Shenhua has missed a trio of deadlines for its Watermark coal project, but NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian will not indicate if the government will move to cancel the company’s exploration licence.
The proposed mine is perched on a ridge that juts out into Australia’s most fertile black soil at Breeza, on the Liverpool Plains.
Last week marks a year past the expiration date for Shenhua’s exploration licence which was set by Mining Minister Ian Macdonald, who collected $300 million in licence fees for the then Labor government.
An eight year deadline to start development has also sailed by and Shenhua is four months overdue with water and biodiversity management plans that are required by federal government for assessment by its independent expert science panel.
The Premier’s office did not respond when questioned if this warranted termination of the project’s permissions, except to confirm negotiations with Shenhua to recover 96 hectares of designated strategic agricultural land from the tenement.
“The NSW government remains in negotiations with Shenhua to secure the excise of the parts of its mining title that encroach onto the strategic agricultural land of the Liverpool Plains,” a spokesman said.
Farmers want Ms Berejiklian to emulate her predecessor Mike Baird, who said his $200m purchase of BHP’s Caroona coal project as was “a hallmark achievement” of his time in office.
But NSW government has already approved the mine’s development plans, following an independent review of the Environmental Impact Statement. Shenhua just requires a mining licence to dig at Watermark – which is a bureaucratic formality that comes with a $200m price tag from NSW government.
Excising the strategic agricultural land would likely leave in play the area planned for Watermark’s westernmost of three open-cut coal pits, which have been approved under the planning process to remain an open void when mining stops.
The current mine plan would tap into about a third of the coal. The remainder in the project is too deep for open cut mining which prompts suspicions in opponents such as local farmer Andrew Pursehouse, who said Shenhua has a “backdoor” to pursue an underground mine.
Susan Lyle heads local opposition in the Caroona Coal Action Group. She, husband John and son Tim, run a mixed farming enterprise at “Ranken Park”, Curlewis.
Tim said fighting the mines was an unwanted challenge which offered no upside except a return to the status quo.
“When its done and dusted, if they (Shenhua) walk away, we’ve won nothing. They’ve just wasted our time,” he said.
Mrs Lyle said government should segregate prime food production centres and the nearby Tamworth airport, which offers tantalising agriculture export potential.
Left in limbo by mine mess
Lingering uncertainty over a mega coal project is making a bitter irony of the Asian dining boom opportunity or farmers in one of Australia’s most productive cropping regions.
After nearly a decade in limbo, Liverpool Plains farmers still wait for a determination on Chinese coal miner Shenhua’s plans for it’s Watermark project.
It’s like putting a toilet in the middle of the dinner table
John Hamparsum, “Drayton”, Breeza, owns a major cropping operation. He said government approval for Shenhua would “undo the good it did” in former Premier Mike Baird’s $200 million buyout of BHP’s Caroona mine in August 2016.
“It would be a completely oxymoron for government to approve a mine in the middle of a food bowl. It’s like putting a toilet in the middle of the dinner table,” Mr Hamparsum said.
When he retired from politics, Mr Baird singled out the buyout to protect the fertile black soil plains as a hallmark achievement of his time in office.
Impacts to underground water resources are the major fear for farmers – albeit among a range of other concerns.
Watermark project manager Paul Jackson said, when the mine was approved, that Shenhua’s studies demonstrated limited impacts to groundwater would result from the mine.
“The science is in and (Watermark) has been tested, and re-tested time after time,” Mr Jackson said.
But farmers don’t trust information submitted to government by Shenhua predicting limited impacts to groundwater. They argue company’s studies are theoretical modelling, based on limited real-life drilling and assessment.
University of NSW groundwater and water resources engineer Doug Anderson 2015 review Shenhua’s water studies found hydrogeological models were overly simplified, did not sufficiently assess how aquifers were connected and “likely” offered poor predictions of impacts to groundwater.
“If this mine goes ahead it’s a fait accompli the water will be damaged and then your irrigated land value would be halved to dryland value” said Andrew Pursehouse, Pursehouse Farms, "Breeza Station".
He said upgrades to on-farm infrastructure, to boost efficiency and explore export markets was left on hold across the district while the process dragged on.
“We need certainty for farming. This situation could stay the same way for the next ten years and that would stifle agricultural investment.”
Young farmer Sarah Suman said many of the next generation would not stay in the area if the coal project is approved - but they would fight the mine until the last.
“The community is sick of the waiting game. But if the mine goes ahead, there will be no end to it,” she said.