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Dodgy Dendrobium assessment revealed: Department coached South32 to include coal’s so-called suitability for steelworks

New documents obtained under freedom of information laws (available here and here) reveal the uncomfortably close relationship between the NSW Planning Department and the proponent of one of the state’s most controversial coal mine expansions.

The documents show the department encouraging the South32 to emphasise coal from its Dendrobium expansion's suitability for use in Bluescope’s steelworks in its revised expansion application. 

South32’s original application was rejected by the Independent Planning Commission, but was later declared “State Significant Infrastructure” following political interference.

The IPC also categorically rejected South32’s suggestion that coal from Dendrobium was vital for the continuation of the Bluescope steelworks. The IPC also found “the bulk of… coal (from Dendrobium) is primarily destined for markets outside the Illawarra region”.

The State Significant Infrastructure declaration removed the IPC as the independent decision maker, meaning the new mine expansion proposal is due to be determined by the Planning Department and Planning Minister Anthony Roberts. 

The email, obtained under GIPA laws, shows the department telling South32, “The report doesn’t clearly state that coal produced from the project is suitable for use by BlueScope, rather, it states “the new mine plan for Area 5 will produce high quality metallurgical coal suitable for use in steelmaking”. Given the heavy reliance of the justification for the project on supplying BlueScope, a statement saying the coal meets BlueScope specs (or can meet specs with blending) would be useful.

Protect Our Water Catchment Inc spokesperson Deidre Stuart said, “Many who have fought fossil fuel projects have long feared the NSW Government is woefully captured by fossil fuel interests, and this email proves it.

“The Planning Department should be working in the interests of Illawarra locals and the people of NSW. Instead, we see it is doing the bidding of a coal mining company.

“This is a disgrace. The IPC rightly knocked back South32’s disastrous proposal due to the devastating impact it would have on Sydney and the Illawarra’s drinking water, and the threat it posed to endangered upland swamp ecosystems. At the very least, in light of these revelations, an independent and transparent body must now oversee the assessment of South32’s revised Dendrobium proposal.”

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW coordinator Nic Clyde said, “This apparent coaching of South32 by the department exposes the uncomfortable closeness of the government and the proponents of extremely controversial coal mines.

“The correspondence shows the Planning Department is clearly unable to objectively assess the Dendrobium expansion at arm’s length. The declaration of the Dendrobium Project as State Significant Infrastructure has created a serious conflict for the Department of Planning.

“The IPC’s rejection of South32’s original proposal should have been the end of this disastrous coal mine plan. Instead, thanks to political interference, locals are now forced to fight a new coal mine proposal which looks set to undergo less scrutiny.

“This is the only coal mine in the state’s history that has been declared state significant infrastructure. This is a mine being assessed on a political basis, not a scientific one, and Sydney and the Illawarra’s drinking water is not safe as a result.” 


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