The Federal Environment Minister has varied conditions for Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine, reflecting the company's recognition that it needs to purchase more critically endangered Grassy Whitebox Woodland to mitigate the impact of its controversial project.
The decision vindicates community concern that the company had not acquired enough Grassy Whitebox Woodland to meet its offset requirements for the coal mine, which was approved in 2013.
As a result, a court case brought by the Environmental Defenders Office on behalf of South East Forest Rescue, has been discontinued.
SEFR spokesperson Scott Daines said it was a “lukewarm” victory.
“Nothing is ever going to replace the critically endangered ecosystem cleared and lost forever as a result of Whitehaven’s monstrous Maules Creek coal mine,” he said.
“But at least now, – after many years of the community raising this issue and getting no traction - the company is finally acknowledging that it needs to acquire more offset areas, and the government is requiring these to be independently verified.
“The way it was looking, Whitehaven would have secured less than half the 5,532ha offsets required, which is why we deemed it necessary to take the company to court in the first place.
“We will be keeping a close eye on Whitehaven to make sure it doesn’t shirk any new offset requirements.”
In 2013, Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Coal Mine gained federal approval on the condition that the company secure 5,532 hectares of biodiversity offsets to compensate for clearing a critically endangered ecological community, known as box gum grassy woodland. The approval identified the proposed offset areas and required the company to have them independently verified.
Since before the approval was given, the community, informed by experts, has been raising concerns that Whitehaven’s proposed offset areas did not contain the necessary quantity and quality of box gum grassy woodland.
In its original form, the approval gave the company until early 2018 to secure its biodiversity offsets. The company was unable to do this and has obtained three variations to the approval that granted the company additional time to secure its offset areas. None of these variation decisions involved the Commonwealth or the approval holder acknowledging inadequacies of the proposed offset areas on the public record.
In April 2020, SEFR, represented by the EDO, filed proceedings in the Federal Court alleging that Whitehaven had failed to verify that its proposed offset areas would satisfy its offsetting requirements and that Whitehaven was proposing to contravene its offsetting conditions by continuing to rely on an inadequate suite of offset areas.
Whitehaven’s latest date for compliance with the offsetting conditions was 31 March 2021. Leading up to this deadline, still unable to comply and with the proceedings remaining on foot, the company sought a further variation to the approval and advised the Department that it intended to acquire additional offset areas. On 24 March 2021, the Commonwealth Minister (by a delegate) varied the approval.
The varied approval now provides for the inclusion of additional offset areas, for the first time responding to the community’s long-held concerns. The varied approval expressly requires that any such additional offset areas be the subject of independent review and verification.
The company must submit independent verification of any additional offset areas to the Minister by 30 June 2022 and submit applications to have these registered by 30 December 2022.
Whitehaven remains yet to identify on the public record a suite of proposed offset areas that it can confirm have been independently verified as satisfying the biodiversity offsetting requirements of the approval.