Water versus coalmining

IT’S hard not to wonder, when looking at the NSW Department of Planning’s recent history of dealings over some Hunter coalmining proposals, about the prospects for survival of the NSW Office of Water.

The office of water is a government bureau staffed by highly trained, experienced personnel whose mission is to safeguard the state’s rivers, aquifers and water resources. The office writes guidelines for activities that affect waterways and it comments on behalf of the citizens of NSW – who own the water resources – on development proposals that might affect those vital assets.

In two recent coalmining proposals, it appears that the judgments of frontline staff at the office of water may have been considered inadequate by those in favour of mining.

One matter, reportedly being considered by the state ombudsman, involves dealings between the office of water and Ashton Coal over the diversion of Bowmans Creek, in the Upper Hunter. The 1.7-kilometre diversion was strongly opposed by community and environmental groups and it has been alleged that Sydney bureaucrats overrode concerns of regional water watchdogs.

The second matter, also involving Ashton Coal, relates to a controversial application to mine near Glennies Creek.

In this case, the office of water expressed grave fears about ‘‘uncontrolled drawdowns’’ on the Hunter River and its ‘‘connected alluviums’’ and the possible creation of a long-term source of salinity into the river.

Since Ashton – now Chinese-owned – was a noted donor to the former Labor government, the proposal was referred to the Planning Assessment Commission, which refused the mine plan on the basis of the risk to the river.

That refusal has now been overturned and the matter sent back to the commission at the behest of Ashton.

Intriguingly, the NSW Planning Department is backing the mine against the advice of the water watchdog, asserting that advice from the coal company and from a private expert hired by the department is superior to that provided by the government’s own office of water.

Observers might wonder whether all this implies either that the office of water is less competent than hired industry consultants or whether some parts of the state bureaucracy are more concerned with approving coalmines than protecting fragile rivers and aquifers.

ONE in four positive drug tests among prisoners at Cessnock jail is an alarming statistic, even if many of the tests are targeted. It means drugs are being smuggled far too freely into the prison and it means that prisoners, once released, are coming back into the community with drug habits that may tempt them back into crime.

Nobody is suggesting it is easy to suppress the flow of drugs into jails. Indeed, there may be perverse incentives for prison officers to turn a blind eye.

But such high ratios of positive tests suggest the need for better surveillance of both prisoners and their visitors.

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