THE NSW Department of Planning has conceded a "world first scandium mine" approval at Nyngan is invalid nearly a year after Hunter department whistleblower Rebecca Connor was sacked after arguing the 2017 approval was unlawful.
The concession leaves an elderly farmer, 83, taking legal action against the NSW Government over its failure to properly assess the mining lease over his land and the mine proponent, EMC Metals Australia, slamming the department's handling of the matter as "disgraceful" and "a stuff-up".
But the Independent Commission Against Corruption has declined Ms Connor's request to investigate the case despite the department losing the farmer's objection to the mine in 2016, only for it to surface at a department office at Maitland a matter of days after the mining lease approval in October, 2017.
It is also despite the department taking until September, 2018 to advise the farmer his objection had been found, in a letter written only weeks after Ms Connor, the former mining titles operations manager based at Maitland, complained to the NSW Ombudsman.
Ms Connor was suspended in November, 2017, a day after arguing the Nyngan mining lease approval was unlawful because it failed to assess the farmer's agricultural land objection. She was sacked in May, 2018.
In a letter to the farmer in March, at the direction of the Land and Environment Court, the department conceded it had been required to consider his objection to the scandium mining lease over part of his property and had not done so before approving the mining lease.
The Resources Minister and department secretary "confirm that they are of the view that this decision was invalid", the letter said.
The department in 2016 acknowledged the scarcity of scandium as a "high value metal" and the significance of the Nyngan scandium proposal.
"The market demand for scandium has grown substantially in recent years, however it is currently limited by a low and expensive supply," the department said.
EMC Metals Australia general manager John Thompson said the news of the invalid approval meant "our share price has taken a tumble" after the Canadian-based parent company advised the Canadian stock exchange.
"We've run into a fair bit of rubbish on this one but we're the innocent party here. We were kept in the dark as well," Mr Thompson said.
"We kept on saying 'How's the application going' and the department would tell us it was going through the assessment process. Disgraceful is a good word for it."
The department has advised the company and the farmer it must process the farmer's objection and assess whether his agricultural operations on the property since the 1950s are significant enough to block the scandium mine project.
The farmer, who did not want to be named, said he was confident an assessment prepared for the department would demonstrate the land required for the mine was agricultural land.
"I just don't want a mine on my place. I'm fat and healthy and 83 years of age and I've made a good living on being a farmer. They just seem to want me to get a headache from it all and go away," the farmer said.
He repeated his thanks to Ms Connor for standing up for him long before the department admitted its failures.
The farmer was angered by the department's September, 2018 letter advising him his objection had been found, without nominating the date, and asking if he had already withdrawn it.
"For all this time they've said there was no objection and now they're asking me if I've withdrawn it, without telling me what happened. They're trying to make out this is my problem when the ball's in their court to come up with something to sort this out," he said.
Mr Thompson said he was confident the mining company would be able to go ahead with the project.
The company received development approval in November, 2016 to mine up to 175,000 tonnes of scandium per year for 21 years, from two open cut pits covering 10 hectares of a 910 hectare site 20 kilometres south of Nyngan in the state's west, and mining lease approval in October, 2017 which has now been ruled invalid.
Scandium is "a metal of the future" which is used to lighten and strengthen aluminium, Mr Thompson said.
It is used in the transportation industry in planes, some cars and trains and is being seen as a desirable component of 3D printers and solid oxide fuel cells to generate electricity by converting hydrocarbon gas.
"It's a very, very positive story we've got to tell that's got dragged into this other business," Mr Thompson said.
"The Nyngan Scandium Project would be the first mine globally to be developed with a principal focus on scandium production. We think we've got a winner here."
In November Shadow Resources Minister Adam Searle said the Department of Planning was "out of control" after four former senior executives, including Ms Connor, said they had lost their jobs under executive "no reason" clauses in their contracts, after raising serious concerns.
The Department of Planning declined to comment about the Nyngan case.
"As the matter is before the court it would be inappropriate for the Department to provide commentary at this time," a spokesperson said.