NEW information has shed light on the approval process for Shenhua's Watermark mine, which has revealed "a total failure of government process", according to NSW Farmers' president Fiona Simson.
Coal giant Shenhua is eyeing the end of an eight-year journey to approval for the massive 10 million tonne per annum Watermark coal mine at Breeza on the Liverpool Plains.
NSW Farmers has been a strident opponent from the start and now Mrs Simson has raised significant concerns over the state government's approval process.
She recently wrote to Premier Mike Baird claiming the government's independent planning approvals panel, the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC), had shown an "astonishing lack of critical analysis" and "a failure of government process".
At issue is condition 48 of the Watermark Exploration Licence, which prohibited mining on floodplain land.
When the exploration licence was issued in 2008, the term floodplain was not defined in the licence.
But in August 2013, when the licence was renewed, then Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher wrote to Planning Minister Brad Hazzard, proposing a "comprehensive definition" be included, which stated: "A floodplain is an area of low-lying, nearly flat plain adjacent to a river, formed mainly of river sediments and subject to regular flooding".
However, Mrs Simson said the licence should have adopted the definition of a floodplain employed by the NSW Office of Water, under the Water Act, which defines floodplain as an area of less than 2pc slope.
Simply put, as defined by the licence, Shenhua's proposal does not cover any areas of floodplain.
However, requests made by NSW Farmers under the Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA), show the PAC had some reservations.
The PAC wrote to the Department of Planning three times seeking clarification on the floodplain issue before issuing its final approval for Watermark.
It said it had "concerns about this issue" and asked "why the Department has accepted the Department of Resources and Energy definition of the floodplain, and not the NSW Office of Water (from the Water Act) or another government agency?".
The Planning Department said "as (the Resources and Energy Department) is responsible for issuing and regulating the exploration licence, it was (their responsibility) to define the term 'floodplain' for the purposes of the exploration licence".
PAC issued a report before granting its approval to Watermark and said "it recognises the definition used by the Department of Resources and Energy is fit for purpose, for providing protection of the black soil plains".
However, Mrs Simson said neither the correspondence between the PAC and Department of Planning, nor the PAC's report, accounted for the "simplistic" definition issued for the exploration licence renewal in 2013.
"The Department hasn't justified why they chose a dictionary definition of a floodplain when there is a well understood and utilised and gazetted definition available," she said.
A spokesman for Minister Roberts said the Office of Water's floodplain definition was created to manage flood impacts, rather than mining impacts and said it "worked with a number of sources, including the Office of Water, to develop a definition of a floodplain suitable to the exploration licence".