Dam risky: Government seeks to water down dam mining protection

Published: September 17, 2015

A new Bill passed by NSW Parliament yesterday will water down protections for Sydney’s drinking water catchment, and prescribed dams across the state, from mining activities. 

The NSW Government’s “Dam Safety Bill 2015” was introduced to replace the Dam Safety Act 1978. Among the provisions of the Bill are changes to the powers of the Dam Safety Committee regarding mining leases.

Currently, under s91 of the Mining Act, the Dam Safety Committee has the power to object to a mining lease within the “notification area” for a prescribed dam. It also has the power to recommend changes to the conditions of mining leases over dam notification areas.

The new Dam Safety Bill will remove these provisions from the Mining Act and replace them with a far weaker requirement that mining leases in these notification areas be referred to Dam Safety Committee for comment, and that comment be taken into consideration by an authority considering a development application for a mine in the area.

Lock the Gate NSW Coordinator Georgina Woods said, “At a time when the impacts of coal mining on water resources are causing profound concern and the Government is under heavy criticism for insufficient regulation to protect water resources from coal mining, it is pretty alarming to see them bringing forward legislation to remove checks and balances for coal mines.

“For State Significant coal projects, there’s very little control by the Government agencies responsible for water, biodiversity, agricultural land and health: they do not have the power to refuse permits and licences once mines have approval from the Planning and Assessment Commission. In the case of the Dam Safety Committee, this was one stop gap that remained in place – and for good reason, since the Committee has warned about loss of water and capacity in Sydney’s dams as a result of fractures caused by nearby mines.

Kaye Osborn, spokesperson for Illawarra Residents for Responsible Mining said, “It's very concerning that the State government appears intent on diluting the Dam Safety Committee's ability to object to coal leases that cover major drinking water reservoirs.  There are expansion projects in the Southern coalfields in the pipeline that are precariously close to the Sydney's reservoirs.  The precautions to safeguard the water supply for the 4.6 million people of Greater Sydney should be strengthened at this time, not watered down.” 

Dam risky business: some background to mining and dams in NSW

  • According to the Dam Safety Committee’s Annual Report for 2013/14, over 28 million tonnes of coal were extracted near prescribed dams in NSW in that year, and the Committee considered 27 new applications for mining near dams.
  • At present, three mining companies operate longwall coal mining operations under the Metropolitan Special Area that surrounds the Cataract, Cordeaux, Avon and Nepean Dams, and the Woronora Special Area that surrounds Woronora Dam.
  • Recently, Water NSW, which is responsible for managing Sydney’s drinking water catchment wrote to the Department of Planning in support of the repeal of clause 12AA of the coal mining state planning policy, saying the clause “constrains balanced consideration during the assessment process of the environmental values of the drinking water catchment’s Special Areas, the social and environmental benefits of a high quality drinking water supply and the importance of water supply infrastructure”[1]
  • WaterNSW opposes any longwall mining located within the Dams Safety Committee notification areas surrounding WaterNSW’s dams in the Declared Catchment, or elsewhere, where it is predicted to damage Sydney drinking water supply infrastructure.[2]
  • The Dam Safety Committee has been critical of the Russell Vale mine expansion and expressed concerns about the safety of the Cataract Reservoir and the security of the stored waters there because it would be the first time that three coal seams will have been mined so close to a large dam reservoir. The Committee told the Department of Planning in April 2013 that it did not support the mine and that, “If a connection from the reservoir to the underground workings in Wonga East was to form, there could be a significant loss of the available storage capacity of the Reservoir.”[3]


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