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Dendrobium disaster: Independent Panel adds to criticism of South32’s plans

The Independent Advisory Panel on Underground Mining (IAPUM) has become the latest government organisation to slam South32’s Dendrobium coal mine extension proposal in Sydney and the Illawarra's drinking water catchment.

A recently published transcript of a meeting between IAPUM representatives and the Independent Planning Commission shows the Panel was scathing of South32’s unwillingness to share key information about its proposal, and believes the Dendrobium extension could:

  • Lead to the loss of surface water from the Special Area in perpetuity because the mine can never be truly “sealed” (P4);

  • Bring contaminated water to the surface within the Special Area (P7);

  • Cause more surface water loss than the company currently estimates (P19, 20);

The transcript also shows the IAPUM representatives were critical of the timeframe allowed for analysis of the proposal (P3), and Covid-19 restrictions prevented them from conducting a full environmental risk assessment (P27).

As well, IAPUM representatives were unimpressed by South32’s unwillingness to comment on how narrow longwalls can be in order for the project to remain economically viable (narrower longwalls cause less damage to the water catchment but are also apparently less profitable)(P27).

IAPUM’s concerns come after it was revealed WaterNSW was similarly worried about the impact the Dendrobium extension would have on the catchment, with the agency raising concerns it could drain “in the order of 6-7 billion litres each year”.

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Nic Clyde said, “Under ordinary circumstances, we would fully expect the IPC to reject South32’s reckless proposal based on the sheer number and seriousness of concerns raised by IAPUM and WaterNSW.

“But the IPC’s independence was kneecapped by Planning Minister Rob Stokes after its Commissioners dared to go against the government and the NSW Minerals Council and reject the Bylong coal mine.

“The IPC’s practice for coal and gas projects since being brought to heel by the Minister has been to act as a rubber stamp for the Planning Department, which has already deemed the Dendrobium extension as ‘approvable,’ ignoring strong opposition from the agency that manages Sydney’s catchment. 

“We are urging the Commissioners to use their common sense, exercise their independence, and reject this unacceptable proposal and stop it from draining water continually, forever, from the Illawarra-Sydney drinking catchment.

“Sydney is the only major city in the world that allows coal mining beneath the dams that hold its drinking water.

“Despite the fragility of the catchment and the risks posed by mining beneath it, South32’s arrogance and unwillingness to even consider the less destructive bord and pillar method of mining raises serious concerns.

“This company should never have been trusted with the drinking water relied on by more than five million people.”

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