A HUNTER Department of Planning employee married to a coal miner played a key role in mining company Ridgelands’ attempt to cut a community fund from $5 million to $500,000, prompting questions in NSW Parliament about associations with the mining industry and ending months of silence from the NSW Government about department involvement.
Documents obtained by the Newcastle Herald under freedom of information legislation show the mid-level employee recommended the reduction in March, 2017, despite the $5 million fund being a condition of Ridgelands’ exploration licence consent, and despite the company’s failure to establish and publicise the fund “as soon as reasonably practical” from 2013, as required under the licence.
The employee said her unit had “no objections” to a “significant decrease” in the work program Ridgelands was required to complete within the exploration licence’s five years, including establishing the fund, because the company had experienced “circumstances beyond” its control.
Confirmation of department support for the reduction has raised new questions about whether it played a part in the Resources Regulator’s decision not to prosecute Ridgelands for breaching the condition – with a maximum penalty of $1.1 million if convicted. The Resources Regulator accepted an enforceable undertaking from Ridgelands in June.
While the department on Thursday continued to deny the community fund condition was varied, an email written by a Ridgelands consultant to a Hunter department employee in July, 2017 showed Ridgelands believed the “revised community fund spend” was “negotiated and approved” by the department.
“Where does this leave Ridgelands? I would have thought an approved variation would put Ridgelands in a legally strong position,” wrote the consultant after a meeting with Muswellbrook Shire Council in July, 2017, during which Ridgelands offered the council $500,000.
Where does this leave Ridgelands? I would have thought an approved variation would put Ridgelands in a legally strong position.Email from Ridgelands consultant to Department of Planning manager after questions about $5 million community fund reduction.
The offer, made only months before the five-year exploration licence expired, and after the department employee backed Ridgelands’ request to reduce the community fund condition by 90 per cent, exposed the previously secret condition in the 2013 agreement between Ridgelands and the government.
The consultant’s email was written to a senior Hunter department employee after Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush, a barrister, challenged whether the offer was a “non-compliance issue” for Ridgelands against its licence conditions. The council subsequently took legal action to enforce the $5 million condition.
“There will be suspicion in the community that the matter was settled by the Regulator on the basis of an enforceable undertaking because of difficulties in prosecuting a matter in which the State Government itself was an apparent co-offender,” said Mr Rush this week.
The department confirmed the department employee dealing with the Ridgelands fund request was married to a Hunter underground coal miner. The employee had completed a conflict of interest form and her husband did not work for Ridgelands, a spokesperson said.
“The Department puts in place procedures to manage any conflict or perceived conflict when required.”
The department denied misleading the public about Ridgelands, including failing to ensure the company complied with its exploration licence conditions, failing to ensure the community fund’s establishment and promotion, and failing to confirm its involvement with the company’s attempt to reduce the fund to a tenth of the licence condition.
The department did not respond to a question about whether it did not prosecute Ridgelands because it was an “apparent co-offender” in the fund’s reduction.
It said the Resources Regulator accepted the enforceable undertaking that cost Ridgelands $200,000 “as it provided for significantly better outcomes than prosecution alone would achieve”.
Mr Rush strongly criticised the department and Ridgelands after the Herald’s attempts to obtain documents through freedom of information revealed this week that the department supported amending the community fund so that funded projects “have a commercial value to Ridgelands”.
“Neither Ridgelands nor the department conducted any sort of public consultation or made any of that information transparent before apparently reaching an agreement between them. The attempt to vary the condition without a public process was, in council's view, unlawful,” Mr Rush said.
He said there were other occasions where major project proponents told the council the department had assured them of an outcome before any public consultation or process.
“These are all matters which should now be the subject of a judicial commission of inquiry,” Mr Rush said.
In Parliament Mr Harwin declined to answer questions about Ridgelands, after confirming allegations raised by sacked Department of Planning mining titles operations manager Rebecca Connor had been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
“I’m not confident that matter isn’t connected to the matters that have been referred to the ICAC so I am not going to add anything to my answer at this stage,” Mr Harwin said.
Department secretary Carolyn McNally referred allegations by Ms Connor to ICAC this week after the Herald spoke to a farmer, 83, whose agricultural land objection to a NSW mine in August, 2016 was not assessed before the mine was approved three months later.
The department denied receiving the objection but an employee produced it shortly after a mining licence was granted in October, 2017.
The farmer was not advised his objection was found until September, 2018, one month after Ms Connor complained to the NSW Ombudsman that she was sacked after making a protected disclosure to a superior about the farmer’s case.
Mr Harwin told Parliament he would be “doing whatever I can to make sure there’s a satisfactory outcome as far as all of the stakeholders involved” in the farmer’s case if the matter was not referred to ICAC, but he was waiting for a briefing from Ms McNally.
Labor resources spokesperson Adam Searle said it was “staggering the minister appears to not have been briefed on the issue of the ‘lost and found’ mining objection” after months of controversy about Ridgelands.
“It is clear the minister has no control of his portfolio and that there now needs to be a full external inquiry into the administration of mining in this state,” Mr Searle said.
“As to Ridgelands, the matter of why the community fund obligation was reduced from $5 million to just $500,000, and what has been done about it, has never been properly addressed by the minister.”