THE NSW government’s newly announced deal with Shenhua to excise land linked to the Watermark mine project for a $262 million refund has been welcomed but fails to deliver a social license to operate on the Liverpool Plains, to protect water assets and farming, the National Farmers’ Federation says.
NFF President and Liverpool Plains farmer Fiona Simson said she was pleased the NSW government had acted to preserve valuable agricultural land in NSW by announcing it was buying back 51.4 per cent of the mine.
But Ms Simson warned the approval process still had a long way to go and the local campaign would continue.
“For 10 years the community has been talking about the value of this agricultural land and it’s disappointing that it has taken this long to act but its good news that the government has now acted to protect some of this valuable soil,” she said.
“Some years ago, the NSW government mapped and recognised the value of black spoil but it never made sense to the community that the government would map black soils and not actually protect them
“All the state government has announced now is that it’s buying back 51.4pc of the exploration area which is a lot of those black soils but Shenhua still has a lot of work to do.
“Last year (NSW Energy Minister) Anthony Roberts approved the mine plan but it still has to go through a number of federal approvals like water works and environmental approvals.
“There’s still a long way to go before the mine would have any social license in that area and Shenhua would need to determine and prove it won’t impact on the underground water supplies that are invaluable to that region.”
Ms Simson said the mine was slated to dig coal on some of the moist valuable farm land in NSW “but there’s still a long way to go on the approval”.
She said today’s announcement “vindicates” some of the community concern around protecting agricultural land - but questions long-raised by the community and by the science, regarding the mine’s impact on water assets, remained unanswered.
“Shenhua will still need to do an enormous amount of work to convince the regulators and the community that the mine will not impact on the valuable underground water resources that service not only the agricultural industry but also towns and communities in the Namoi,” she said.
“The Caroona Coal Action Group started raising critical concerns 10 years ago about some of impacts on agricultural land and that led to the mapping of the land by the NSW government and the withdrawal of that land from the exploration is now the next step which is a good step but we still have a long way to go.
“For the community, it has always been about the land and water at this location and there’s still concern about that; whether it’s on the ridge or the floodplains.
“There’s still a lot of concern about the water which is why the federal government is requiring Shenhua to submit the scientific work for approvals and there’s still a long way to go in this process to prove they can safely operate a mine in that area, without impacting the valuable water resources.”
Ms Simson said going back to the NSW Labor government in about 2008, awarding the exploration license to Shenhua it was “a process that should never have happened”.
“Let’s ensure planning processes in the future can take account some of these sorts of resources so we don’t have another 10 years of uncertainty and we don’t have farming communities suffering the kind of angst the Caroona community has had to endure over the last 10 years,” she said.
She said the land was valued at $3000 to 4000 per acre but “Shenhua paid a lot more for it than that”.
Former New England MP Tony Windsor who also farms in the region said protecting water was “the real story” and buying back some of the license area, in a move aimed at protecting black soil land was, “a bit of a side show”.
“I listened to the NSW state minister’s announcement and he’s virtually saying, ‘We’ve taken Shenhua off the black soil so now this thing can go ahead’,” he said.
“They’ve actually done the deal but they don’t understand what these people will do - the people who live here.
“The science hasn’t been done, the risks haven’t been properly assessed and so there is no social license.”
Mr Windsor said the Chinese mining company’s representatives told him seven or eight years ago when he was a federal MP that they’d be happy to return the land in question, if they were compensated by the NSW government.
“I had a number of meetings with them at different times when they used to come to Canberra to meet with (former Labour Resources and Energy Minister) Martin Ferguson and others,” he said.
“I made the point to them back then that they’d never be able to mine the flat country and they made the statement then that they were quite prepared to excise that land and the key words here are, ‘if they were compensated’.
“And compensation, in their mind, wasn’t necessarily dollars but it was coal somewhere else and that’s what they mentioned at the time, ‘we want to be compensated with coal somewhere else’.
“What they’ve done now is come to a monetary arrangement but they never had any intention of mining on the flat country anyway.
“The flat country was only on there for a second stage of the mine to go underground.
“They’ll never get the second stage going – and they won’t get the first stage going either – but even if they did, they’ll never get the second stage going because it’s even deeper and even the first stage of the mine project is supposed to go under the plain.”
All about the water
Mr Windsor said today’s announcement wasn’t news to him because the excise move was always going to be Shenhua’s “bargaining chip” to allow them to come out and claim they’d heard the community’s voice, accepted the problems and won’t mine on the Liverpool plans.
But he said protecting the water had always been the core issue for him.
“People have the right to run kangaroos on black soil or grow corn on black soils but corporations don’t have the right to upset the common good which is the water,” he said.
“It‘s the biggest ground water system in the Murray Darling Basin and you run the risk of impacting on the agricultural production and water quality, if this mine goes ahead.
“We don’t know how much ground water actually feeds the river systems; we don’t even know that simple answer.
“It could be up to 70pc of river water, comes out of ground water in the Namoi.
“Now if something went wrong, it’s not just about some irrigator out in the middle of a black soil plain being impacted, it’s the community, the river, the Murray Darling Basin, it just goes on and on.
“I have no doubt it won’t go ahead - no doubt at all – but it’s just eating peoples’ souls.”
Mr Windsor also accused Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce of putting the “handbrake” on a bioregional assessment of the Namoi region’s water.
“He always ducks and weaves,” he said.
“But the way to solve this problem is to actually do the independent scientific work on; how these aquifers actually work, how they relate to each other, what could happen with one or two mines and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining; and what’s the cumulative impact of all of these things?
“Now we don’t know that so the debates come back to whether you want to farm black soil or not – but who cares.
“The issue is the water – it’s the thing that runs down-hill.
“The bioregional assessment was set up to independently assess the risks – to put a risk profile on these activities, including irrigation.
“It wasn’t aimed at being pro or anti mining or anything – it was aimed at getting an oversight of that bioregion, and the 21 ground water systems in there that we call the Namoi ground water, and how they actually relate, and what are the risks of impacts of something like the Shenhua mine or CSG.”
Mr Windsor said Mr Joyce wasn’t advancing the Namoi study because “his people would be telling him, ‘minister, there is high risk here’ and he’s aware of that”.
“The CSIRO did some scientific work (on Shenhua) years ago, not enough work, but they came out and said there was a one in three chance of something going wrong,” he said.
‘Now if there was a one in three chance of something going wrong with Warragamba dam, the place would erupt.
“We don’t know the risks with this mine but the people are going to take the risks, the environment is going to take the risks, and the biggest irrigation system in the Murray Darling is going to take the risks based on the colour of someone’s soil.
“I don’t know what the risks levels are, but we have to find out.
“If you run the risk of creating a cancer below the soil, what have you done to the value and capacity of that country and is it worth the risk? “
Mr Joyce has been contacted for comment.
Federal hoops still to jump through
NSW Nationals MP Mark Coulton said Shenhua had missed its deadline on submissions for federal environmental approvals.
“The government has bought back the land and I’m not sure what they’ll do with it after June if they’ll re-sell it to farmers but this is not the go ahead for the mine, because they still aren’t compliant federally,” he said.
“(Former Environment Minister) Greg Hunt gave them provisional approval that they had to produce a water study but they haven’t done that yet and are actually overdue on the time frame for that.
“This isn’t the go ahead but it is tidying up one of the problems that the mine site was out on the Liverpool plains.
“I wrote to (current Environment Minister) Josh Frydenberg about six weeks ago asking for the status update from the commonwealth because Shenhua are not compliant with the water study.
“They’ve only got a license to explore and not a license to mine and still have processes to go through before it can happen.
“This (announcement) should not be perceived as the go ahead because there’s still more hoops for them to jump through.
“This doesn’t excuse Shenhua from not having to do the other processes to be compliant and the one federally we’re concerned about is the water study.
“They’re not compliant in several areas and there were deadlines to meet that they haven’t met so they need to address that.”