Lock The Gate Alliance and the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association have written to the NSW Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, urging him to suspend the approval process for a proposed new expansion of the controversial Warkworth coal mine in the Hunter Valley, due to evidence that due process is being abused.
In the joint letter sent yesterday, the groups outlined the “extraordinary and unprecedented” steps they say the NSW Planning Department is taking to fast-track the approval of a new application by Rio Tinto to expand the mine. The groups allege the Department is colluding with the mining company to deliberately shut out input into the process from local residents, experts, and public interest groups.
“The very next business day after public submissions on the proposed mine expansion closed, Rio Tinto lodged its Response to Submissions report”, said Steve Phillips, Hunter regional coordinator for the Lock The Gate Alliance. “It is patently impossible that the mining giant gave any consideration to community attitudes or expert advice in that time. Twenty-four hours later, the Planning Department recommended approval, waving this destructive project through at the behest of Big Coal.
"It took 21 days in total from the time Rio submitted its application, until the Department's recommendation to approve the mine expansion. Residential DAs for home renovations in NSW take an average of 68 days to be approved. It is hard to imaging a more flagrant abuse of due process".
Spokesperson for the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association, John Krey, said:
“We have lost faith in the ability of the Planning Department to fairly and objectively assess the proposed Warkworth mine expansion. The Department is colluding with Rio Tinto to have the project rubber-stamped with minimal oversight and assessment; while deliberately shutting out opportunities for the public to input into the process.
“This project was sprung on us without any warning, and at this rate, it will be approved by Christmas. The whole process stinks, and we urge Minister Hazzard to intervene,” said Mr Krey.
“Minister Hazzard urgently needs to suspend this approval process," added Phillips. "His Department is making a mockery of procedural fairness and public consultation. Mr Hazzard needs to intervene immediately to show the people of NSW that the days of corrupt relationships between Ministers and coal companies are over.”
The original project
- In March 2010 Rio Tinto applied to the NSW Government for approval for the “Warkworth Extension” – a major expansion of the Warkworth coal mine that threatened the village of Bulga. Local residents voted to oppose the project, through the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association (BMPA).
- In February 2012 the Warkworth Extension was approved by the NSW Government. BMPA lodged an appeal against the approval in the NSW Land and Environment Court (an option unavailable to community groups in most circumstances).
- In April 2013 the Court found in favour of the BMPA, overturning the approval for the Warkworth Extension. The reasons for the judgement included unacceptable impacts on residents, impacts on endangered ecological communities, and the fact the Rio Tinto had previously signed an agreement not to mine the area in question (the Deed of Agreement with the NSW Minister for Planning).
- Rio Tinto appealed the L&E Court judgement in the NSW Court of Appeal (Supreme Court) immediately. The following week, the NSW Planning Minister joined the appeal.
- The Court of Appeal judgement is still pending.
- Residents recently obtained a copy of the new Amending Deed between Rio and the Government, signed 27th September 2013 (during the period that the Court of Appeal hearing was taking place). The new agreement removes all protection from for mining for the area under question.
The new application
- On 12th November 2013 Rio Tinto submitted an application for the Warkworth Modification 6 project. The project is smaller than the Warkworth Extension, but still involves open cut mining into the same area that Rio Tinto previously agreed not to mine, and in which the NSW Land and Environment Court has ruled mining should not take place.
- The project was placed on public exhibition for 2 weeks – half the usual time. Local residents and the public at large received no warning about the project, which is unprecedented.
- The very next business day after public submissions closed, Rio Tinto lodged its Response to Submissions report. This process ordinarily takes at least two months.
- The very next day after the RTS was lodged, the Planning Department completed its Assessment Report, recommending that the project is approved. This process ordinarily takes at least two months.
- The Planning Assessment Commission will hold a public meeting on the project in Singleton on 19th December – barely one month after the project was made public. This process ordinarily takes well over a year.