EIGHT of the Hunter region’s largest coal mines will disturb more land than they rehabilitate in the next few years, says a report calling for mandatory progressive rehabilitation targets to reduce escalating air pollution problems and create jobs.
NSW taxpayers face an increasing risk as the shortfall in mine rehabilitation escalates under a system where mines set their own targets and there are little or no penalties for failure, said RMIT University Department of Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Gavin Mudd in his report, Mind the Gap, released by Lock the Gate on Monday.
It found the amount of disturbed land for the Hunter’s largest coal mines will be 1129 hectares greater than the amount of rehabilitated land, despite each mine setting rehabilitation targets in their five-year operations plans.
The backwards trend in the amount of exposed mine land will occur despite increasing concerns from the community, environment groups and doctors about the impacts of worsening air quality in the Upper Hunter.
Associate Professor Mudd found two mines close to populated areas, New Hope’s Bengalla and BHP’s Mount Arthur near Muswellbrook, had poor rehabilitation figures, with a review of their annual reports showing less than 26 per cent of disturbed land under rehabilitation.
“Overall the mines collectively have rehabilitated just 30 per cent of the land which they have disturbed, with 9302 hectares of a 30,192 hectare footprint under active rehabilitation,” Associate Professor Mudd said.
The report found the Bulga mine, Hunter Valley Operations and Ravensworth had the largest gaps between their planned disturbance and planned rehabilitation. Bulga reported it had only met one third of its rehabilitation target of 315 hectares in 2017, Associate Professor Mudd said.
The report recommended a 60 per cent target of each mine’s footprint requiring progressive rehabilitation backed by greater regulation, which it found would increase jobs, reduce air pollution and financial risk by the state.
The more rehabilitation that gets done while mines are making money, the less liability companies and the public face if mines close suddenly and rehabilitation responsibilities are abandoned.RMIT University Associate Professor Gavin Mudd.
“The more rehabilitation that gets done while mines are making money, the less liability companies and the public face if mines close suddenly and rehabilitation responsibilities are abandoned,” Associate Professor Mudd found.
A 60 per cent target would require rehabilitation of an additional 8812 hectares of mine land, and a rehabilitation investment of more than $350 million by mining companies Yancoal, New Hope, BHP, Peabody and Glencore.
Associate Professor Mudd calculated more than 1200 jobs would be created if new and tougher progressive rehabilitation targets were enforced and met in three years.
The report also called for an end to final voids and waste dumps, and mandating rehabilitation requiring a return of approximate original contours once mines close. The report also backed an improved security deposit system after the NSW Audit Office in 2017 found security deposits do not provide sufficient contingency funds to cover the risks and uncertainties of mine rehabilitation.
Associate Professor Mudd said the community was entitled to question why mining companies nominated how much rehabilitation they intended to complete during their five-year mine operations plans approved by the resources and geosciences division of the Department of Planning.
“Under this system, NSW is accruing a mining rehabilitation deficit. Year on year, more land is disturbed than rehabilitated. A key reason for the growing rehabilitation deficit is that annual and five yearly goals for rehabilitation are set by the companies and the targets are voluntary,” Associate Professor Mudd said.
The Minerals Council of Australia said mining companies were careful to avoid disturbing land unnecessarily and tried to minimise their operations footprints.
“This reduces the scale and complexity of rehabilitation requirements and lowers the cost to companies” with rehabilitation “undertaken not only at the end of a mine’s life, but progressively during the mining process”.
NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said data showed the area of rehabilitated land was the highest it had been over the past five years.
Mr Galilee disputed Associate Professor’s findings and said data showed more land was rehabilitated than was disturbed in the Hunter in 2017, once one new mine’s data was excluded.
“Last year the industry held 25 per cent more land as biodiversity offsets than was disturbed by mining. Last year the industry also held twice as much land for farming use as was disturbed for mining,” Mr Galilee said.
There had been significant reforms to improve rehabilitation, including the Audit Office review that increased the amount companies are required to provide in rehabilitation security bonds, Mr Galilee said.
“The value of bonds held by the NSW Government is now the highest ever,” he said.
While modern mine design minimised voids, most Hunter mines “were approved decades ago when standards were different”.
“Retrospectively forcing those mines to fill their voids would make them uneconomic, forcing early closure and thousands of job losses,” he said.