A HONG Kong-based mining company has headed off embarrassing Supreme Court action over a secret $5 million community fund by settling a case launched by Muswellbrook Shire Council on behalf of the community.
There are calls for the NSW Government to initiate an immediate audit of all NSW mine and exploration licence conditions of consent after Ridgelands Coal Resources failed to establish the fund for nearly five years, despite it being a condition of consent for a Wybong coal mine exploration licence, and government departments failed to disclose the condition or enforce it.
This was despite a deed of agreement with the then Resources Minister Chris Hartcher requiring the company to establish the $5 million community fund “as soon as reasonably practical” after the exploration licence was granted over more than 7600 hectares of Wybong land in February, 2013, and “publicise to the local community the existence of the community fund and guidelines for applying for grants”.
Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush confirmed the Supreme Court case to enforce the condition, initiated by the council in August, had settled.
“The terms of the settlement remain confidential but council is very satisfied with the outcome,” Mr Rush said.
“It is noted that under its condition of consent Ridgelands is required to set up a $5 million community fund, and the community looks forward to Ridgelands fulfilling its obligations.”
The council was unaware of the $5 million community fund until Ridgelands representatives made an unsolicited offer of $500,000 to the council on July 26, before the five-year exploration lease deadline expires in February. The company did not respond to questions about whether it is seeking to renew the licence.
It is noted that under its condition of consent Ridgelands is required to set up a $5 million community fund, and the community looks forward to Ridgelands fulfilling its obligations.Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush
In a statement of claim to the Supreme Court Muswellbrook Council alleged Ridgelands representatives said the company “only needed to contribute $500,000” to the fund.
The deed raises questions about NSW Government knowledge of the unpaid community fund because of conditions requiring Ridgelands to provide “bi-annual written reports to the Minister through the Director Industry Coordination” detailing payments made and projects funded.
The company was also required to “respond to any request for information from the minister related to the status and progress of the community fund”.
In its statement of claim Muswellbrook Council alleged secrecy around the deed condition raised questions about whether NSW Government representatives “have not and do not care whether the local community obtains the benefit” of the condition.
NSW Opposition resources spokesman Adam Searle described the secrecy around the Ridgelands case as disturbing, and said the enforcement of mining conditions of consent was vital to ensuring public confidence.
Mr Searle called on the Berejiklian Government to explain why the Ridgelands exploration licence conditions of consent were not publicly known, and why responsible government departments did not ensure they were enforced.
“As a matter of public policy all conditions of consent for the industry should be known. This raises questions about what other conditions are out there, not being enforced,” Mr Searle said.
“I call on the Berejiklian Government to undertake an immediate audit of all mining and exploration licence conditions of consent given the serious questions raised by this case.”
Wybong resident and former Muswellbrook Shire councillor Christine Phelps applauded the council for launching the case, after describing the issue in August as “the NSW Government and the mining industry in cahoots again to shaft the community”.
Ms Phelps said she was “obviously concerned, but not at all surprised”, to hear that no government department had acted to enforce the condition for nearly five years.
“I think the Department of Planning is a waste of space when it comes to enforcing conditions, and this proves it,” she said.
Ridgelands did not respond to questions.
In August the NSW Department of Planning said it had referred the matter to the Resources Regulator. It did not respond to a Newcastle Herald request for comment.