ARE farmers and environmentalists being unreasonable?
NSW government has forked out $262 million to buyback half the Watermark coal exploration licence. But they remain angry.
To them the risk to some of Australia’s, if not the world’s, best cropping country remains unacceptable and unchanged.
Government paid its deal with Shenhua ensured the proposed mine will not dig into the productive alluvial black soil of the Liverpool Plains.
But the buyout did not alter existing plans for the mine location, and farmers are fuming. They say the risk to crucial water resources is as high as ever.
But while Shenhua did not plan to mine in the buyback licence area, the reduced exploration footprint limits future expansion.
Locals also argue there is potential for an underground mine, if Shenhua submits new plans to tap deep coal beneath the remaining exploration tenement.
Local farmer and chairwoman of the Caroona Coal Action Group Susan Lyle said the buyback “makes no difference to the effect the mine will have”.
“There will still be a mine in the middle of the Liverpool Plains. This hasn’t protected the water.
“The mine, even in the remaining area, will dig below the aquifer, it could even puncture the aquifer.”
Indicating the size of the fight to come for Shenhua and the government, peak lobby group Cotton Australia weighed in.
Shenhua’s environmental impact statement hydrogeological models were inadequate, overly simplified, did not sufficiently assess how aquifers were connected
"Regardless of the reduction in exploration area, farmers on some of the finest soils in NSW will still have an open cut mine in their backyard that will cut through aquifers, intercept water and undoubtedly have negative impacts on water resources and farm productivity,” said chief executive Adam Kay.
The miner says it was approved by one of the most rigorous assessment process in history.
Limiting open-cut coal pits to the ridges above the Liverpool Plain’s famed cropping country will preserve the uniquely bountiful underground water resources, according to Shenhua.
NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair agreed.
“Today’s agreement unlocks prime agricultural land for farming, helping to maintain the region’s reputation as one of the great food bowls of Australia,” he said when spruiking the government’s buyback on Wednesday.
The miner submitted an Environmental Impact Statement of unprecedented length to NSW approvals panel, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC).
It said Watermark mine would have a 150m buffer between it and the black soil and 900m between the productive aquifer.
“Our modelling shows there will be no consequential impacts on the regional groundwater and this has now been confirmed by two independent peer reviews and by the PAC’s own independent water expert,” then Watermark project manager Paul Jackson said.
Others argue the pits dug into the ridge country will alter water flow from the surface into underground reservoirs, known as aquifers, which feed the pumps of the highly productive farms across prime cropping country.
UNSW’s principal groundwater and water resources engineer Doug Anderson addressed a public hearing run by the PAC in Gunnedah 2015.
The research lab found Shenhua’s environmental impact statement hydrogeological models were inadequate, overly simplified, did not sufficiently assess how aquifers were connected and “likely” offered poor predictions of impacts to groundwater.
Vocal opponent and local farmer Tim Duddy said Shenhua’s water model was incomprehensive and did not for the complexity of local geology.
“In actual fact, it has created an artist’s impression of the local geology, instead of building a model with complete understanding, which means ‘yes’ the model is perfect in terms of what its artist assumes it is like.
“But Shenhua doesn’t understand what the permeability and interlayers of the aquifers actually are.”