If the United Wambo open-cut coal project is approved, the form the mine will take after its closure and rehabilitation is still unknown.
In its final assessment of Glencore and Peabody’s proposed mine near Jerrys Plains, the Department of Planning and Environment said leaving two voids after its closure was an “acceptable” outcome given that back filling the pits was “uneconomic”, and the land forms would assist in controlling saline run-off from the site.
However, the Independent Planning Commission has since heard arguments from the project’s detractors that leaving permanent pits in the Upper Hunter is “not in line with community expectations”.
Roderick Campbell, research director of Canberra-based think tank The Australia Institute, has questioned the environmental benefits of creating “large saline bores”, saying they will leave the Hunter with a “degraded environment”.
Mr Campbell said the cost of filling the pits had not been presented transparently.
Peabody and Glencore supplied estimated profits for the mine in 2016, amounting to $268 million in present discounted terms for 2016.
Costs for filling the voids, however, have been provided in present discounted terms for 2018. They vary between $274 million and $129 million, depending on whether a 4 per cent or 7 per cent discount rate is applied.
Mr Campbell has publicly questioned why profits have not been reviewed in presents terms for 2019 to provide a more direct comparison of costs.
“The analysis [for profits] is outdated. Much of it is based on 2016 forecasts of coal exports, which predate Australia signing the Paris agreement and the abandonment of Newcastle’s T4 coal terminal,” Mr Campbell said.
“Maybe there’s public interest in the mine being profitable but when you’re being told that filling either one of the voids is economically nonviable you’re clearly looking a pretty marginal project.
“The judgement in the Rocky Hill case has highlighted this point – that the world has changed and it is no longer the right time to be building new coal mines.”
Singleton council has also identified the final use of the impacted area as a “community concern” and requested that a condition of the project, if it is approved, mandate that a “final land use strategy” is developed with the council before any mining commences.
The council has recently accepted Peabody and Glencore’s offer to enter into a Voluntary Planning Agreement with a value of $2.65 million, if the mine goes ahead, after prolonged negotiations.
The mine’s proponents declined to comment on the issues raised but Stephen Galilee, the chief executive officer of the NSW Minerals Council, said there was “strict requirements for voids to be rehabilitated to a safe, stable and non-polluting sustainable condition”.
He said that a “soon to be released” study into mine voids found that mine pit lakes could “provide a range of possible positive contributions to the Upper Hunter”.
“The recently completed, two-year project has identified potential final uses for the voids which offer a wide variety of opportunities including recreational lakes, wildlife conservation, irrigation, water storage, aquaculture, hydro-electric power generation and more,” he said.
The Independent Planning Commission said it will make a final decision on Glencore and Peabody’s joint proposal and any associated conditions in “due course”, after the commission held its last public meeting on the issue in Singleton on February 7.
The final assessment from the Department of Planning and Environment said the project was in the “public interest and approvable, subject to strict conditions of consent”.
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