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Lack of transparency plagues planning approval process

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NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian's Government has a lacklustre environmental record (image via YouTube).

Matters of independence, public access and the interference of business are causes for concern in planning approval processes, writes David Paull.

THE NSW GOVERNMENT'S recent decision to approve additional longwall coal mining directly under a major Sydney water catchment has again highlighted serious institutional failings that have plagued NSW planning for over a decade.

There are now further questions regarding the use of "experts" and the integrity of decision-making processes in the NSW Planning Department. 

Controversy has surrounded mining giant Peabody’s activities in the Woronora Catchment, the catchment for Sydney’s drinking water, since the initial approval was made in 2009.

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) finally approved the longwall extensions in March 2020. Scientific evidence over the last ten years has pointed to considerable gaps in our understanding of groundwater processes and impacts on water quality and groundwater-dependent ecosystems in areas affected by longwall mining in the Sydney Catchment.

These scientific shortcomings were first made apparent in evidence provided to the Southern Coalfield Inquiry in 2008 and have been highlighted again in more recent submissions to Peabody’s latest proposal.

In particular, submissions by WaterNSW and an open letter signed by over 20 Australian experts in groundwater and hydrology have questioned the "science" that has been applied to justify the mining taking place and the potentially disastrous consequences for Sydney’s water supply.

Both have called for mining in our water catchments to be suspended 'until the cumulative impacts and consequences of mining to date can be reliably assessed and quantified'.

The approval of the new longwalls under the Woronora Reservoir was signed off by Mike Young from DPIE and was accompanied by a letter from two independent experts, Emeritus Professor Jim Galvin and Professor Neil MacIntyre.

In the letter, they cite data to support the go-ahead of the mine, provided by the "Woronora Reservoir Impact Strategy Panel" who also submitted a Stage 2 Report separately to the NSW Government. This document was therefore key in the Government’s decision-making processes. 

The problem is that it was commissioned by Peabody, the proponent of the project.

Initially, the composition of the experts involved was not made public. However, following calls for public disclosure from the community earlier this year, the DPIE subsequently released relevant details. It identified the two signatories to the letter, confirmed their position within the Government's own expert panel, the "Independent Expert Panel for Mining in the Catchment" (IEPMC), set up in 2017 to investigate mining in the "Greater Sydney Catchment Special Areas".

Their role, according to the DPIE, was to consider all the evidence in the approval of the mine extension. Particularly as the IEPMC, as stated on their website, '… will also be updated by the expert panellists, who will apply the latest scientific knowledge to mining operations in the catchment'.

The two signatories have a long professional association with the mining industry. Professor MacIntyre is a well-known hydrologist on the impacts of land use and climate change on water yields, particularly in relation to mining. He is a key player at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Coal Seam Gas and the Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry.

This is an industry-funded research body and since 2013, MacIntyre has received at least eight grants from industry, including from Santos and Adani. 

Professor Galvin, who spent most of his time at University of New South Wales (UNSW), has a long international experience in mining engineering and management. He is the chair of the IEPMC and has had a strong connection with the Australian Coal Industry’s Research Program, where his research is largely confined to mine engineering. This initiative is 100 per cent owned and funded by all Australian black coal producers through a five cents per tonne levy paid on saleable coal.

The authors of the Peabody Stage 2 Report were Dr Franz Kalf, Emeritus Professor Tom McMahon, and Professor Bruce Hebblewhite (, with various expertise in engineering, groundwater and hydrology.

All have a long history of consulting with mining companies, including reviewing mining documents, which in NSW are paid for by the proponents.

Together, they have been involved with several contentious decisions in relation to groundwater, such as Calga Quarry, Wilpingjong Mine, Shenhua’s Watermark Mine on the Liverpool Plains and various southern fields such as the Bulli Coal Seam and the Dendrobium Mine.

Professor Hebblewhite is another mining engineer, also based out of the UNSW and was also the Chair of the 2008 Southern Coalfields Inquiry (he resigned from the IEMPC in 2018). The report from that inquiry by all accounts initially facilitated the original in-principal approval for the current mines under the reservoir despite conflicting and equivocal evidence presented.

This should have been a warning sign for things to come. Despite admissions by Hebblewhite and the rest of the Peabody Panel of insufficient baseline information, the Stage 2 report states that this is no reason for caution. 'The SCI Report found no evidence that undermining of swamps had affected water supplies'. This contention is supported in the IEPMC letter.

Of course, due to a lack of appropriate baseline data, an issue which has plagued decision making for over ten years now, it is equally accurate to say that there is no evidence that the undermining of swamps had not affected water supplies.

Some have suggested this a clear failure of a scientific-based approach and application of the "precautionary principle". Other scientists, such as Professors Steven and Philip Pells, suggest it is not a question of "if" impacts will occur but a question of '"how long" will they take to occur'?

There are other links between the members of the Government’s IEPMC and the Peabody Panel, such as a long-standing professional relationship between Professors Hebblewhite and Galvin, publishing several papers together in the area of mine engineering. But crucially, Hebblewhite sat on the Government’s IEPMC with Galvin and MacIntyre at the same time he was contracting with Peabody. His signature was conspicuously absent on the letter supplied to DPIE to support the mine expansion.

There appears to be a conflict of interest. The letter by MacIntrye and Galvin, representing the IEPMC fails the public interest test because it, first, fails to obtain signatures of other IEPMC members who have hydrological expertise and who may had a different opinion or had a conflict of interest, and second, relies on the findings of the Peabody Stage 2 report to justify their own conclusions.

Further, the overall attitude of Peabody’s Stage 2 Report to environmental damage is one of inevitability and suggests payment, or "offsets" would be the only option for irreversible damage, damage which the report also admits cannot be readily prevented or calculated:

'There is very limited, if any, scope for remediating fracture networks beneath swamps … where it is difficult, if not impossible, to design a viable mining layout that avoids impacting swamps … there is little option other than to consider offsets as compensation for the consequences.'

Even the hard-nosed advocates from the NSW Mineral’s Council on page 69 of the report suggest it would be difficult to find an "offset" that would comply with the current policy.

It seems these "planners" have not only compromised the government-appointed body, IEPMC, to assess mining impacts, but they have also re-invented the meaning of the word "independent" to include advice from those seeking favour.

In truth, it has been the tendency of the NSW "Major Projects" staff for many years to advocate the company arguments and to dismiss the advice of other agencies.

There has been a concerted effort by the NSW Government and local State MPs to insist that the mining is being "independently" assessed and monitored, without disclosing the possible relationship between the Panel and Peabody.

Statements made in the NSW Parliament refused to even mention Peabody by name and refused to acknowledge scientific concerns, drawing on the "all is good" conclusions from the Peabody Stage 2 report. A question from the Greens MP was not allowed.

While there are many questions which require answers, perhaps the most urgent question which needs to be considered is why is underground longwall mining allowed within Catchment Special Areas at all?

The demonstrated damage that has occurred due to mining activities in the special areas, in fact, undermines the statutory ability of WaterNSW to ensure these areas are protected and enhanced for the public good. Sydney is the only major city where mining is allowed in drinking water catchments.

It seems in New South Wales, multi-nationals like Peabody, whose environmental record is never questioned and for the last five years have paid no tax out of an income of $16.5 million, still manage to get their way every time.

While Peabody nearly went bankrupt a few years ago, selling assets in the Hunter Valley, their record of gaining approvals remains unblemished.

With the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) turning into a toothless tiger, we now have a system it seems where conflicts of interest and secrecy are now well and truly entrenched. A system where bureaucrats and politicians betray the public trust. Both sides of politics are implicated.

Perhaps a Royal Commission may be the only way to cut the umbilical cord connecting government and industry. Until then, all the public have is an assurance that not knowing enough about such a critical issue is no reason to act to prevent further irreparable damage to Sydney’s drinking water supply and quality. 

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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