Planning Minister Rob Stokes has ordered a third public hearing on plans to extend Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth mine.
A decision about the project's future had been expected in coming weeks, but another public hearing will be held by the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) in Singleton on September 7 to consider the impact of the Mount Thorley Warkworth project on the back of proposed changes to mine planning policy.
The changes will see the removal of a rule which stipulates the economic benefits of a proposed coal mine must be the principal consideration when assessing for approval.
Introduced only two years ago, the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) change was criticised for shifting the balance of planning assessments in favour of the mining industry over environmental and social factors.
The changes proposed by Stokes means the environmental, social and economic impacts of any mining development must be all considered on an even keel.
Stokes said the third public hearing into the Mount Thorley Warkworth expansion will be held to ensure a fair opportunity for everyone to comment on the proposal.
"The proposed planning policy (SEPP) change is about restoring community confidence in the planning system and our proposal reflects the importance of balance in assessing the likely impacts of mining developments," Stokes said.
Rio Tinto says it has spent six years trying to secure approvals for the expansion project, stating that further delays could impact the mine’s operations.
"If it goes on a lot longer then it will have negative impacts for the operation," Mount Thorley Warkworth project's general manager Mark Rodgers said.
"We'll be forced to look at reducing production for a period of time until we can get operations back in balance."
Chief operating officer for Rio Tinto's coal operations in Australia, Chris Salisbury said changes mine planning policy were retrospective and made "at the very end of this assessment process".
"The Minister for Planning can restore confidence in the planning system by ensuring the Planning Assessment Commission makes a prompt determination following the public hearing,” he said.
The Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association has been fighting the mine’s expansion for many years, and has welcomed the chance to scrutinise the mine plan.
"The Planning and Assessment Commission is the only body now able to restore justice to our community and we dearly hope that it does that," the association’s spokesman John Krey said.
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”.
Krey said Rio had resubmitted the same application rejected by the Land and Environment Court.
Current planning approvals mean the mine can only sustain existing production and employment levels until the end of 2015.