An Alliance of community groups has announced it will boycott the public hearing of the Planning Assessment Commission review into the Wilpinjong Extension coal project, calling the event a “meaningless sham set up to deny the public our legal right to challenge mine approvals in court.”
The Hunter Central Rivers Alliance includes 43 community groups from across the region, concerned with the impacts of coal and gas mining. The Alliance wrote to Minister Stokes in September urging him not to extinguish legal appeal rights of local communities impacted by inappropriate coal mine proposals.
Today, the Minister has announced a public hearing will be held into the Wilpinjong mine expansion which means community of Wollar, which will be wiped off the map by the project, will lose their legal right of appeal.
The Department’s Assessment Report, released today, admits that over the last ten years the Wilpinjong coal mine has been responsible for the decimation of the village of Wollar, and that affected the viability of a range of community services, including the local Rural Fire Service, but proposes the expansion go ahead anyway because the damage cannot now be reversed.
“We will boycott this ridiculous charade of public consultation they call a public hearing,” said Steve Phillips, convenor of the Hunter Central Rivers Alliance, “and we'll organise a protest event in Mudgee and Sydney for the affected community and their supporters to come to instead.”
“We're tired of lending legitimacy to a process that's deaf to the suffering that coal mining is inflicting on NSW communities, that's essentially a box-checking exercise along the mine approval time line. We're disgusted that this government keeps handing out coal mining approvals while cynically taking away the public’s right to challenge the merits of bad decisions in a court of law,” said Phillips.
Under NSW law, when the Planning Assessment Commission holds a “public hearing” as part of a review of a proposed coal mine, the public loses third-party merits-appeal rights - the right to challenge the merits of a subsequent mine approval in the Land and Environment Court. This kind of “merits appeal” is what the community of Bulga used to overturn the 2012 approval of Rio Tinto's Warkworth coal mine expansion, and it allows for the robust and unbiased review of the supposed merits of a coal project in court.
A “public hearing” provides no such robust review and intensifies conflict and division, allowing for no debate, discussion, or interrogation of claims and counter-claims, and no opportunity to resolve issues or establish middle ground.
“The Department’s report has admitted that the Wilpinjong coal mine has had profound effects on my community at Wollar and that this expansion is the death warrant for what remains of the village and surrounding community. We have lost faith in the ability of the public hearing process to protect us and prevent this mine from wiping us out,” said Bev Smiles, of Wollar.
“We need our legal rights restored. We don't need another PAC public hearing circus, where our objections can be raised but are never responded to.
“The loss of our legal merits-appeal rights is one of the most unfair and egregious failings of this government's approach to coal mine approvals. It is imperative that these rights are restored for the Bylong and Wilpinjong projects,” said Smiles.
The Assessment report and referral to the PAC are available here: http://majorprojects.planning.nsw.gov.au/index.pl?action=view_job&job_id=6764#
The community groups’ letter announcing the intended boycott is here:
- For almost 40 years the Land and Environment Court’s jurisdiction has included merits review in planning and other matters.
- However, under existing legislation these appeal rights are extinguished if, before consent is granted, the Planning Assessment Commission holds a public hearing into the matter, this being done at the request of the Minister (or Secretary of the Department) on a case by case basis
- Some 38 matters have gone to a PAC public hearing at the request of the Minister (or Secretary) since the inception of the PAC in 2008, of which 29 have been for resource projects.
- Merits review provides an opportunity for fulsome public participation in large-scale projects across NSW. This is important in itself but also acts as a key check and balance in the system. As the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has noted: “Community participation… act[s] as a counter balance to corrupt influences. The erosion of these requirements in the planning system reduces scrutiny of planning decisions and makes it easier to facilitate a corrupt decision.
- The NSW EDO in their ‘Merits Review in Planning in NSW’ report, found that, “the consistency, quality, fairness and accountability of merits review decision-making by the Land and Environment Court results in better environmental and social outcomes and contrasts with poorer outcomes and inferior processes in PAC public hearings.”
- Extinguishment of third party appeals to the Land and Environment Court disempowers disaffected community groups, and deprives the public of the benefit of good decision-making in environmental matters and consequently serves to undermine the integrity of the planning system.