ASHTON Coal’s $83 million South East Open cut project at Camberwell has been approved less than a year after the Planning Assessment Commission rejected it because of community health and environment concerns.
The Department of Health continues to oppose the project because of the potential health impacts from poor air quality.
The NSW Office of Water, which was previously opposed to the project has lent its support despite conceding there were ‘‘strongly divided opinions’’ within the office on the project’s potential risks.
The commission, which rejected the project last December, was forced to reconsider the proposal after Ashton Coal appealed to the Land and Environment Court.
It conceded yesterday that the project’s advantages and disadvantages were ‘‘finely balanced’’.
The project, south of Camberwell, will create about 160 jobs and extract 16.5million tonnes of coal over seven years.
Ashton Coal Operations general manager Brian Wesley said yesterday the approval was in the public interest.
‘‘Ashton Coal has worked co-operatively with all stakeholders and adopted additional environmental measures for the south east open cut project and that has been recognised with today’s decision,’’ he said.
Planning Minister Brad Hazzard did not comment on the project yesterday, however, Opposition planning spokeswoman Linda Burney said she was concerned about the approval process.
‘‘When there are questions over what it will mean for the watertable and there are questions about the health impacts then you cannot have a line ball decision,’’ she said.
‘‘It has to be a clear decision because the implications are a long way into the future.’’
Camberwell residents who have been fighting the project for almost decade are considering a Land and Environment Court appeal.
Deidre Olofsson accused the Planning Assessment Commission of caving in to intense pressure from the government and mining sector.
‘‘The Department of Planning has backed this project to the hilt and the government is broke so they don’t care,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s disgusting that they have deemed that national water security means nothing and agricultural land is insignificant when it comes to mining.’’
The approval is also likely to lead to the loss of part of the Camberwell common. The common was a community-managed asset from the 1880s until its control was handed to Ashton Coal in 2010.
The Department of Health continues to have serious concerns about a predicted increase in dust levels, in particular the effects on children.
The commission said it was satisfied that changes to the project had addressed previous concerns.
‘‘The commission considers that these changes, reinforced by very stringent conditions, provide sufficient safeguards to manage the potential risks to a standard at least commensurate with that applied to other coalmines in NSW,’’ it said.
Residents committed to fight
THE South East open cut mine at Camberwell will go down as one of the fiercest battles over a proposed mine in the history of the Hunter Valley.
At stake is an $83 million capital investment with the potential to create 160 mining jobs.
At risk, according to the Department of Health and some NSW Office of Water staff, is the community’s health and the surrounding aquifer systems.
Camberwell residents, who believed they had stopped the project late last year, said they were gutted by yesterday’s approval.
‘‘As far as I’m concerned the government’s strategic land use policy has already turned into a strategic mining use plan,’’ Deidre Olofsson said.
Ms Olofsson is one of a handful Camberwell residents continuing to hold out against the encroachment of mining activity on the village.
But yesterday’s approval also represents a shot in the arm to the region’s mining sector, which has been showing signs of slowing down in recent months.
The initial refusal to allow the mine last year resulted in the retrenchment of 100 workers who had been employed for the project.
Ashton Coal Operations general manager Brian Wesley said yesterday’s approval was in the public’s interest, and impacts would be managed.
Coal hard facts
THE $83 million South East Open Cut project is about 14 kilometres north-west of Singleton at Camberwell.
The site is bounded by the main northern railway to the north, the Hunter River to the south and Glennies Creek to the east.
The South East Open Cut project effectively replaces the Ashton North East Open Cut project.
The project will extract an estimated 16.5 million tonnes of coal a year for seven years.
It will use existing infrastructure and produce soft coking coal, or low-moisture, high-energy, steaming coals primarily for the export market.
It is estimated the project will create 160 mining jobs.
Source: Preliminary Environmental Assessment, South East Open Cut.