September 2008 PROPOSAL TO MINE THE LIVERPOOL PLAINS
* In April 2006, the NSW Government issued BHP Billiton (via its shelf company Coal Mines Australia Ltd) a five-year coal exploration licence EL 6505. BHP paid the government $123m for the licence.
* The exploration licence covers 344 square kms at Caroona in the Liverpool Plains region of NSW – recognised as one of Australia’s most productive food bowls.
* The NSW Government and BHP Billiton have already indicated their belief that there are in excess of 500 million tonnes of untapped coal reserves within the licence area on the floodplains.
* Under the 5-year licence, BHP proposes to drill approximately 300 core holes up to 600 metres deep across the licence area to determine the quality and location of coal deposits.
* It is BHP Billiton’s intention, if granted approval by the NSW Government, to then establish a large scale longwall mine development to extract the coal over a period of 30-50 years.
* NSW Minister for Mineral Resources, Ian MacDonald, has already indicated his strong support for BHP’s proposal, telling parliament it was “an exciting prospect … with the potential to generate 1000 jobs and $2 billion in investment” (1/3/2006).
* Farmers and community members are calling for an independent catchment-wide groundwater study to be undertaken before any further exploration or large scale mining is considered.
* The community is concerned the NSW Govt’s existing legislation for approval and operation of mines is inadequate and will not protect the unique groundwater systems of the Liverpool Plains region from the impacts of large-scale underground mining.
* A leaked report from the NSW Dept of Environment & Climate Change reinforced those concerns. It stated under the current approval regime for mines in NSW: “… the real economic costs of mining impacts, particularly environmental impacts, are not adequately considered.”
* The Southern Coalfields Enquiry, Chaired by Prof. Bruce Hebblewhite, also found that the understanding of damage caused by subsidence was full of “knowledge gaps”, and that the State Government has “a responsibility to provide improved guidance”.
* The NSW Natural Resources Commissioner also supports the call for an independent catchment-wide water study but Minister MacDonald has refused to support a study saying the existing requirements under NSW law are sufficient to protect the region.
Liverpool Plains Environment
* The coal exploration area is on the Liverpool Plains at Caroona in the Namoi Valley catchment. Water from this region forms part of the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin.
* The region’s climate, soils, and unique groundwater makes it one of the most fertile and drought-resistant agricultural areas in Australia – producing one-third of the nations durum wheat and 17% of the nation’s sorghum crops.
* It is 75% deep black soil alluvial floodplain and 25% rising ridge country underlain by a complex series of high quality interlocking groundwater aquifers.
* The groundwater aquifers and surface water flows provide stock, domestic, irrigation and town water supplies for Caroona and neighbouring towns including Quirindi, Gunnedah, Spring Ridge, Curlewis, and the Walhallow Aboriginal Community.
* There is currently no detailed hydrological mapping of the area which can accurately identify the complex groundwater systems, their geology, and how they interconnect across the region.
* The community is concerned about the possible destruction or cross-contamination of aquifer systems, subsidence associated with longwall mining, and the risks of mining by-products polluting air, land and waterways.
Caroona Coal Action Group
* CCAG was formed in 2006 by concerned landowners and community members to protect the floodplains, which have been one of Australia’s most productive regions for more than 170 years.
* The group is not opposed to mining so long as it can be shown that any such mining would not pose unacceptable risks to the groundwater systems and environment of the region.
* CCAG is concerned that the assessment and approval processes for mines outlined in the NSW Mining Act 1992 and the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 do not:
a) properly recognize the increasingly precious nature of groundwater resources
b) adequately protect that resource from the risks of large-scale mining
c) take into account the cumulative offsite impacts of mine developments in one region
* CCAG will oppose any further exploration or mining by BHP in the licence area until the NSW or Federal government supports an independent catchment-wide study of the area to properly map the complex groundwater systems of the floodplains to allow for their protection.
* Landowners have been fighting to prevent BHP Billiton entering their properties to drill but the Mining Wardens Court has so far rejected all legal efforts to stop BHP from entering their land.
* In mid-July 2008, when the Mining Warden issued an emergency ex parte injunction against one landowner to allow BHP to drill on his land, the local community set up a blockade which has so far stopped BHP entering. Negotiations with BHP regarding land access are continuing.
BHP Billiton’s Position
* BHP says it recognizes the importance of the region’s groundwater systems and has committed to not undertake any form of mining which could damage the underground aquifers.
* In August 2008, BHP announced it had narrowed its exploration area to exclude the most sensitive parts of the floodplain and would now focus on the ridge country surrounding the plains.
* BHP has conceded, though, that there is no definitive hydrological data to show whether mining the ridges may also threaten the region’s groundwater systems. BHP’s Stephen David said:
“Does the the ridge country connect to the alluvial aquifer? We don’t know. We are working on the premise they probably aren’t.” He said (BHP) must determine this “connectivity” before mining. (Newcastle Herald 30 August 2008)
* BHP has so far refused to support the community’s call for an independent catchment-wide water study – maintaining that the testing the company plans to commission will be sufficient.
* Although required under the terms of its agreement to consider the feasibility of a coal-fired power station in the area, BHP has recently denied that any such power station will ever be built.
* BHP has indicated it intends moving to phase two of its exploration program which involves more intensive drilling in the areas it has now targeted for future mining in the licence area.
* The Caroona community intends to continue blocking any attempt by BHP to access and drill on private land for the purpose of identifying mining sites until the risks of any mining are understood.
* CCAG is continuing to lobby State and Federal politicians and industry groups to recognize the need for an independent catchment-wide water study by eminent Australian scientists to ensure any future mining does not threaten one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.
* In August 2008, the NSW Govt issued a second exploration licence over neighbouring land at Watermark to the Chinese State-owned miner Shenhua. The company paid the NSW Govt $300m for the right to explore for coal with a promise of a further $375m if approval to mine is granted.