Centennial Coal has been fined $1 million for a Tier 1 offence in the Land and Environment Court.
The Environment Protection Authority pursued the maximum penalty of $2 million for leaking substances into the environment after 2000 tonnes of coal fines escaped from a holding cell at Clarence Colliery in July 2015.
Justice Robson handed down the smaller $1.05 million sentence to the colliery’s parent company Centennial Coal on the afternoon of Friday, July 14, at the Land and Environment Court in Sydney.
Justice Robson said he took into account the good works of Centennial Coal in Lithgow.
“I accept that Clarence Colliery has demonstrated contrition and remorse concerning the offences and has, by its conduct, taken responsibility for its actions and acknowledged the environmental harm caused,” he said.
“I further accept that Clarence Colliery's good character is demonstrated by its participation in the Lithgow community.”
Centennial Coal pleaded guilty to two charges laid by the Environmental Protection Authority and the Environment and Heritage Office in regards to the overflow incident at the Land and Environment Court hearing on May 8. The EPA prosecuted Clarence with a Tier 1 (the most serious) offence that involves proving the defendant negligently caused a substance to escape in a manner that harms or is likely to harm the environment.
"The companies come before the court accepting its negligence in relation to this incident," Clarence Colliery Barrister Tom Howard SC said.
The court heard how a holding cell at Clarence Colliery that was already full, apart from an excavated hole, was mismanaged to the extent that it overflowed.
Over 2000 tonnes of coal fine slurry and chitter (coal reject) pumped from the Clarence washery overflowed from the REA3 holding cell, causing an outer wall of the holding cell to slump. An unknown amount of coal fines from the overflow escaped into the Wollangambe River located down hill from the cell.
The river runs into the Blue Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Area, and was impacted for a length of 10.3 km.
The EPA's barrister, Stephen Rushton SC, said that due to systemic failures the overflow was a “disaster waiting to happen”.
The Colliery’s barrister said the incident was caused by a “confluence of human mistakes” rather systemic failure.
A spokesperson for Centennial Coal said the $1.05 million fine reflects the severity of the incident.
“Prior to this incident, Clarence had a clean record, with no conviction for any environmental offence,” she said.
“Centennial Coal and Clarence deeply regret the incident and apologise for its occurrence and have taken steps to improve the way reject emplacement is managed on site to prevent a re-occurrence of this incident.”
Centennial Coal engaged in a year-long clean up of the coal fines, which cost the company $2 million.