Rio Tinto’s Mt Thorley Warkworth extension gets greenlight

The proposed expansion of Rio Tinto’s Mt Thorley Warkworth coal mine has been given the go ahead by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission.

In its report, released yesterday, the Pac stated it “is satisfied that the project’s benefits as currently understood outweigh its potential impacts and that on balance the project is approvable”.

This is a win for the miner, following a long battle for the expansion’s approval.

The miner was originally granted permission to extend the site in 2012, but this was overturned by the NSW Land and Environment Court in April 2013, which 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”.

After appealing the decision, the NSW Supreme Court also ruled that Rio was not allowed to go ahead with the expansion in April 2014.

A short time later, Rio submitted two new development applications for the same site to the planning department.

It said the new applications will provide it with an integrated operation which can sustain mining within the existing footprint for the next 30 years.

Both Rio Tinto and the Department of Planning have said the project’s economic benefits would outweigh environmental impacts, claiming the expansion would ensure employment for 1200 people, $567 million in royalties and spending of $1.34 billion into the NSW economy.

The local CFMEU have welcomed the approvals, calling it a win for miners.

"It provides the confidence back into the industry that the mining industry is still here, coal's still here," CFMEU northern district president Peter Jordan told the ABC.

"Jobs can be secure, and it gives that confidence and economic boost to the coal industry in general."

Despite now being passed, the PAC did not simply wholesale approve the project, making a number of recommendations in its report.

“The commission has made a number of additional recommendations aimed at the strengthening of conditions relating to biodiversity, final voids, air quality, and noise,” the PAC report stated.

These recommendations relate “to seeking confirmation from OEH about Aboriginal stakeholder consultation, the strengthening of conditions around the future management of final voids, the management of non-compliances or exceedances of air quality and noise limits, and further consideration of the social impact assessment”.

It also noted that the mine would contribute around $11 million to the local region, with $5 million to $6 million to be spent on the construction of water and sewerage treatment facilities for Bulga within the first five years.

These approvals have been slammed by the Greens and local conservation groups.

Greens NSW mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham condemned the expansion of the Warkworth coal mine in the Hunter Valley, saying the Baird Government was negligent to allow the coal industry to expand in the face of climate change.

“While Mike Baird clowns around on social media, his government has approved a massive coal mine expansion in the face of climate change,” Buckingham said.

“It’s culpable negligence to expand the thermal coal industry in the face of climate change.

“The NSW Government has colluded with Rio Tinto to shepherd this mine expansion and bear responsibility for the destruction of the community of Bulga and the unique Warkworth Sand environment. 

“This expansion also represents a betrayal of Rio Tinto’s original commitment not to mine beyond the ridgeline and demonstrates that the coal industry cannot be trusted and are motivated by profit to the point where they are pushing a product they know is destroying the climate with massive repercussions for the global economy and society.”

Rio Tinto has been contacted for additional comment on the approvals.

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