The state’s 52nd coal mine, and the first since Covid, has been approved by the Minister for the Environment in NSW amid plunging coal prices and huge local opposition. The fate of Whitehaven’s Vickery mine, and its impact on farmers around Narrabri, now lies in the hands of the NSW’s independent planning commissioners, who are conducting their final public hearings. Callum Foote reports.
NSW’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has given the green light to Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine extension project, not that there was any doubt. The final step is a review by the state’s Independent Planning Commission (IPC), which holds the last round of its public hearings tomorrow and Thursday.
The commission’s independence was threatened by then environment minister Rob Stokes for having the audacity to deny a permit for the Bylong Coal Mine in 2018 on environmental and public interest grounds. Following that Bylong decision, Stokes ordered a review of the IPC and introduced a bill – the territorial limits bill – which limits the scope of environmental damage the IPC can consider.
Stricter mechanisms are now in place for referral to the Commission and the usual two-round hearing process has been cut back to a single hearing. However, local residents opposing the mine are still allowed their say because the case was first heard before the new regulations were introduced. While the game seems stacked against them, one Boggabri local said: “We don’t have the political clout or the money to fight these things. But what we do have is timing.” Which is to say that the time is right for NSW to finally move past coal.
The Vickery site
Whitehaven, the company behind the Vickery mine, has strong links to the Coalition, at the national and state level. Its chairman, Mark Vale, was deputy prime minister between 2005 and 2007 under John Howard. More recently, NSW Liberal and National members have strongly opposed stricter environmental and administrative criteria for new coal mining operations in the state.
Earlier this year, Michael West Media reported on the local opposition to the Vickery mine, headed by the Narrabri Shire Council. During the first round of IPC hearings, council members described the trust deficit between the community and Whitehaven Coal. Narrabri Mayor Cathi Redding said there was “a very valid feeling that there have been no benefits at all to Boggabri” from the three other Whitehaven activity sites in the area.
In 2019, the Narrabri Shire Council opposed the whole Vickery development on the grounds that it was not in the public interest for residents.
The myth of coal jobs
The council’s opposition was in part based on the lack of economic benefit for the region. Whitehaven Coal claims the project will create up to 500 temporary construction jobs and 450 ongoing jobs.
However, in February this year, Daniel Boyce, Narrabri council’s executive manager for planning and environment, questioned the job figures in a letter of objection to the mine. Boyce notes that the modelling used was inconsistent with the employment data from other Whitehaven mines in the state.
Whitehaven has not provided precise workforce data nor has it given a reasonable explanation as to why the workforce would be so much higher at the Vickery mine than its other sites.
The company has automated large sections of the coal mining process, beginning with the controversial Maules Creek coal mine, and it revealed in an investor presentation its intentions to also automate the Vickery mining process.
Whitehaven’s 10 coal mining or processing assets in Australia generated a total income of $8.4 billion in 2019, on which it paid zero tax. In fact, Whitehaven has paid little to no tax for the past five years, indicating that it either employs aggressive tax minimisation strategies or its operations are simply not profitable.
Water for mines or farms?
Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine has come under sustained attack over its alleged misuse of ground water, and many locals believe Whitehaven is intending to use the same strategy in its Vickery mine. It used inaccurate groundwater modelling for Maules Creek to get the mine over the line with the state government planning authority.
The Natural Resource Access Regulator has since issued Whitehaven with a cease and desist order over the alleged illegal construction and use last year of a pipeline to transport groundwater from farming properties it owns to Maules Creek. The bores of nearby farmers had meanwhile run dry.
Whitehaven also outbid local farmers for groundwater licences, handicapping agricultural production and the livelihoods of farmers whose families had lived in the region for generations.
The modelling used by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to justify the Vickery mine was done by civil engineers, not hydrogeologists. Moreover, it was conceptual modelling, so it is based on a number of assumptions, not evidence gathered in situ.
A brief review of the more than 100 pages of the modelling, conducted by Emeritus Professor and hydrogeological expert Ian Acworth, of UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, uncovers similar methodological shortcomings. These flaws may overstate the amount of groundwater that is available for the Vickery mine.
The assumptions made by the civil engineers fundamentally misrepresent the area’s geological features, making no reference to the significant alluvial channel running close to the site. This channel, the original Namoi river, now runs up to 140 metres deep in places close to the Vickery site. Professor Acworth says the modelling inflates how much groundwater can actually be sourced from the alluvial sediment and therefore the groundwater system as a whole.
Moreover, the modelling assumes rainfall based on average rainfall values from the 1960s to the 1990s, a period whose rainfall was significantly higher than is predicted for the next 25 years.
During periods of drought, the Namoi, from which Whitehaven claims it will source 85% of the mine’s water needs, runs dry, and it did so most recently in 2019. In times of drought, therefore, the mine will have to source its entire water needs from groundwater.
The proposed mine site is adjacent to the Namoi River and the best farming land in the region. If groundwater drops and the Namoi river no longer drains water into the surrounding soil, then the local ecology may collapse.
Mine will outbid farmers
Regarding possible water shortfalls, Whitehaven claims it will simply source water from the market, effectively outbidding struggling farmers. This strategy worked for Whitehaven at its Maules Creek coal mine, 20 minutes’ drive to the north of the proposed Vickery mine.
A Boggabri local, a member of anti-mining movement People of the Plane, told Michael West Media that townspeople believe Whitehaven is being vague on purpose regarding water access to gain approval for the mine.