JOANNE McCARTHY:   Subsidence in the spotlight

LAST Friday, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell dismissed any relationship between the Newcastle Herald’s devastating front-page photos of mine subsidence at Sugarloaf State Conservation Area and a legal direction by the Office of Environment and Heritage to West Wallsend Colliery.

This was despite, at the very least, a months-long gap between the department’s knowledge of major subsidence, the botched remediation and a legal response.

No, said O’Farrell. It ‘‘may well be that there’s a coincidence ... but that in no way suggests that one’s followed the other’’.

It was simply a case of the Herald’s moon rising to the seventh house just as the Office of Environment and Heritage’s chakra was having a feng shui moment with its crystals.

But let’s not leave it there.

On June 17, 2011, a newly elected O’Farrell made a statement while announcing reforms to ‘‘restore integrity’’ to government.

‘‘After 16 years of shady, secret deals the people of NSW have welcomed the arrival of an open and transparent government,” he said.

So here are my questions to the Premier about his government’s handling of the Sugarloaf debacle, based on that statement.

Why didn’t the Office of Environment and Heritage let the public know what happened at Sugarloaf, when it happened – both the initial ‘‘greater than predicted’’ subsidence and the botched remediation – with strong statements from Minister Robyn Parker about holding West Wallsend Colliery accountable for the damage, according to the ‘‘stringent’’ conditions of consent we hear so much about when these mine projects are approved?

Why did the public find out through the media and would we ever have known if the Herald hadn’t exposed it?

Given the appalling ‘‘remediation’’ that produced a concrete creek, where was that strong statement from anyone, back in June, so the community could have confidence the ‘‘open and transparent’’ NSW government wasn’t assisting a coalmine to hide its ugly secrets?

Why wasn’t MP Greg Piper advised of the environmental disaster within his electorate?

Why did the Department of Planning deny it had ignored advice from the Department of Resource and Energy about the risk of subsidence, only for the Herald to quote from that advice the following day?

Why did the Department of Planning approve mining beneath a conservation area when the government department we’re supposed to consider the experts in this field, the Division of Energy and Resource, warned it was ‘‘not clear’’ if the mine’s proposed management strategies were adequate?

Why was it reasonable for Planning Minister Brad Hazzard to stay silent on this issue, given that he is a senior member of this ‘‘open and transparent government’’ and heads the department that approved the extraction that led this to happen?

Why is it reasonable for government ministers to stay silent, or mumble about being ‘‘concerned’’ about an environmental disaster, when those same ministers have been extremely vocal about ‘‘anti-mining’’ protests and protesters?

When things go wrong, why aren’t they on the ground, just as ‘‘open and transparent’’ about the downside of mining: environmental disasters such as Sugarloaf, the ‘‘uncertainty’’ of subsidence predictions – experts’ words, not mine – hazardous air-quality periods, sterilised waterways?

On Friday, the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s report on the former NSW Labor government’s corrupted Doyles Creek coal-exploration licence process reminded us again of what the Hunter Region has already endured from powerful interests.

If ever a region had a right to test a government on a core pledge of being ‘‘open and transparent’’, it is the Hunter.

And frankly, this government is failing that test.