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WaterNSW flushes South32’s number 2 Dendrobium extension plan

The NSW Government body charged with the protection and management of the state’s drinking water supplies has highlighted serious concerns over drinking water loss in response to South32’s revised Dendrobium coal mine extension proposal.

A new application for South32’s Dendrobium coal mine extension was granted State Significant Infrastructure (SSI) status after the project was rejected by the Independent Planning Commission last year due in part to the “unacceptable impact” it would have on the drinking water supply for more than five million people. The company’s revised plan means roughly up to three billion litres of water each year would still be lost from the catchment if the mine extension is built.

The decision to list the project as SSI means that the state’s Planning Minister can ignore a number of regulations when determining whether to approve it, including the requirements of the State Environmental Planning Policies designed to protect Sydney Drinking Water Catchment.

In its response to South32’s “scoping report” for the project, uploaded today, WaterNSW has flagged a number of serious concerns about the mine extension’s potential impact on the drinking water catchment area including:

“WaterNSW does not support (South32’s) proposal to offset surface water take for the revised Dendrobium Area 5 Extension Project as suggested in the Scoping Report.

“The [Independent Expert Panel on Mining in the Catchment] has highlighted that the mine design adopted for mining in Dendrobium Mine Areas 1, 2 and 3 has resulted in surface water losses that are very significant compared to other mines in the Special Areas like Metropolitan Mine and Russell Vale Colliery.

“A rigorous analysis must be presented as to how this additional water lost, because of this mining, will be ‘made up’ or replaced into the future.

“There is a knowledge gap and inadequate studies done with regards to groundwater recharge rates.

“(South32) needs to consider mine design options to avoid/minimize surface water losses and options for treating and returning underground mine water back into the Sydney drinking water catchment.”

WaterNSW identified 16 points where South32 had failed to include crucial information in its revised plan, and also called on the company to:

  • Revise its plan so the risks of cracks and subsidence to threatened upland swamps above the mine are reduced: “WaterNSW will only support the consideration of watercourse and swamp rehabilitation and water offsets for the Area 5 Extension Project as a Contingency Measure.”

  • Assess the mine’s impacts on water features like rockbars/pools and waterfalls on “an individual basis”.

WaterNSW also notes that “Increasing climate variability means that, without action, we could face a shortage of drinking water with more and longer periods of severe drought”. 

Deidre Stuart, from Illawarra grass roots network fighting the Dendrobium extension Protect Our Water Catchment Incorporated said WaterNSW’s criticism showed South32’s Dendrobium extension was still “not in the public interest and if approved by the Planning Minister, would not meet community expectations”.

“As WaterNSW has rightfully pointed out, the Greater Sydney region and the Illawarra is at serious risk of unprecedented drought as the climate crisis intensifies,” she said.

“Building a new coal mine extension that will drain away the drinking water we rely on is reckless.  It is also reckless that the government would even consider allowing avoidable drying out of the water catchment which helps protect us from increased bushfire risk in a warming climate.

“Sydney is the only large metropolis in the world that allows longwall coal mining beneath its public drinking water catchment.

“It’s fundamentally unfair that the independent process that rejected this extension has been disregarded, even while the company is bizarrely still fighting that decision in court.” 

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Nic Clyde said: “WaterNSW’s scathing assessment backs our argument that an independent assessment of South32’s Dendrobium revised extension is required.

“We’re confident that if this were to occur, the IPC would again rule the mine’s impacts on Sydney and the Illawarra’s drinking water catchment is too great.

“The NSW Government took the decision away from the IPC because it didn’t like the last outcome. We need independence and scientific rigour when it comes to protecting our precious drinking water catchments, not ham fisted politically motivated decisions.

“To date, the political justification for sidelining the IPC has been an argument about securing Bluescope’s coking coal supply, yet the IPC did not find there was a clear dependency between the Dendrobium project and Bluescope’s needs.”

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