THE HERALD'S OPINION: Questions over the leaving of 'final voids' in Hunter open-cut coal mines

SHOULD a 25 per cent increase in a mine’s production be classed as “a relatively minor expansion”?

FINAL VOID: Yancoal's Ashton mine at Camberwell. Picture: Beyond Coal & Gas Image Library

FINAL VOID: Yancoal's Ashton mine at Camberwell. Picture: Beyond Coal & Gas Image Library

Well, it is as far as the NSW Department of Planning and Environment is concerned, in a report recommending Coal & Allied be able to lift production at its Hunter Valley Operations South mine from 16 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes a year.

In recommending that the Planning Assessment Commission agree to the proposal, the department plays its familiar role of weighing up the pros and cons of the operation, before coming down, in this case, on the side of the operator.

When the application was lodged in early 2017, the operator was Rio Tinto, but it sold its Hunter coal operations a few months later to the Chinese-backed Yancoal, which in turn agreed to sell a 49 per cent stake in HVO South – and a corresponding stake in the nearby HVO North mine – to rival miner Glencore.

While some might quibble with the description of the extra 4 million tonnes as “relatively minor”, the department makes the point that the area is already being mined, and that going down into deeper seams will not add to the 3160 hectares being disturbed by the mine.

More controversially, however, Coal & Allied has proposed a series of changes to the final void it intends to leave behind when mining is finished: – a “hypersaline” (the department’s description) lake with a surface area of more than 520 hectares that will take 300 years to reach equilibrium.

Although final voids had become an accepted part of open-cut mining practice in NSW, increased environmental scrutiny in recent years has led to growing calls for them to be phased out. The industry has said the double-handling of overburden makes it financially unviable to fill in final voids.

But the United States coal industry did away with final voids back in the 1970s, with the passing of the Surface Mining Control Reclamation Act, which says that mining companies must return the land to its pre-mining landform.

This is a very different starting point from the way things operate in the Hunter, but if it can be done there, it could be done here. With its social licence under increasing threat, the coal industry should take every opportunity it can to minimise its environmental footprint, and not only in terms of carbon emissions. These saline lakes are a legacy the region does not deserve.

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