Opinion

Tony Windsor
Going to groundwater over Shenhua coalmine

Let me say this about Greg Hunt’s approval of the Shenhua Watermark coalmine on the Liverpool Plains in north-west New South Wales: the furore it has ignited has the potential to develop into an environmental and economic confrontation to match the Franklin River blockade. It could make or break Barnaby Joyce’s political career, and lead to strained relations with China.

The mining exploration licence should never have been granted. It was conceived by a corrupt NSW Labor government, fondled by a compliant NSW Coalition government and approved by a federal Coalition government beholden to the Chinese government over the free trade agreement.

In 2008, the then NSW state Labor minister for mines, Ian Macdonald, approved an exploration licence to look for coal on the Liverpool Plains. Three hundred million dollars exchanged hands, with a commitment from the Chinese government-owned company Shenhua for another $200 million if the company could eventually establish a mine to export coal to China.

That same day I met with the company delegation in a meeting room in the NSW parliament – a meet-and-greet with the local state member Peter Draper and myself as the federal member for New England. The buoyant mood and the nature of the meeting changed dramatically on the raising of one word: water.

“Do you realise that the exploration licence that has just been granted is located above the largest groundwater system in the Murray-Darling system,” I asked the delegation, “and that the Commonwealth government is embarking on developing a catchment-wide Murray-Darling Basin plan?”

I explained that the issue could present complications for their project due to the enormous volumes of underground water and the interaction of those waters with the surrounding flood plain and the surface water systems. Because of gravitational forces, it would be difficult to guarantee restricting the groundwater to the mine site if unintended interference with the groundwater aquifers occurred.

The reply from the delegation head was that there would be no problems because the licence they had been granted was in fact in the Hunter Valley region, which flows into the ocean at Newcastle. They explained that these waters were not part of the Murray-Darling system and, because there were already large established mines in the Hunter, the water issue would not arise.

The debate that ensued led to the removal of some of the company’s Australian-based advisers.

The following Saturday, while shopping at the Werris Creek hardware store near Tamworth, I heard some of the same Chinese voices seeking direction to the village of Breeza on the Liverpool Plains. They had discovered that the mine they were proposing was in fact in the Murray-Darling catchment. Neither the owners of the licence nor the minister who issued it had ever viewed this incredible piece of agricultural farmland.

The land in question is part of the famed Namoi Valley catchment, one of the most crucial of the 26 subcatchments that make up the Murray-Darling catchment. The flood plains have been laid down over the millennia through the erosion of the basalt parent material from the Great Dividing Range. These soils are extremely rich and when combined with sustainable groundwater usage are some of the most productive in the world. In a technical sense, the soil is only surpassed by the magnificent podzols of the Ukraine that the Russians are so keen to obtain.

When Barry O’Farrell became Liberal premier of NSW the local community outrage about this licence led to some changes to the mining approval processes at state level, but essentially the one-way road to approval was still maintained. The project was treated identically to others where groundwater was not a major issue. Except, of course, groundwater is a major issue here.

In 2013, as the member for New England, I was able to introduce the so-called “water trigger” into parliament, to give the Commonwealth some environmental power over water and large coalmining and coal seam gas developments. This was despite constant lobbying by Shenhua and other mining companies, which took place in Canberra during the hung parliament in an attempt to block the water trigger from being part of the environmental approval process. Funding was set aside for bioregional assessments of sensitive regions where risks to water resources were evident, including the Liverpool Plains.

The local member, Barnaby Joyce, has done little in a practical sense other than state that he opposes the development of an open-cut coalmine on the Plains. Some, including himself, have suggested he has done all he can to stop the project. Analysis of his actual performance would suggest otherwise.

Joyce and NSW Premier Mike Baird have paid lip service to concerns about this particular development but have been complicit in its approval through negligence and abuse of process.

The valley-wide bioregional assessment process that was initiated by former federal minister Tony Burke has been butchered by Coalition minister Greg Hunt and replaced with a box-ticking exercise of little more than a localised environmental impact statement. Joyce has been silent on this issue. If he were genuinely opposed, he would have demanded a continuation of that assessment. He could still call for recommencement. Baird’s state agencies were to play a role in this process, but there has been silence from a man who told landholders during the recent state election that he would take a “personal interest” in the mine’s approval.

The NSW government, through the formation of the Local Land Services agency, has sidelined the former Namoi Catchment Management Authority’s scientifically peer-reviewed $6 million spatial risk assessment process, which the authority had put in place to independently assess the risk profile of various land uses on the catchment. This assessment made particular reference to the potential cumulative impacts of those land uses on water and the landscape. The risk-profiling analysis had also been endorsed by the CEOs of many of the major mining companies. Where are Joyce and Baird on this issue?

If Joyce were so opposed to this mine, why did he vote for the assessment powers of the water trigger to be handed back to the state governments in the current parliament? This amendment to the water trigger is currently blocked by the independent and minor party senators. Why was Joyce in favour of this amendment when it went before cabinet?

The prime minister has entered the debate in recent days, saying that the location of the mine is in the “hill country” to deliberately create the image there is no relationship between the narrow ridges and the vast flood plains. This comment suggests the PM is either ignorant of the issue or worse.

Joyce could lead the charge in the cabinet with his National Party colleagues where a Murphyores-style argument could be developed. In that case, the Commonwealth government prevented the export of sand from Fraser Island. This argument was endorsed by the High Court. Essentially, the Murphyores case singled out an important environmental asset and gave the Commonwealth the power to be a player in overruling state legislation through its export powers. There has been silence from Joyce on this approach, even though it has been raised by his constituents. The NSW government-owned coalmine at Cobbora, near Mudgee, which is currently for sale, could be given to Shenhua in exchange.

The fact that in his approval the minister uses language such as “risk mitigation” and “adaptive management strategies”, as well as the so-called “stop button”, recognises that there are significant threats to groundwater inherent in the proposal. There are many examples globally and in Australia of predictive water modelling proving to be incorrect when tested in reality.

To add insult to injury, Joyce as agriculture minister recently announced that billions would be spent in northern Australia to increase food production and mitigate against climate change where water is concerned. To put some perspective on this issue, a basic question needs to be answered: Why would we risk three million acres (1.21 million hectares) of highly productive land in the Namoi Valley to further develop the 50,000-acre (20,000-hectare) Ord River scheme?

Hopefully, community opinion and appropriate risk assessment will prevail. In the first instance, the referral procedure from Hunt’s office to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee should be assessed for breach of process. And hopefully the Chinese government will finally recognise that this excavation is not even in the Hunter Valley. It is the wrong mine in the wrong place, and it should never have been granted an exploration licence let alone an approval.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Going to groundwater". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.