Two months after proclaiming a major win for environmentalists in the Court of Appeal, 4Nature president Andrew Cox says the group has lost the opportunity to discuss with Centennial Coal how Springvale Mine can continue to operate while mitigating environmental impacts.
“We are extremely disappointed. We were confident of finding a way forward allowing Springvale Mine to continue while reducing the worst environmental effects of the mine. We didn’t get a chance to explore that,” he said.
“The government is very obviously intervening.”
4Nature, represented by the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, now has to fight the consequences of its successful challenge to Springvale’s extension in the Court of Appeal.
NSW Minister for Energy and Utilities Don Harwin introduced a bill into the Legislative Council on Wednesday, October 11, proposing to uphold Springvale’s 2015 approval and wind back laws protecting Sydney’s water catchment.
The bill has already passed through the Legislative Assembly without amendment.
“We did foresee it as a possibility but we were expecting the government to respect drinking water laws. It’s a dangerous trajectory for the government if those laws are something that can be weakened,” Mr Cox said.
“It means it will potentially lock in the future of polluting activities, like cattle feed lots and coal mines, without managing the requirement to cease polluting Sydney’s drinking water.”
David Morris, the CEO of the Environment Defenders Office said the government’s move to amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act while Springvale was facing court was “regrettable”.
“What this legislation essentially does is make lawful an operation that was ruled unlawful because of its impact on the environment and that’s undesirable,” Mr Morris said.
If passed, the new legislation will change the ‘neutral of beneficial’ test used to approve the extensions of existing projects within Sydney’s water catchment.
Rather than assessing whether a continuation of a project will have a negligible or improved outcome for the catchment compared to the project not existing at all, the bill will ask assessors to consider whether the continued project will have a ‘neutral or beneficial’ impact compared to its current impacts.
The Planning and Assessment Commission's interpretation of the ‘neutral or beneficial’ test to mean the latter is what undermined Springvale’s approval in the first place.
“One does not assess the effect on water quality of mining over the next 13 years by assuming that historical mining, which was to cease nine days after the decision was made, would continue,” Justice Leeming said at the court decision in August.
If the legislation is passed through both houses of parliament by Thursday, Mr Morris said a full hearing in regards to Springvale’s mining approval is unlikely. Centennial Coal and the Environment Defenders Office were scheduled to appear before the Land and Environment Court on October 16 and 17.
Mr Cox said 4Nature had secured expert evidence on the damage of the mine on upland swamps for the hearing. The group was also hoping to discuss interim measures to reduce pollution while the Springvale Water Treatment Plant was being built.
“Another effect of this legislation is that it deprives the public of my client’s evidence being tested in court and that’s a real shame,” Mr Morris said.
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said the government had “confected” a crisis to pass new legislation that will lock in polluting industry without seeking improved outcomes for Sydney’s drinking water.
“A perverse outcome of the legislation is that it will penalise new environmentally sensitive development over older more polluting developments,” Mr Buckingham said.
Centennial Coal’s CEO Mick Cairney said the legislation would save 600 jobs.
“Importantly, today’s announcement provides the certainty we need to deliver on our commitment to construct a water treatment facility representing an investment of over $100 million,” he said.
The plant, expected to be complete in 2019, would remove the need to discharge waste water into the Coxs River.
Lithgow City Council, Lithgow District Chamber of Commerce and the CFMEU have expressed their support of the bill.