IN May, 2018 a Hunter Valley mine company discovered coal mining had occurred over a 7.2 hectare area outside the boundary of its development consent.
Bloomfield Collieries, which took over the unlawfully-mined area in December, 2015, when it bought the Integra open cut mine near Singleton, advised the NSW Department of Planning.
Bloomfield, which amalgamated the Integra holdings with its neighbouring Rix's Creek mine, was able to show the unlawful mining occurred in 2010 under a previous owner, but within the mining lease area and on land it owned. Bloomfield and the Department of Planning met on May 10, 2018, to discuss the issue. A few days later Bloomfield advised a committee of government, mine and community representatives of the breach.
Of interest is what occurred then.
On June 22, 2018, the Department of Planning advised Bloomfield by letter that its compliance team had investigated, but because the area was mined before Bloomfield owned it, no action would be taken. Instead the department opened the door to Bloomfield sorting out the mess by extending its mine consent area and removing 1.6 million tonnes of coal from the 7.2 hectares, down to a depth of 160 metres.
As a senior public servant noted in a report in April, 2019: "The proposed modification cannot remedy the previous non-compliance but would provide the approval for further mining in the previously disturbed area."
It doesn't appear any action was taken against the previous owners for the unlawful coal mining. Integra at that stage was owned by a joint venture led by Vale, with a 61 per cent stake, and a group of Asian companies. Vale is the world's largest iron ore and nickel producer.
It put the Integra site into "care and maintenance" in 2014 because of "poor coal prices" and put 500 workers out of jobs. A year later a tailings dam at one of its Brazilian iron ore mines collapsed, killing 19 people. Vale sold Integra open cut to Glencore in 2015, and Glencore sold it to Bloomfield a year later.
When the Department of Planning advertised the plan to rectify what Bloomfield described as a "minor compliance issue", people objected.
A Camberwell resident near the giant Rix's Creek complex blasted the Department of Planning for having inadequate systems to detect unlawful mining, and alleged it was the second case in two years.
Doctors for the Environment said Bloomfield's bonus mined area to rectify a previous owner's stuff-up would worsen air quality in an already notorious area, and the few residents left would continue to suffer respiratory impacts of a NSW Government dust management plan that was an "abject failure".
But it wasn't enough to stop what Bloomfield and the Department of Planning regarded as something of a no-brainer.
The Rix's Creek North expansion into the 7.2 hectares was approved by a senior public servant under delegated authority in April last year. Mining to a depth of 160 metres should take up to three years in a complex with approval to mine until 2035.
Greenhouse gas emissions were mentioned, briefly, but the NSW Government has stridently resisted moves to consider the global warming impact of emissions from exported Hunter coal burnt overseas.
Emissions from the extraction and processing of an extra 1.6 million tonnes of coal would be "negligible" when the total complex has approval to mine 38.4 million tonnes of coal, the department said.
The business of coal mining in the Hunter Region is largely unknown to the majority of Australians, apart from people who visit for the wineries, the thoroughbred racing studs, the national parks and other attractions in the Upper Hunter, where the dusty air quality and vast open cut mines cannot be avoided.
Very few Australians would be familiar with the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that sit on the Department of Planning's websites, documenting years and years of coal mining approvals, modifications, extensions, expansions and the occasional "rectifications" when mining has strayed beyond the bounds of lawfulness.
That ignorance of the business of coal, within a region that includes the world's largest coal export port, is an issue the country needs to grapple with in 2020, at the start of a decade where climate science is saying the world must take action. It's required because a cultural shift is needed.
Australia is used to being a resource-rich country where mining tends to occur a long way from the majority of the population. It brings us wealth. It's hard to break that habit.
It's why years of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have come and gone without federal and state policies to respond to warnings that Australia will be particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
It's why Professor Ross Garnaut's 2008 Climate Change Review, commissioned by federal and state governments to study the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, came and went too, and a 2011 update. It fell into the black hole of climate change reports that were ignored, denied, denigrated and ridiculed for warning of the urgent need for a plan to move away from coal and other fossil fuels, and towards renewable energy and storage.
Garnaut's 2008 report re-emerged this week, as our national bushfire tragedy stunned Australians and the world, to silence the many who have poured scorn on climate science for years.
Garnaut recorded back then that fire research suggested "fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense".
"This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020," he said.
Cultural shifts require looking at an issue from a different viewpoint. The viewpoint required here is that of our children and grandchildren, who need global emissions to be dramatically cut by the end of the decade.
What we've heard for years are excuses for not doing that, but this is a moral issue in the same way that standing up to churches on behalf of adults who'd been sexually abused as children was a moral issue.
Child abuse can take many forms. Failing to act now and exposing children of the future to the predicted, and terrible, consequences of global warming is our moral failure, because we've looked the other way.
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