'The Drip' gorge was loved by Brett Whiteley, sold to a coal miner and defended by a community

A CHINESE-backed mining company that paid $3.4 billion in 2017 for two of the Hunter’s biggest coal mines is almost one year late on a plan to transfer land around an iconic Upper Hunter gorge back to state ownership.

Yancoal paid $2084 for The Drip gorge and 700 hectares of Crown land between Denman and Mudgee in 2010, in a secret lease conversion sale with a history that includes two corrupt NSW Labor Government ministers.

Now community and environment groups have revived a “Save the Drip” campaign after Yancoal failed to meet a March, 2017 deed of agreement condition to transfer land around The Drip back to the NSW Government for a State Conservation Area.

The groups are also concerned that land around The Drip will only be conserved to a depth of 50 metres, with Yancoal company Moolarben Coal retaining control below that area as part of a deed allowing the “subterranean” land to be used for a mining access tunnel.

Mudgee District Environment Group chairperson Phyllis Setchell, Hunter Communities Network spokesperson Bev Smiles and Goulburn River property owner Julia Imrie say National Parks and Wildlife Service signs outside The Drip give the impression the entire area is part of Goulburn River National Park. 

But only The Drip and its immediate surrounding area is within the park after public outrage in 2014 when the secret 2010 lease conversion sale was revealed, prompting action by the NSW Government to return the gorge to public ownership.

While National Parks manages the larger area under licence, The Drip and its future remain uncertain while Moolarben continues to expand its existing operations, retains the right to apply to mine the area behind The Drip, and while secrecy over discussions between the government and the company remains, Ms Setchell, Ms Smiles and Ms Imrie said.

“The whole history of this area around The Drip and the Goulburn River has been about secrecy and excluding the public from decision-making,” said Ms Setchell.

“We’ve revived the campaign because people think that after the 2015 campaign The Drip was saved, because that’s what the government said. But like most things when it comes to mining, there’s a big difference between what’s said and the reality. The Drip is not saved.”

Ms Imrie, who with husband Colin Imrie has owned property neighbouring The Drip and the Goulburn River since the 1970s, and is completing a doctorate on water impacts within the area, said The Drip’s future remained uncertain because coal mining had trumped environmental concerns in the Goulburn River area for decades.

“Open cut and longwall coal mining in the headwaters of the river at Ulan have been extracting increasing amounts of groundwater and intercepting rainfall runoff for many years,” Ms Imrie said.

“Water excess to mine needs at Ulan and Moolarben mines is discharged, partially treated, down the river.

“Just before Christmas the mines stopped discharging water which, in combination with the current hot, dry summer, is why the river suddenly went dry.

“Plans for more underground mining close to the river puts it at further risk, especially if tunnels are permitted under the river to allow mining to the north, behind The Drip.”

An Office of Environment and Heritage spokesperson confirmed 23.35 hectares of land including The Drip and its immediate surrounds were added to Goulburn River National Park in June, 2015.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service was licensed to manage the carpark, visitor facilities and the majority of the walking track that leads to The Drip, the spokesperson said.

“This licence arrangement is in place pending a final decision on the possible reservation of the Crown Reserves covered by the licence as part of the NPWS reserve system,” the spokesperson said.

A Yancoal spokesman said the company remained committed to seeing five lots around The Drip become State Conservation Area land, but confirmed four of the lots would only be conserved to a depth of 50 metres under the deed of agreement with the NSW Government.

“Those are the terms of the agreement, however, any future plans of that nature (involving future mining that would require access tunnels) would need to be submitted to the government for its assessment and subsequent approval. We have not progressed any plans of this nature,” the spokesperson said.

“Yancoal has taken all necessary steps to return the area to enable its protection and conservation for the future. It was Yancoal who initiated proceedings to return the area and we remain committed to seeing it through.”