Plans for a new coal mine in the New South Wales Southern Highlands have received a roasting at a public hearing organised by the state’s Independent Planning Commission (IPC).
The 40-plus speakers that lined up for the two-day hearing in Moss Vale read like a who’s who of community, environmental, and even local business groups, ready to reject the claimed benefits of the mine.
The Hume Coal Project and associated Berrima Rail Project are facing additional scrutiny due to the recent rejection of plans for a new coal mine at Gloucester on the NSW mid-north coast.
While groups like Lock the Gate and Battle for Berrima were expected to highlight concerns about the impact on the watertable and interference with a vast array of farming and tourist operations, what came as more of a surprise was business groups — like the local chamber of commerce — delivering a damning verdict.
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment rejected the mine in December last year, and spokesman Clay Preshaw outlined how it would take valuable bore water away from many local farmers.
“The number of affected landowners is approximately 72. The level of drawdown is up to 47 metres and the duration is up to 77 years,” the department’s spokesman said.
“The number of affected bores — privately held bores — would be unprecedented in the history that we have seen of coal mining projects.”
Mr Preshaw said the department received over 12,000 submissions on the mine, with 96 per cent against.
He said if it did go ahead there would be a strong likelihood of major disputes with affected landowners.
Coal miner still confident
Hume Coal Project director Greig Duncan denied that the department’s concerns about the project meant the mine’s rejection was a fait accompli.
He said it was ultimately up to the independent umpire, and was confident the plan in its current form was robust.
“We’ve been evaluating this project now for some seven years, and [with] the amount of work and effort that’s gone into it we’re confident what we’ve put forward we can deliver on,” Mr Duncan said.
“We don’t think there’ll be any circumstance that will arise that would require us to change either the mine design or what we do with the water.
“We’re a very low-impact mine which could provide some substantial economic benefits to the general community here in the Highlands and potentially provide up to 300 full-time positions once the mine is up and operational.”
Mr Duncan’s view was backed by a training agency that had been the beneficiary of company grants to help generate apprenticeships and traineeships in the region.
“Since 2015, $250,000 each year has been funding the Hume Coal Apprenticeship Program,” Meagan Thorpe said from the firm 1300apprentice.
“That would be close to $1.25 million by the end of this year.
“If the project were to be approved and continue, programs like the one I manage could expand and help keep youth, young adults and other eligible participants in the area.”
Business group sides with agri-tourism
Training opportunities aside, the Moss Vale Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey of its members to find they were holding back on millions of dollars worth of investment opportunities as the mine proposal was on the table.
“In the survey, $140 million is proposed in agri-tourism investment, and these figures are largely weighted on the Hume Coal decision before a willingness to invest is established,” Moss Vale Chamber of Commerce president Brigid Kennedy said.
“We predict between five and six hundred jobs, but we have been waiting for this decision to come through.”
Local MP and former NSW planning minister Pru Goward said the region no longer needed mining jobs if the social and environmental costs were too high.
“My belief is that with strong economic management, and exploiting the other wonderful opportunities of value-added agriculture, and of course tourism, you can more than make up for those jobs,” she said.
Long-time campaigner against the mine, Michael Verbeckt of Battle for Berrima, said the proposal simply did not stack up.
“Our submission covered a range of things — from the economics of the mine proposal, right through to the issues covering ground and surface water, as well as the unconventional pine feather mining technique which has never been done in NSW or Australia before,” he said.
“We’ve hit on all those issues and made it pretty clear to the Commissioner where we stand.”
After the hearing, the IPC will prepare a report, with the applicant given the opportunity to respond before the department conducts its final assessment.
The IPC will then take that all into account to make a decision.
The decision is expected to take several months.