Coal mine noise monitors pick up conversations

MINING companies can hear the conversations of landowners on monitors planted across the valley to measure noise pollution, angering residents and civil libertarians.

Glencore has defended a recording, made by a noise monitor, of a confrontation earlier this year between a Hunter landowner and a contractor. 

The incident has lifted the lid on the potential of hundreds of monitors planted across the valley to pick up private conversations.

The Department of Planning has written to all Hunter mines warning them that they may breach the 2007 Surveillance Devices Act if they deliberately record anything other than mining-related noise.

Glencore recently advised a resident that a monitor had recorded a threat, allegedly related to a firearm, against a contractor who was working on the monitor at an adjoining property.

The resident said they had no idea who the person was and only became aware of the contractor’s presence when bright lights  shone through their window late at night.

The resident, who did not wish to  be named, said they were unaware the monitors could pick up conversations.

The use of noise monitors has proliferated over the past decade in response to growing community concern about the impact of mining noise pollution. Like CCTV footage, data from the monitors is normally kept for several months.

President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties Stephen Blanks said the use of a monitor to record a private conversation was not only a breach of the NSW surveillance act but the Commonwealth privacy act.

Mr Blanks said he believed the recent incident was worthy of investigation by the federal privacy commissioner.

‘‘There could be an order made for the letter to be retracted and an apology made,’’ he said.

‘‘There could also be compensation for a sum which reflects the seriousness of the incident.’’

A Glencore spokesman said it had co-operated with the investigation into the threat against its contractor.

‘‘Given its serious nature, we agreed to the Department of Planning request to access a recording from the monitor being attended by the contractor on an adjoining property,’’ he said.

The contractor also reported the incident to the police. 

The spokesman said information from the noise monitors was used solely for annual environmental reporting requirements and to monitor whether its mines were operating within consent conditions.

‘‘The monitors give us real-time information that enables us to make changes to operations before any consent conditions are reached,’’ he said.

The data was also used to assist regulators to conduct investigations into noise complaints from residents and other stakeholders. 

‘‘Residents living on properties where our noise monitors are located have provided their consent to the equipment being installed at those properties,’’ he said.

‘‘They are informed about the sensitive nature of the equipment at the time of installation and we are in the process of writing to these people to remind them of this.’’

Glencore notes that the Surveillance Devices Act does not apply to private conversations that are recorded unintentionally.

Camberwell resident Wendy Bowman, who occasionally allows a mobile noise monitor to be used on her property, said residents had never been advised of their potential to record conversations.

‘‘Everyone just thinks they are there to monitor acoustic noise from the mine site but they can hear everything,’’ she said.

‘‘I think people should be warned that they can listen in on what you say. People need to be careful, particularly if you are cranky and you raise your voice.’’

A Department of Planning spokesman said the department would continue to monitor the use of noise monitors to ensure proponents adhere to their consent conditions.

‘‘It is not a defence to breach the Surveillance Devices Act in the installation, use or maintenance of equipment used for noise monitoring required by the Environment Planning and Assessment Act,’’ compliance office Scott Brooks wrote in a letter to mines.