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Department’s “double standards” Dendrobium decision a danger to drinking water

The NSW Government has been accused of double standards over its decision to recommend in favour of destructive longwall mining at the Dendrobium expansion beneath the Sydney and Illawarra drinking water catchments.

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment today recommended the project, which proposes 21 longwall panels, should go ahead. It will now be up to the Independent Planning Commission to make a final decision.

If it goes ahead, the expansion is expected to drain the catchment area of up to 5.2 million litres of water each day, which WaterNSW describes as “even more than the existing losses from the mine”.

In its March 2020 submission, WaterNSW stated it “remains strongly opposed to this project”, and raised concerns about impacts on Avon and Cordeaux Rivers which could adversely affect “WaterNSW’s ability to supply high quality water to its customers”.

The agency also expressed alarm about the “sheer number of streams that are predicted to experience fracturing and potential water losses”.

The decision in favour of longwall mining beneath the catchment also flies in the face of a recommendation made by the former version of the IPC, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission. It recommended against the Wollongong Coal longwall project at nearby Russell Vale due to the risk of subsidence posed by the controversial mining method in 2016. Wollongong Coal has since pledged never to propose longwall mining inside the catchment again.

As well, the department’s recommendation in favour of the Dendrobium expansion makes alarming concessions about the level of damage the project would cause to the catchment, stating: “above the two mining areas, subsidence impacts would be significant”.

Of 21 proposed longwall panels, 18 propose to mine a width of 305 metres which would result in subsidence cracking that would extend from the mine to the surface “over (at least) the major proportion of the two mining areas”.

The Assessment Report is blunt in its admission of catchment damage:

Anticipated subsidence impacts include fracturing of streambeds and diversion of surface water underground; losses from the reservoirs due to increased permeability in the solid rock mass separating them from longwall voids; and impacts on surface water quality, including an increase mobilisation of metals such as iron. Stream function would be impacted due to cracking of creek beds, loss of pool holding capacity and loss of baseflow reporting to streams from upland swamps and near-surface aquifers.

South32 has proposed to pay the government to compensate for the loss of drinking water, with a proposed $103M offered for “important strategic water supply capital works to enhance Sydney’s overall water supply”. 

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Nic Clyde said the public could not be expected to have confidence in the department’s assessment process when it put precious water resources at so much risk.

“WaterNSW’s response to the Dendrobium proposal was scathing, yet the department has recommended the project be approved anyway, placing the drinking water of more than five million residents at risk,” he said.

“Our climate is predicted to get much hotter and drier due in part to the impact burning coal is having on our planet, including metallurgical coal like that which Dendrobium will mine.

“The last thing we should be doing is allowing thirsty coal mines access to gargantuan amounts of drinking water intended for the public of our country’s largest city.”

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