The Independent Planning Commission today approved a $607-million extension of the Vickery coal mine near Boggabri with a raft of strict conditions.
The decision comes in the same week the Natural Resources Access Regulator brought charges against Vickery's owner, Whitehaven Coal, in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The company faces eight charges that if proven could have the company liable for fines of $1.1 million on each charge.
The matters are set down for mention in the Land and Environment Court on September 18.
The NRAR alleges Whitehaven, at its Boggabri mine, allegedly built unauthorised tracks, failed to rehabilitate drill sites and drilled bore holes contrary to its exploration activity approval conditions.
Today's approval of Whitehaven's Vickery coal mine planned extension will undoubtedly be greeted with outrage in some quarters, as the company's performance at other projects was held as reason why the extension should not be approved.
Whitehaven Coal was granted planning approval for its Vickery Coal Project in September 2014 but is yet to construct the key infrastructure required to extract 135 million tonnes (Mt) of coal in 30 years.
It lodged a new state significant development application in 2018 seeking to:
- Increase total coal extraction to 168Mt (+24.4 per cent);
- Increase the peak annual extraction rate from 4.5 to 10 million tonnes (+250pc);
- And increase the disturbance area by 776 hectares.
It has also sought approval to build a new coal handling and preparation plant at the project site, which would connect to the main Werris Creek-to-Mungindi railway line via a new rail spur across the Namoi River floodplain. Coal would then be transported to the Port of Newcastle by train.
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment finalised its assessment of the Vickery extension project in May and the IPC was then asked to decide the project's fate.
Commissioners John Hann (chairman), Professor Chris Fell and Professor Zada Lipman were appointed to consider the application.
They met with the applicant, department, Narrabri Shire Council and Gunnedah Shire Council and inspected the site and surrounding areas.
The panel considered the views of 74 registered speakers who participated in an electronic public hearing on July 2 and 3, as well as those raised in written submissions to the commission.
The commission received 1928 'unique' submissions - comprising 774 (40pc) in support, 1108 (57pc) against and 46 (2pc) neutral comments - as well as 935 campaign emails objecting to the application.
The commission scrutinised several key issues, including water resources, rehabilitation, final void and landform, greenhouse gas emissions, socio-economic impacts, noise, air quality, impacts on agricultural land, road and rail transport, heritage, blasting and vibration, biodiversity, and visual amenity and lighting.
"The commission finds that on balance, and when weighed against the objects of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, ecologically sustainable development principles, relevant policy framework, and socio-economic benefits, the impacts associated with the project are acceptable and the project is in the public interest," the commission said in its statement of reasons for decision.
"The commission acknowledges the project would result in additional environmental and amenity impacts associated with the increased disturbance footprint and additional mining-related infrastructure when compared to the approved project," it wrote.
"The commission also acknowledges that when compared with the approved project, the project would result in some reduced impacts such as a reduction of Scope 1 emissions, reduced amenity impacts and improved road safety from reduced coal truck haulage.
"On balance, the commission finds the environmental and amenity impacts of the project are not significantly greater than those associated with the approved project. The commission is of the view the additional environmental and amenity impacts can be appropriately managed and mitigated," the commissioners said.
They said the project would generate significant social and economic benefits for the local area, the North West region and to NSW.
"This includes a direct capital investment of $607 million and (creation of as many as) 450 jobs during operations," the decision stated.
The commission has imposed 184 conditions on the project to ensure it complies with the relevant criteria and standards, that impacts are consistent with the predictions in Whitehaven's environmental impact statement and that residual impacts are minimised, mitigated and where relevant compensated for."
The commissioners further wrote: "The commission received submissions raising the applicant's regulatory compliance history and submissions suggesting the applicant was not a fit and proper person in respect of the project.
"The commission notes that there is no fit-and-proper-person test in respect of development consents and that matters such as the identity of an applicant or past planning law breaches have been found to be irrelevant considerations for consent authorities such as the commission."
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