ENVIRONMENT and community groups will boycott a hearing into one of the state’s most controversial open cut coal mine projects after slamming the NSW Government-ordered process as “fake consultation” and “a ridiculous sham”.
More than 40 groups will boycott an expected NSW Planning Assessment Commission hearing into Korean energy giant KEPCO’s new open cut coal mine proposal at Bylong, after accusing the government of referring it to the PAC to deny the community the right to appeal to the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The hearing would be a “fake consultation” and “ridiculous sham” designed to fast track approval of the mine in Bylong Valley, between Denman and Mudgee, Hunter Central Rivers Alliance said in a letter to the then Planning Minister Rob Stokes in September, when the group warned it would not take part.
Mr Stokes referred it to the PAC on January 9, just days before Premier Mike Baird’s resignation and Mr Stokes’ appointment as Education Minister.
Under controversial NSW laws the public loses the right to challenge the merits of a mine approval in the Land and Environment Court if the PAC holds a public hearing into a mine.
The laws were enacted after successful community court appeals, including against the Mount Thorley Warkworth extension, which was eventually approved after a PAC hearing.
Community and environment groups have raised serious questions about the impacts of the Bylong project, and government agencies including the NSW Mine Subsidence Board, the NSW Environment Protection Authority and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage have also questioned the adequacy of KEPCO’s planning.
The Mine Subsidence Board said significant subsidence impacts requiring repairs to public roads, power and telecommunication lines, agricultural land, commercial infrastructure and private property represented “a risk” to the board. It requested “a clear condition of consent” requiring KEPCO to accept responsibility for any damage caused by subsidence.
KEPCO conceded the potential for “dangerous road user conditions to develop along Bylong Valley Way” as a result of subsidence “are not disputed”, but the company was committed to “effectively managing” the impacts.
Objectors also raised issues about water and waste management, air quality, noise and blasting, the loss of iconic property Tarwyn Park, the loss of an historic church and exhumation of graves, loss of prime agricultural land, loss of prime equine land, and rock falls along at least 20 per cent of cliff lines within the project area.
Hunter Central Rivers Alliance convenor Steve Phillips said the referral of the controversial new mine proposal to a PAC, after serious and significant concerns raised by a cross section of the community, was outrageous.
“The suggestion that a PAC hearing is an adequate replacement for the robust and unbiased view of a project’s merits, which a court hearing provides, is laughable,” Alliance convenor Steve Phillips wrote.
“At a public hearing no attempt is made to resolve problems, investigate any issues that are raised, or establish the veracity of claims made by those giving oral submissions on the project.
“Nobody is allowed to ask questions. There is no debate, but rather a series of unchallenged stand-alone statements.”
In a response to the Alliance, NSW Department of Planning deputy secretary for planning services, Marcus Ray said it was not reasonable for the merits of a proposal to “have to be tested twice by an independent body” because “to do so would introduce significant uncertainty in the process”.
“While it is entirely up to you and your members to decide whether or not to participate in public hearings, I can only reiterate that these hearings are the primary mechanisms for ensuring that your concerns are taken on board by the ultimate decision-maker,” Mr Ray said.
Hunter Communities Network spokeswoman Bev Smiles said the PAC was “a ridiculous sham” that community and environment groups had taken part in before, where “we are given five minutes on the microphone to talk to a panel of stony-faced commissioners who don’t say a word in response”.
Bylong resident Graham Tanner said, “I don't know what the point of this public hearing is. The government already knows what the community thinks about this mine. We don't want it.”
“If they actually cared what our community wanted, they would have banned mining in this valley years ago. Instead, they're bringing the circus to town to ask us what we think, when they've already made up their minds. It's a sick joke, and we won't participate in it.”
Bylong Valley is listed by the National Trust as a Landscape Conservation Area because of its stunning beauty and abundant prime agricultural land.
The open cut mine area will include Tarwyn Park, where the Natural Sequence Farming method was developed by Peter Andrews. Tarwyn Park is under consideration for listing on the State Heritage Register.
In its response to objectors KEPCO said the socio-economic benefits of the project “will far outweigh the social and environmental impacts” and the project “should be considered to be in the public interest”.