The closure of the polluting and dangerous Russell Vale colliery in the Sydney-Illawarra drinking water catchment demonstrates why the NSW Government needs to get tougher on companies who are clearly unfit to operate a coal mine, says Lock the Gate Alliance.
The Alliance made detailed submissions to the State Government before the Russell Vale coal mine expansion was approved in 2020, arguing the company was unfit to operate the mine under NSW laws.
Those concerns have now been validated, after the NSW Resources Regulator issued a notice preventing the mine from operating this week.
Allowing unfit companies to operate puts workers’ safety and the environment at risk, and can then lead to unplanned closures, as has happened this week at Russell Vale.
Lock the Gate is now calling for the NSW Minns Government to ensure Wollongong Coal rehabilitates Russell Vale to the highest standards and for jobs in rehabilitation to be provided to affected workers.
Lock the Gate Alliance NSW Coordinator Nic Clyde said the Minns Government must not allow Wollongong Coal to offload Russell Vale to another “two-bit basket case mining minnow” but should ensure the mine is rehabilitated and closed permanently.
“The local community has known for years that Wollongong Coal was unfit to operate a coal mine, particularly one located in an area as sensitive as the drinking water catchment,” he said.
“Illawarra residents have seen coal sludge from Russell Vale turn Bellambi Creek black too many times.
“The Resources Regulator has done the right thing by stepping up and protecting workers from this dangerous mine.
“We’re calling on Wollongong Coal to now do the right thing by its workers and redeploy them into rehabilitation roles so this sorry mine can finally be cleaned up, and the cost of doing so doesn’t fall to the NSW taxpayer.
“The water catchment is both an environmentally sensitive area, and an incredibly important resource for the future of Sydney and the Illawarra’s drinking water. Coal mines should never have been dug beneath it.
“Underground mines like Russell Vale are also extremely gassy, and we don’t want to see this mine left to belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere indefinitely.
“We’re asking for clarity from the government today as to what resources Wollongong Coal has available to rehabilitate the site, given the company stated in 2019 that it did not have enough cash to fully rehabilitate. This is what happens when governments give unfit companies permission to mine in NSW.
"The NSW government set up the Royalties or Rejuvenation fund and an Illawarra expert panel to support communities through the transition, but to date, there's no evidence of any concrete projects proposed or funded. This fund now has $75M."
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Despite Wollongong Coal’s dire financial situation, and environmental issues at Russell Vale, the NSW Government approved the mine’s expansion in 2020. Then Environment Minister Sussan Ley gave the company federal permission to expand Russell Vale the following year.
Wollongong Coal has faced multiple investigations, issued with Development Control Orders, Prohibition Notices, Enforceable Undertakings, stop work orders and has been found in breach of specific legislation on multiple occasions.
The company has been reprimanded for:
failure to maintain and operate pollution control equipment leading to pollution of Bellambi Gully
illegal storage of waste
repeat breaches of mine procedures leading to shut down of the Wongawilli mine over serious safety issues in accordance with section 51 of the Work Health and Safety (Mines and Petroleum Sites) Act 2013
failure to pay rents and levies
failure to undertake works in accordance with the conditions of approval
failure to hold community consultative committee meetings
failure to comply with a Development Control Order (DCO) issued by the NSW Planning Minister at the Russell Vale Coal Mine.
A detailed summary of issues supporting the claim that this company was unfit to mine underneath a Special Area of the drinking water catchment is available on Illawarra Residents for Responsible Mining’s website here.