Farmers are relieved after Whitehaven pleaded guilty to stealing one billion litres of water at its Maules Creek coal mine, vindicating community complaints of water theft first lodged in 2018.
Court documents obtained by Lock the Gate Alliance show Whitehaven used dams and water storages at its Maules Creek mine site to illegally capture rainfall and surface water runoff between July 2016 and June 2019.
The company pleaded guilty on 9 April, and is expected to be sentenced in August. The company faces a maximum fine of $2.2 million.
Lock the Gate was forced to apply for the court documents to obtain the information as Whitehaven has not disclosed its plea publicly or to shareholders via the ASX.
The revelations are the latest setback for the company, after the Federal Court ruled Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to consider the impact of climate change on young people when considering Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine expansion.
It’s also the latest in a long list of crimes Whitehaven has committed, although it’s the first time the company has faced such a significant fine.
Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter said, “It is outrageous Whitehaven had been stealing so much water at the height of one of the worst droughts to have ever hit the region.
“There is so much anger in the community at Whitehaven because it took so much water at a time when farmers, rivers, and the land needed it the most,” she said.
“This sorry case demonstrates how little care Whitehaven has for the communities it operates in.”
Lock the Gate Alliance spokesperson Georgina Woods said the company should be stripped of its right to operate in light of the guilty plea.
“As we have seen time and time again, Whitehaven treats the environment, the community and the rule of law with contempt,” she said.
“The company’s behaviour is notorious but we suspect this is a bigger problem than just one mine. We think the Berejiklian Government should conduct a full, independent audit of water taken by Whitehaven at its mines in the Namoi, and of the mining industry’s unlicenced capture of surface water more broadly.
“We also sincerely hope the Land and Environment Court throws the book at Whitehaven Coal and makes an example of them.”