Opposition to a massive open-cut coal mine in NSW’s Liverpool Plains is expected to intensify after federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt gave the project conditional approval.
Chinese state-owned company Shenhua has been granted approval for the $1 billion Watermark mine near Gunnedah, under 18 conditions the government says are among the strictest in Australia’s history.
Shenhua welcomed the decision for conditional approval, and said it will begin the next phase of meeting the strict operating conditions required by the state and federal governments.
Local opponents say they are devastated by the approval because of the potential threat to farming.
“Agriculture has come out as a big loser to coal in this decision,” Lock the Gate Alliance spokeswoman Carmel Flint told AAP.
She said the mine will threaten sorghum and legume production in the region, which acts as a food bowl for NSW.
“It’s not going to be fully rehabilitated; it’s going to leave a massive open pit void of over a hundred hectares which will draw in groundwater and lead to increased salinity,” Ms Flint said.
“It’s got a permanent impact on the water resources and the productive capacity of the plains.
“The community isn’t going to give up. It’s too important to just let this one go.”
Mr Hunt has put strict conditions on the mine, including putting the black soil plains off limits to mining, while the project area is restricted to the ridge country around Mt Watermark. Shenhua must also complete water and biodiversity management plans before any mining starts.
“There will be no impact on the availability of water for agriculture,” Mr Hunt said.
Another condition includes the power to stop work and stop mining if there are any effects on agricultural water supply, and if that occurs the mine must immediately provide an alternative water supply to farmers.
The NSW Farmers Association said it was outrageous to approve the mine on the same day the government launched its agricultural white paper.
The approval document shows it was signed off on Saturday, July 4.
Association president Fiona Simson said an area the size of 4000 football fields will be disturbed.
She said it was completely at odds with comments by Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier in the week that the government would not allow an extractive industry to go ahead where it would threaten the long-term viability of the farm sector.
“This notion is completely at odds with an open-cut coal mine being built in some of our best food producing land that sits over the top of some of our most important agricultural water resources,” Ms Simson said.
The Greens accused the government of putting overseas mining interests before local farmers and the climate, and accused local federal member and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce of failing to protect the Liverpool Plains.
Comment has been sought from Mr Joyce.
The principal solicitor at Environmental Defenders Office NSW, Sue Higginson, said the NSW government’s approval for the mine in January is subject to proceedings in the Land and Environment Court.