FORMER Department of Planning mining titles operations manager Rebecca Connor was suspended in November, 2017 after making what she believed was a protected disclosure about a mining lease approval at Nyngan.
Ms Connor told a more senior employee the approval was unlawful because the department had failed to assess an elderly Nyngan farmer's objection to the lease over his property. He'd supported his family on the property since the 1950s, he later told the Newcastle Herald.
The sorry history of how the department dealt with the farmer's objection to EMC Metals Australia's mining lease application has come to light after Ms Connor was sacked by the department in May, 2018 and spoke to the Herald.
Then it featured in NSW Parliament.
The department lost the objection, told the farmer he probably hadn't submitted it in the first place, and found it months later, only days after the mining lease was approved. The lease was one of the final formal requirements for EMC Metals to establish a "world first" scandium mine near Nyngan, to produce an alloy used to lighten and strengthen aluminium. It had already received development approval.
The farmer knew nothing about the department finding his objection until he received a letter out of the blue in September last year. But it wasn't until after he initiated legal action against the NSW Government in February that the department conceded - at the direction of the Land and Environment Court - that the mining lease approval was invalid and it had to address his agricultural land objection.
The Department of Planning is under a new minister, Rob Stokes, and a new head, Jim Betts, after a series of highly regrettable incidents in the Hunter over the past few years. These include a Hunter department employee reducing a $5 million mining community fund to $500,000 without the affected Muswellbrook community being told they were entitled to the money in the first place.
The $5 million, a condition of consent for the Wybong mine, was only reinstated after quick work by Muswellbrook Shire Council and publicity in the Herald.
After months of bad publicity former department secretary Carolyn McNally announced an integrity review of complaints by sacked executives and an independent audit of mining titles management, overseen by Resources Regulator Lee Shearer. Then Ms Shearer was given her marching orders last week only days after being named Telstra's NSW businesswoman of the year.
None of this inspires confidence in a department tasked with one of the most fraught areas of government - the processing of mining titles and mining applications in a region which has suffered more than most when things go wrong.
Mr Stokes, Mr Betts, it's time to restore public confidence in this department.