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Exposed: Department of Planning directed coal mines to ignore air pollution breaches

New analysis of compliance at four Hunter Valley coal mines over the past four years has revealed shocking evidence that the New South Wales Department of Planning directed coal mines to ignore breaches of air pollution conditions.

Lock the Gate Alliance commissioned a review by Hydrocology Consulting of compliance with air quality conditions of approval at the four coal mines nearest the Upper Hunter town of Muswellbrook: Mount Pleasant, Mount Arthur, Bengalla and Muswellbrook coal mine. 

In addition to directing mining companies to ignore breaches, the review - Muswellbrook Dust Hazard: An Air Quality Assessment of the Four Coal Mines Closest to Muswellbrook - also shows the department has been systematically amending mine approvals to reduce the number of technical breaches being reported. 

All four coal mines originally had approval conditions stating that on ordinary days (i.e. days not impacted by bushfire smoke or other extraordinary hazards), they must not be responsible for contributing to PM10 particulate pollution levels above national standards on surrounding properties.

However, the analysis shows that during the past three years, the department subsequently amended the approval conditions of two mines - Bengalla and Mount Pleasant - so they only breached their conditions if an individual mine was solely responsible for air pollution readings above national standards.

As well, evidence from Annual Reviews submitted by all four coal mines to the department reveals that even when the mine’s conditions stated otherwise, the department directed operators to use this accounting trick so that breaches were only investigated if a mine was alone responsible for the standard being exceeded.

As a result, repeated breaches of Mount Arthur mine’s environmental approval are being ignored.

Ultimately, the analysis reveals the number of compliance investigations and enforcement actions taken by the Department were miniscule compared to the number of times air quality monitoring recorded breaches. 

In total, there have been 439 instances of recorded PM10 24-hour average concentrations above the official National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) criteria, but only 32 recorded air quality incidents or non-compliances, and just 10 infringement notices or cautions issued.

Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said, “This shocking analysis explains why so little enforcement action has taken place, despite the worsening conditions of the Hunter’s air. 

“What we found was breathtaking. According to their own approval conditions, these four coal mines, particularly Mount Arthur, are recording hundreds of breaches of air quality standards but this is not triggering investigations or enforcement action.

“The department has in fact instructed coal mines to only investigate and report air pollution exceedances if they were the result of the mine’s operation alone, contrary to original and in some cases existing conditions of approval. 

“They have deliberately undermined and evaded these mine’s conditions of approval and allowed air pollution to escalate. 

“The NSW Planning Department is creating accounting tricks that mean Upper Hunter locals are suffering unacceptable and increasing air pollution as a result of multiple large mining operations, but no one is being held accountable for that.

“Planning Minister Rob Stokes must launch an investigation into air pollution in the Hunter and the systematic evasion of environmental standards by coal mining companies with the complicity of his own department.” 


Fast facts: Annual reviews and audits for the four mines revealed that over the last four years:

  • There have been 439 instances of PM10 24-hour average concentrations above the 24 hour average PM10 criteria recorded by monitors operated by the four mines reviewed. 

  • There have been 300 complaints about dust pollution to these four coal mines

  • Yet there have been only 32 recorded air quality incidents or non-compliances, and 

  • 10 infringement notices or cautions issued

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