Shenhua’s huge Watermark Coal project in north-west New South Wales has been recommended for approval by the Planning Assessment Commission.
A report released by the commission on Friday stated the mine was “approvable” but raised questions over water modelling and plans to mine in “significant” areas of the highly fertile black soil plains.
The open-cut coal project, located on the Liverpool Plains, plans to produce 10 million tonnes of coal per annum, and has come under intense scrutiny from some local farmers in the region who are concerned over water and environmental impacts.
The commissions said uncertainties around water impacts needed to be resolved before final approval for the mine was granted.
Water expert Dr Colin Mackie said after reviewing the company’s water model he was “unable to accept that the reported groundwater head equipotentials, drawdowns, pit inflows and water table recovery estimates calculated by the proponent’s models, properly represent the impacts on the groundwater systems that would arise from the project”.
Mackie recommends three changes to the model are required.
PAC also recommended Watermark’s mine lease be amended to exclude areas of the black soil plains, stating the NSW government should undertake some more detailed work or refinements to identify and protect the valuable farming land “where mining should be prohibited”.
The commission found information on the rehabilitation and final landform were not particularly detailed and ordered some additional work on the design should be undertaken.
PAC also noted more work needs to be conducted around dust and noise impacts and monitoring and impacts to the local koala population.
Shenhua said it welcomed the PAC review and said it would work with Mackie to assist with the additional water modelling he requested.
However project manager Paul Jackson said there were some reservations about a number of recommendations, in particular those relating to additional land acquisitions, which could add significant unexpected costs and result in Shenhua owning a greater number of black soil farms.
Jackson said the company would conduct a detailed review of the PAC report before making a response.
“We have always maintained the Project should be considered using fact and science and we hope the PAC review will satisfy any doubts there may be about the science underpinning our assessment,” Jackson said.
“For the last six years we have worked tirelessly, consulted widely with the community, listened to their views and refined our proposal to accommodate community concerns.”
NSW Farmers President Fiona Simson said PAC’s recommendation was "incredibly disappointing".
Simson said PAC should not have given the mine the green light while questions around water modelling remained unanswered.
"The PAC's decision will just see more uncertainty for everyone," Simson said.
"Either it was acceptable and would not cause unacceptable impacts, or it was unacceptable.
"The proponents have had since 2008 to get their project together yet the PAC still finds that they need to do more work."
Opposition to the project is strong and more than 400 people took part in a protest march against the massive new coal mine in June.
Simson said the NSW government had failed to protect agricultural areas.
"Until governments and corporates start listening to communities and their fears about the future of their land and water, they can forget about building any trust," she said.
"It is past time the NSW government drew a line in the sand and protected our land, water and livelihoods."
The Department of Planning and Environment will consider the PAC review and send its own recommendation to the commission for a final determination.