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Mining in the dark: Department’s own expert testimony suggests Russell Vale poses serious risk to Sydney’s drinking water

Dire expert warnings highlighting a serious risk of subsidence in the Sydney Water Catchment area if Wollongong Coal’s planned Russell Vale expansion goes ahead were overruled by the NSW Planning Department.

The advice, from an expert NSW Resources Regulator engineer, contradicts the Planning Department’s advice to the Independent Planning Commission which suggested there is “negligible risk of pillar failure”.

Rather than seek to address the concerns during the assessment process, the Planning Department has instead recommended that Wollongong Coal be allowed to investigate the subsidence risk post approval.

The IPC this week held a two day public hearing into the proposed expansion. 

In the lead up to that hearing, the IPC’s panel chair was presented with information (P8) from the NSW Resources Regulator’s Subsidence Principal-Inspector on 13 October, who argued there was uncertainty about the impact new mining could have on marginally-stable coal pillars in the overlying Bulli workings above where mining is proposed. 

The Principal Inspector stated: “without a reasonable understanding of this key risk factor, we are in the dark in making decisions in relation to Russell Vale Colliery’s proposed revised underground expansion project… As a subsidence engineer working many, many years, I say this: this is fundamentally important for a meaningful subsidence prediction/assessment and the subsequent development of risk-management plans”. 

Back in 2016, the Planning Assessment Commission declined to approve an application by Wollongong Coal to expand longwall mining at Russell Vale, primarily due to uncertainty associated with subsidence and groundwater impacts. 

Although the company now proposes to use a different and so-called ‘non-caving’ mining method, it appears as though a significant risk to Sydney’s drinking water catchment remains.

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Nic Clyde said the arbitrary 12 week timeline placed on commissioners to make a decision by NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes could pressure the IPC to approve the Russell Vale expansion, despite the Principal-Inspector’s evidence.

“As we saw with Narrabri, the IPC’s independence has been compromised by Mr Stokes’ arbitrary and impossible deadlines and the political pressure heaped on the Commission since the Bylong decision,” he said.

“Ordinarily, we would have confidence that this expert testimony would be enough for Commissioners to send the Russell Vale expansion back to the drawing board. But not any more, thanks to Mr Stokes.”

Kaye Osborn, of Protect Our Water Alliance said, “It is madness that we are putting at risk the water security of more than five million people, all so a temporary mine can keep digging coal for a few more years.

“The recent crippling drought should have taught us that our water is too precious to place at risk like this, but clearly that message has not made it to the NSW Government.

“Wollongong Coal must not be allowed to expand its Russell Vale coal mine.”

Gavin Workman, of Illawarra Residents for Responsible Mining, said the threat to the water catchment was only the tip of the iceberg.

"The whole mine, the whole planning process, the whole regulatory system is problematic," he said.

“Wollongong Coal still hasn’t met its obligations for its previous approvals at Russell Vale. There is therefore little sense adding any further conditions upon this rogue company. 

“It is an outrage that NSW Planning’s solution is to approve this expansion and then get Wollongong Coal to inspect all the ‘marginally stable pillars’ in the Bulli seam to see whether they are strong enough to hold the whole place up. It is totally inappropriate that we should risk our drinking water by letting a mining company self-assess the likelihood of major damage after it has been given approval to mine.

“The first mining in the Wongawilli seam was Longwall 4, it had a predicted subsidence of 300mm but it ended up being 1780mm and is still moving today. We must not gamble again on subsidence risk.

“I would also like to congratulate Dr Gang Li for sharing this information."

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