NSW government proposes mine approvals overhaul

The New South Wales government is proposing changes to regulations governing mining proposals.

The state government yesterday announced it wants to amend existing mine planning laws to improve certainty for both community members and investors.

The amendments will also see the economic importance of mining projects considered in the approvals stage and would set standards for air quality, noise and water pollution.

But the NSW Environmental Defenders Office claims the proposed changes to how mines are assessed are discriminatory, the ABC reports.

Resources minister Chris Hartcher said the mining sector has propped up the state’s economy for some time and the NSW government is determined to ensure it has a strong future.

“Our vision is for a vibrant and prosperous mining industry that continues to deliver jobs and investment to rural and regional NSW, whilst ensuring the protection of our valuable agricultural land and water resources,” Hartcher said.

“In NSW alone, more than 35,000 people are directly employed in the mining and minerals industries, along with 90,000 workers whose jobs are indirectly supported through mine and non-mine related services.”

He said the changes will reduce barriers to investment and provide a balance between the potential impacts and benefits mining projects deliver.

“While the assessment of major projects has always been about balancing their economic and employment significance against any potentially adverse impacts, there have been no clear guidelines as to how these issues should be balanced,” Hartcher said.

The minister explained the proposed amendments will provide a clearer approvals process, ensuring the significance, size and quality of the resource is considered and economic and environmental concerns are balanced.

It will also outline a key environmental, ecological and amenity criteria and set standards mining projects must meet in order to limit noise and dust impacts.

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said the draft amendments to the assessment process of major mining projects is "an improvement that provides more certainty for all". 

"It ensures appropriate consideration of the economic benefits while clearly stating the need for projects to meet strict environmental standards."

But critics have slammed the changes, saying residents will have no “hope in hell” of stopping mining developments and have accused the state government of caving to the mining sector’s demands.

EDO executive director Jeff Smith said the environmental impact benchmarks would only apply to affected residents who own their properties, not those who rent.

"This proposal by the government does discriminate between owners who would benefit from the development standards around air quality and noise impacts and so on, versus renters who would not be subject to those same standards," he said.

The EDO claims the proposed changes to planning regulations are designed to stop mining approvals being overturned the way Rio Tinto's Hunter Valley Warkworth mine was.

Ministerial approval for the Warkworth expansion was overturned in a landmark decision in the Land and Environment Court on social and environmental grounds.

Rio slashed 40 jobs the following week and warned it would review the viability of the mine, as Coal & Allied managing director Darren Yeates slammed the NSW planning system after the decision.

Smith said the changes would mean such appeals couldn’t occur.

"In that case the chief judge at length talked about the need to balance economic, social and environmental factors and in the particular circumstances of that case he found that the economic benefits of the proposal were outweighed by the adverse social and economic impacts," he said.

Labor minister Luke Foley said the overhaul will limit the state’s power to refuse a proposed development.

“The government has caved in to the demands of Rio Tinto and the Minerals Council and is watering down the assessment process," Foley said.

"This is about gutting the Land and Environment Court's ability to ever again deliver a Bulga-like decision."

Foley said the move fails to protect communities from developments, warning Rio could resubmit its Bulga application, Business Spectator reports.

"This is about giving a green light to large scale mining proposals come what may…

"Communities will know for sure, they'll know for certain, they don't have a hope in hell of stopping a large scale mining development."

Local Bulga residents in the Hunter Valley fought mining giant Rio Tinto for three years, attempting to halt the expansion of the Warkworth open-cut coal mine.

According to the Newcastle Herald Bulga-Milbrodale Progress Association spokesman John Krey said the draft policy is scandalous and is calling for a parliamentary inquiry.

"It's just set things back 20 years," Krey said.

"We know the Minerals Council and mines have both had access to the minister, yet Barry O'Farrell refused to meet with us.

"Something smells here, which I think needs to be formally investigated."

Nature Conservation Council of NSW campaign director, Kate Smolski, labelled the legislation as dishonest.

"It has been designed to give the appearance of setting new minimum environmental standards but in fact provides loopholes that are big enough to drive a mining truck through,” she said.

"The discretionary powers go all one way – in favour of development."

Earlier this month the NSW Minerals Council said project deferrals and postponements of 12 months or more will jeopardise 29,000 jobs across the state and result in $10.3 billion in lost investments.

Galilee said new research by PricewaterhouseCoopers highlights the high stakes unless the approvals system is fixed through the new bill.

“Overall the government is aware that unless they get the planning system right, there is going to be a significant economic cost.”

He said project delays could result in $600 million a year in lost mining royalties.

Rio Tinto agreed and said swift changes are required in the planning system to curtail more job cuts and spur long term investment.

“We need immediate action from the NSW government to restore certainty and consistency to the planning system for major mining projects,” Rio Tinto chief executive energy Harry Kenyon-Slaney said at the time.

The proposed amendments are on public exhibition until August 12.

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