It’s sparked concerns about how much agricultural land will be locked up as “offsets” for mines and how much of it will continue to be farmed.
NSW Farmers executive councillor Tony Hegarty, “Belvedere”, Cassilis, said the buy-ups resulted in a net loss because miners were buying land to preserve on the basis they were ruining it elsewhere.
He said although to date there had been a population loss in the area as a result of the buy-ups, companies would eventually put farm or land management strategies in place and farmland could remain productive.
Mr Hegarty said the offsets scheme – outlined in the NSW government’s strategic regional land use policy (SRLUP) – was an example of how the SRLUP fell short of expectations.
“There are concepts that are flawed but well-intentioned, such as the offset concept, where the mining companies buy land as offsets for the activities – you can’t crucify the coal company, they are doing it due to government regulations, but it is a flawed concept and it results in a net loss,” Mr Hegarty told The Land.
“They say they are intending to carry out agriculture when they work out management plans, but there will be lock-ups as well.
“Outcomes may be good, but they are buying fantastic timbered grassland on the assumption they are destroying land somewhere else.”
A Rio Tinto spokesman said under the Mount Pleasant Project Environmental Protection Biodiver-sity Conservation Act (EPBC) approval, the company was required to conserve about 15,000ha of strategically chosen land as biodiversity management areas (BMAs).
In a spend-up totalling about $40 million, Coal and Allied has bought the 2055ha property “St Antoine”, north of Cassilis, “Clare Park”, “Gum Ridge” and “Black Rock” east of Merriwa and more recently the historic sheep run “Llangollan”.
“A comprehensive biodiversity management plan (BMP) has been prepared and outlines management and monitoring for each of the BMAs as well as objectives, performance criteria and indicators,” the Rio Tinto spokesman said.
“Long-term management of the offset properties continues to be developed and this will be based on ensuring compliance with federal government requirements placed on Coal and Allied and sound property management practices.”
A decision on whether to proceed with the $2 billion Mount Pleasant mine expansion, to an extra 8.5 million tonnes by 2014, is due this year, although there has been speculation Rio Tinto may shelve plans in light of falling coal prices.
Upper Hunter Shire Council mayor Lee Watts said she would like to engage with mining companies to reach a voluntary contribution agreement.
“I would like to see them put something back, as they are taking away. What is going to happen to agriculture in our shire if all the land continues to be bought?” she said.
“There is community unease about this. Merriwa Progress Association say they’re being kept well informed. But we’re not sure about the big picture.”
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Planning said companies were often required to offset impacts of mining by acquiring biodiversity offset lands, with assessments “on a case by case’’ basis.
“However, as outlined in the government’s draft strategic regional land use plans, land set aside for biodiversity offsets should not result in the significant loss or destruction of agricultural resources or industries,” he said.
“As such, the agricultural value of potential offset sites is very carefully assessed and land with high agricultural value is not favoured for offsets.
“Negotiated agreements with landholders may be required to support continued agricultural production.”
The spokesman said the department was working on a proposal to undertake a strategic assessment under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Cons-
ervation Act (EPBC) of proposed new coal mines and expansions in the Upper Hunter.
“This would cover an area of around 30,000ha in the Singleton, Muswellbrook and Upper Hunter council areas.”
It would have the advantage of considering the impacts of all mines together and in a regional context.