Gloucester's controversial Rocky Hill coal mine under the microscope

THE controversial Rocky Hill coal mine proposal is so close to Gloucester homes that a blast fume mishap risks “a tragedy of international proportions”, say doctors against the project.

Residents within two kilometres should be issued with breathing equipment and Gloucester Hospital should be upgraded to include an intensive care facility if the mine is approved, Doctors for the Environment Australia will tell a two-day NSW Planning Assessment Commission public hearing starting in Gloucester on Tuesday.

In a submission the doctors’ group argues strongly that the mine should not be approved because “The risk is just too high”.

“It is not possible to mitigate against the unpredictable event of a blast plume. These can have serious health implications resulting in death,” DEA NSW spokesperson Dr John Van Der Kallen will tell the PAC.

“Even though it may seem unlikely, if a blast plume were to travel across Gloucester it would be a tragedy of international proportions.”

The doctors’ concerns expand on the Department of Planning’s strong critique of Gloucester Resources Limited’s plans for a 16-year open cut coking coal mine, with a recommendation to the PAC that the project be refused because of proximity to residents.

The department acknowledged “well-publicised examples” of blast fume mishaps causing orange-brown clouds of nitrogen dioxide to leave other Hunter mine sites.

In 2015 Mount Arthur Coal was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in penalties and costs after a toxic blast fume affected 14 people in a Muswellbrook industrial estate only hours after warnings a fume incident could occur.

The BHP Billiton company was convicted of an offence under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act after workers at the industrial estate were ‘‘surrounded by an orange fog’’ in February, 2014.

If a blast plume were to travel across Gloucester it would be a tragedy of international proportions.

Doctors for the Environment Australia Dr John Van Der Kallen

The Department of Planning acknowledged nitrogen dioxide could cause breathing difficulties. While Gloucester Resources had produced a management plan appropriate to normal blasting operations, “should an abnormal blast generate a cloud of nitrogen dioxide, the cloud would not have to drift too far before affecting residents”, the department said in an assessment report to the PAC.

“The local topography and prevailing winds would then lead to elevated risks for the residents of Gloucester.”

The doctors’ group will also back the department’s concerns about extended spontaneous combustion incidents at the mine after an 18-month spontaneous combustion incident at nearby Stratford mine which affected residents. 

“Gloucester Resources contends it is highly unlikely a spontaneous combustion event would occur at the project and, in any event, it would be able to quickly and effectively deal with the event. The department does not share its confidence. Again, it is the proximity of the mine to residential areas that is one of the main concerns,” the department has told the PAC.

The department assessment noted several properties were as close as 400 metres from disturbed areas of the mine site, several others were less than one kilometre, and nearly 100 families were in rural-residential subdivisions close enough to be affected, with the likelihood of another 50.

“The department considers that Gloucester Resources has not demonstrated that it could operate the mine without creating conflict with these estates, which were developed specifically to attract lifestyle retirees and hobby farmers to the area,” the department said.

Long time activist against the mine and Groundswell Gloucester spokesperson Julie Lyford said the department’s assessment and refusal recommendation were a vindication of residents’ long campaign against the proposal, and the community hoped the PAC’s decision would follow the department’s advice.

She acknowledged the mine represented a hope of jobs for some people, but said the risks and consequences were too great.

“We’re hoping the PAC makes a decision before Christmas, but who knows what Gloucester Resources will do? We’ve still got to go through the processes and hope the company doesn’t appeal if the proposal is refused,” Ms Lyford said.

The PAC public hearing at Gloucester Soldiers Club starts at 4pm on Tuesday, with speakers including Gloucester Chamber of Commerce and Gloucester Knitting Group. The hearing resumes on Wednesday at 9.30am.