New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell also denies any wrong-doing and says he has complete confidence in the assessment process, ABC reported.

"The department is following due process. No decisions have been made and this is the usual consultation process that occurs. I'm entirely confident given the fact that the Department of Planning and Infrastructure NSW operates with great transparency, great openness" he said.

Lodging its application to access land around its Mount Thorley Warkworth operations in early November, Rio said accessing the extra land was “the only real option Rio had to avoid further significant impacts on production and jobs”.

"We are already at the point where production will drop by around a million tonnes next year regardless of any actions that can be taken now,” the company’s coal division managing director, Chris Salisbury said.

He said the application was a much smaller extension then the one that was overturned by the Land and Environment Court in April.

The company cut 40 jobs after the decision was handed down and warned 1300 more jobs would be on the line if the modification did not go ahead.

Salisbury said the new extension is seeking access to a further 350 metres of land to continue operating and was essential in keeping the mine viable.

The Planning Assessment Commission is holding a public hearing about the project in Singleton today.

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