Wanbo United coal mine ‘side-steps’ biodiversity concerns, activists Lock the Gate claim

Big plans: Map and footprint of the proposed Wambo-United open-cut mine in the Hunter Valley. The plans are presently on public exhibition.

Big plans: Map and footprint of the proposed Wambo-United open-cut mine in the Hunter Valley. The plans are presently on public exhibition.

A NEW open-cut coal mine in the Hunter Valley is seeking to “side-step public scrutiny” by using a little-known and unpublished biodiversity document to push its approval ahead, activists claim.

The Wambo United coal mine - a joint venture between Glencore and Peabody that would combine and expand two existing mines to extract up to 10 million tonnes of coal a year for 23 years – is currently on exhibition with the Department of Planning.

Located about 15 kilometres west of Singleton, near the Golden Highway, it’s one of 16 new or expanded coal mines in the pipeline that Fairfax Media revealed last year could eventually cover 45,000 hectares between Singleton and Aberdeen.

The proposed mine is expected to create another 250 jobs and keep the Wambo open-cut running well beyond the current shutter date of 2020. 

Operator Glencore says it consulted with “more than 700 stakeholders” before lodging the application.

But activist group Lock the Gate accuses Glencore of trying to apply a “secretive” document called the Upper Hunter Strategic Assessment to “tick-off” its impact on local biodiversity, which includes more than 200 hectares of Central Hunter Valley Eucalypt Forest that was listed as critically endangered by the federal government last year.

“This is about there being absolutely no bushland deemed too precious for the NSW government to push over for a coal mine,” Lock the Gate spokeswoman Georgina Woods said.

The Upper Hunter Strategic Assessment for new open-cut coal mines was first initiated by the former Labor federal government in 2012. 

It was intended as a “one-stop shop” to “streamline” the assessment of similar biodiversity concerns from new coal mining applications.

The Baird government had hoped to have the chance to sign-off on the new document before the last election, but its progress has been held up for months. A spokesman from the Department of Planning said on Wednesday hat the plan was “well-progressed”, but did not give a timeline for its release.

“It is based on a thorough science-based process which will take time to properly complete,” the spokesman said. 

“The Assessment will be subject to community consultation before it is finalised.”

But activists are angry that the Wambo United mine seeks to use the document to assess its biodiversity impacts before it has been released to the public.

Environment assessment documents currently on exhibition with the department of planning state that advice from the Office of Environment suggests the Assessment will be “finalised in time to include this project”. It also states that there are “no residual impacts not addressed” by the Assessment. 

“The [Assessment] pathway is the preferred option for the project,” the documents, lodged on behalf of Glencore by consultants firm Umwelt state.

“It is anticipated that the [Assessment] should be formally endorsed by the NSW state government in a timeframe that will make this pathway available for the project.”

The Department of Planning spokesman said the project “will be assessed under current laws and policies”, but Ms Woods questioned how the Department of Planning could place the expansion on exhibition when the Assessment was not available to the public.

“How are the community supposed to make a judgement on the mine when we haven’t got access to the same information that the mine operators have?,” she said.

“We have no idea whether the methods used in creating this assessment are rigorous or legitimate or not.

“At the very least the Department of Planning needs to delay the exhibition period so that there can be a legitimate opportunity to review the project.”

Fairfax Media has previously reported that mining companies that were part of the assessment process – including BHP, Rio Tinto and Glencore, paid $93,000 to help cover the costs of the assessment.

A spokesman for Glencore said the approval was a decision for the department.

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