IT will be tempting for many people to read the Department of Planning and Environment’s recommended refusal of the Rocky Hill open cut coal project on the southern outskirts of Gloucester as another victory in the global war on coal.
After all, lots of coal projects in the Hunter Valley and elsewhere in NSW have been the subject of fierce community and environmental opposition, only for the authorities to come down on the side of industry by saying that a particular project’s merits outweighed its drawbacks.
But not with Rocky Hill.
For while the planning department accepted that “many aspects” of the scaled-back proposal – including a mining plan that did not leave a final void – were “best practice” for the coal industry, it held that the project site was not a suitable one for an open cut coal mine. Many of the changes to the original design came after April 2015, when the department told proponent Gloucester Resources the project was not in the public interest. But despite a lessening of impacts – and despite the economic and employment benefits that would flow from the mine – the department still says Rocky Hill is “in the wrong place ... located too close to residential areas”.
Under state planning law, Rocky Hill now goes to the Planning Assessment Commission for a final determination, with the department’s recommended refusal the starting point for its deliberations.
While no-one is suggesting the commission is a rubber stamp, it is difficult to see how Gloucester Resources could overcome the basic objection to the mine, that it’s “simply in the wrong place”, to quote the former council administrator and state MP, John Turner.
Once again, people will ask what the state government was doing in the first place, issuing an exploration licence so close to a residential area. On that, it should be noted that the framework for exploration licences was drawn up long before the current controversies over coal and coal seam gas.
For those who have fought the mine, the department’s recommended refusal delivers everything they had hoped for after five years of fighting. But as the department acknowledges, a “substantial minority” of those who lodged submissions on the project were “strongly” supporting it for for the “local and regional economic benefits that it would generate”. The planning commission’s deliberations will be very closely watched.