REMOVING enormous tonnages of coal from its surrounding rock strata creates a void.
That's a fact of life, whether the coal is being extracted via open-cut quarries or underground mines.
Managing the inevitable void is an integral part of all coalmining, at the planning, operating and rehabilitation stages.
Good mine design considers landscape and geological factors in order to cause the least possible damage, ideally keeping other land use options open for the future.
Governments have a major role to play at each stage. They should represent the public interest, balancing the economic benefit to be gained from extracting the resource against all other factors and ensuring that profit-seeking mining companies are appropriately constrained and policed.
When things go wrong, as they appear to have gone wrong in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area, citizens are entitled to rational explanations from their representatives, as well as assurances that the same - or worse - mistakes won't be repeated.
In the case of Sugarloaf, by giving permission to Glencore Xstrata to operate longwalls under steep country, the government may have helped create an opportunity for the predictable result of steep slope soil failure.
It might be argued by the government that the spectacular ruin of a public conservation asset is of little consequence, since the same government readily permits coal companies to uproot forests, divert creeks and streams, chop into aquifers and alluvium, discharge saline water to rivers and even close roads and impinge on towns and villages.
Indeed, it would not be surprising if the government attempted to make that case, since it has, in recent days, argued strongly for new planning rules that will - if adopted - unambiguously elevate economic considerations even higher above all others in the mine approval process.
Some argue that the government has now tied its own economic fortunes so tightly to coal royalties that it has practically lost all will to constrain mining to reasonable limits. Those critics point to the government's recent courtroom alliance with mining giant Rio Tinto against the Hunter village of Bulga as evidence that it has abandoned all objective perspective in its determination to approve any proposals that will bring more cash into its coffers.
How the government reacts to the destruction wrought at Sugarloaf may help many observers decide whether this cynical but increasingly widespread view is fair.