Coal Rocks On, Features

Whitehaven’s Vickery mine approved, a day after company charged with 16 new offences

The NSW Independent Planning Commission has approved Whitehaven Coal’s Vickery mine near Boggabri.

The news left the local community and environmental groups gob-smacked, as it emerged just one day after the NSW Resources Regulator commenced prosecution proceedings against Whitehaven’s Narrabri Coal Pty Ltd and Narrabri Coal Operations Pty Ltd in the NSW Land and Environment Court for alleged breaches of the state’s mining laws.

The matters relate to Exploration Licence EL6243, which forms part of Whitehaven Coal’s Narrabri operations located 24 km northwest of Boggabri.

The Regulator alleges in eight separate charges that Narrabri Coal Pty Ltd breached section 378D of the Mining Act 1992 by failing to comply with conditions of an activity approval for Exploration Licence 6243. The Regulator also alleges in eight other charges that Narrabri Coal Operations Pty Ltd caused or permitted the commission of the offences in breach of section 378D of the Mining Act 1992. The charges relate to the alleged construction of unauthorised tracks, failing to rehabilitate drill sites and drilling of bore holes contrary to exploration activity approval conditions.

The matters are set down for mention in the Land and Environment Court on September 18. Each offence carries a maximum penalty of $1.1 million.

Described by Lock the Gate as “bitterly disappointing” the Vickery approval is an indictment of the Berejiklian Government’s failure to protect farmland, communities, and water resources.

Whitehaven has previously indicated that due to plummeting global coal prices, it will not make an investment decision on the project this year, leaving a pall of uncertainty hanging over the heads of locals.

The Vickery plan was publicly opposed by the Narrabri Shire Council, with the council listing concerns around the social and economic impacts of the project.

Social, agricultural impacts

Lock the Gate said that if the company decides to proceed with the new 10 million tonnes per annum coal mine, it will irreparably alter the social fabric of the Boggabri farming community and hurt agriculture in the district. 

Whitehaven would dig up 1,284 hectares of land – much of it either fertile farmland or remnant woodland – for the project.

Whitehaven MD and CEO Paul Flynn welcomed the news. He said Whitehaven’s focus will now shift to obtaining the necessary secondary approvals and any further project optimisation as a precursor to works commencing under the new approval.

“Whitehaven continues to be cautious in allocating capital to expansion noting the evolving impacts of COVID-19 on coal markets and pricing. While there are still considerable risks and uncertainties for the global the economic outlook given the continued spread of the virus, the fundamentals of our business model continue to remain robust,” he said.

Social licence gone

Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter said, “Whitehaven is a terrible corporate citizen and has no social licence left in the north west. It has been fined for allowing toxic blast fumes to drift over neighbouring properties, polluting air and water, illegal dumping of waste, stealing surface water, illegal clearing of bushland, and worker safety breaches.

“Whitehaven has already been taken to court five times, once by the EPA, once by Maules Creek Community Council, and currently by the Resources Access Regulator over alleged water theft, the Resources Regulator for workplace safety breaches, and South East Forest Rescue over its unfulfilled biodiversity offset obligations.

“This latest announcement makes it the sixth time Whitehaven has been taken to court for bad behaviour at its north west coal mines.”

Recently, mapping was released showing Whitehaven owns 61,050 ha of land in the north west – equivalent to nearly double the size of Malta (31,600 ha).

Questions remain about how the mine will supply the up to 1,750 megalitres of water it will consume annually. Landholders are seriously concerned that in times of prolonged drought, the company will again buy up agricultural water licences or breach environmental laws to take water unlawfully, as Whitehaven is alleged to have done at the nearby Maules Creek mine.

The Vickery mine would be located close to the property and homestead “Kurrumbede” which was the inspiration for several Dorothea Mackellar poems including the famous ‘My Country’. There are fears blast activity at the mine will harm the historic homestead and outbuildings.

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