When it comes to coal mining there is ongoing tension between environmental and economic needs. Recent approval of extraction plans for Metropolitan Mine’s longwall panels 305-307, as well as Dendrobium’s application to extend mining, have brought that into focus.
On March 16, the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment (DPIE) approved Metropolitan’s extraction plans for longwalls 305-307.
These longwalls will extract coal from under the Eastern Tributary and the Waratah Rivulet, which feed into the Woronora Dam southwest of Sydney and provide the total water supply for Helensburgh, Engadine and Lucas Heights.
The entire Woronora catchment (75 square kilometres) is designated “Special Area – No Entry” in order to protect the quality of the drinking water, the water supply infrastructure, and the natural and cultural heritage of the area. The maximum penalty for entering this area is $44,000.
According to the Special Area Strategic Plan 2015, over the last 100 years protective management of the area has ensured a very high level of biodiversity, the protection of a large number of threatened and endangered ecological communities, diverse natural landscapes including wilderness areas and significant geological features, and positive benefits for water quality.
There is continued concern that longwall mining in the catchment and particularly under the reservoir will affect water levels and water quality given that previous mining has seen cracking in water courses; loss of water in aquifers and pools, including a section of the Waratah Rivulet; and the drying up of swamps.
On February 25, the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre presented a petition with over 10,690 signatures to the NSW Parliament asking that the Legislative Assembly “stop further threats to our water supply and rescind the development consents that permit mining in this area”. It was slated to be debated on March 26 but was postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis.
Greenpeace spokesperson Jonathan Moylan said: “The Department’s decision to allow coal mining under the Woronora Reservoir poses a direct threat to the drinking water of millions of Sydneysiders. The roof of the mine could collapse if it is abandoned, which means the threat of contamination will linger over Sydney’s water supply indefinitely.
“The community is justifiably concerned … The Department has pushed through with this process before giving parliament the chance to examine the proposal. Coal mining in catchments can undermine water quality for decades so it is critical that no further decisions are made while democracy is not functioning normally.”
A spokesperson for the DPIE said that the “proposed mining under Woronora Reservoir was approved in 2009”.
She continued: “The DPIE approved the Extraction Plan for longwalls 305-307 with strict conditions, including comprehensive monitoring and adaptive management, after comprehensively assessing the plan over six months. This approval relates to an extraction plan, not a new development application. The assessment included consultation with WaterNSW, the Dams Safety Committee, and the Independent Expert Panel for Mining in the Catchment (IEP). The department adopted all of the expert recommendations in the conditions imposed on the proposed mining. The monitoring data will be regularly reviewed … to ensure compliance.”
In his letter to Metropolitan Mine dated March 16, Mike Young, Executive Director, Energy, Resources and Compliance at the DPIE, commented on the socio-economic benefits of the mine. This includes 415 direct jobs in a regional area and metallurgical coal that supplies Port Kembla steelworks and is transported by rail to the Port Kembla Coal Terminal (120 jobs). In the 2018-19 financial year the mine contributed $12.5 million in royalties to the state government and $122 million in wages and business to the local economy.
Mr Moylan is also concerned about Dendrobium Mine’s application for a new development consent to mine additional areas within its coal lease area. Dendrobium Mine, a subsidiary of South32, is located in the Metropolitan Special Area between Lake Cordeaux and Lake Avon, which flow into the Nepean River.
In its submission to the IEP (2019), WaterNSW expressed concerns that the impacts and consequences of mining in Sydney’s catchment area are greater than was predicted when mining was approved at both Metropolitan and Dendrobium mines. This reduces confidence in the ability of mining companies to predict the likely impacts of their mining activities, which is of particular concern given the sensitive nature of the Special Areas.
WaterNSW states that “further mining in the Special Areas should not be approved on the basis that potential impacts could be remediated at some point in the future” because there is no guarantee they can be.
Dendrobium is currently at assessment stage. There were 572 submissions from the public for the extension of the mine on economic grounds, compared to 134 submissions against the mine on environmental grounds.
Greenpeace has started a petition asking the government to ban mining in catchment areas, not to make decisions during the pandemic that favour mining companies, and to ensure that mining companies pay bonds to cover the total amount of critical failures: https://act.greenpeace.org.au/nswmining