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Mining under water catchments - no thank you.

In February 2020, the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre presented a petition to the NSW Parliament of 10,690 hard copy signatures to “stop further threats to our water supply and rescind the development consents that permit mining in this area”. Petitions of 10,000 or more must be debated in State parliament. A week prior to the debate, Planning Minister Rob Stokes ignored community opposition and granted approval without the debate. Both Liberal and Labor voted in favour of allowing mining under our water supply. Community voices suppressed; democracy circumvented.

“The petition to protect our water supply was started in good faith in the hope that the democratic process would allow community voices to be heard. We do not believe the parliamentary debate applied proper scrutiny to this matter, and do not accept the government’s assurances that the damage occurring in the Woronora Reservoir catchment is insignificant.” Sutherland Shire Environment Centre When the approval for the extension of longwall mining under the Woronora Rivulet was approved in March 2020, I, like many others was stunned. Not only does mining under a water catchment seem intuitively wrong, it came after the prolonged drought that put metropolitan and regional water supply under stress. We were on water restrictions and were still in a sense of shock from the 2019 / 2020 catastrophic bushfires. Back then the we knew the fill level of dams in the way we now know the number of COVID cases. We talked of level 1 water restriction vs level 2, we awaited level 3 restrictions. We had the toughest water restriction in a decade. In that context the long wall mining that has potential to threaten water supply was approved.

To add injury to insult, the mining is taking place under the "Special Area catchment" an area deemed so sensitive that just to walk in there can incur a $44,000 fine.

Without access to the special catchment area , in October 2020 I went to see for myself the impacts of longwall mining. This is Redbank Creek near Picton, this is what "remediation" looks like. Seeing is believing. You can read more about Redbank here Fast forward In February 2021, the NSW Independent Planning Commission, after months of submissions and investigations, refused the Dendrobium Expansion Project in the Illawarra. The expansion was seeking to extract an additional 78-million tonnes of run-of-mine coal from two new areas near Avon and Cordeaux Dams in order to supply coking coal to the local Steelworks until 2048. The IPC refusal was decided upon due to significant concerns about the proposed mine design, subsidence, ground and surface water impacts, biodiversity and upland swamps, Aboriginal cultural heritage and greenhouse gas emissions. It determined it was not in the public interest.

Democracy challenged again:

Over the weekend, the NSW Government effectively overturned this decision, classifying the expansion as “State Significant Infrastructure”. While hailed as a positive move that will protect thousands of jobs in the region, the decision risks the States and the Nation’s move to decarbonisation, and mitigation of the increasingly disastrous effects of climate change.

Tim Buckley, from the Institute for Energy Economics and Finance states that “It is beyond time for the Illawarra, and NSW as a whole, to invest in zero emissions industries of the future, not sink more dead capital in environmentally destructive dinosaur industries of the past.”

For the people of Hughes, the parallels with long wall mining under the Woronora catchment is a reminder that the long term needs of the region to ensure sufficient and uncontaminated water in a warming climate continue to go unnoticed by the government. In 2020, a similar project at the Russel Vale mine was approved by the IPC, significantly risking the drinking supply of hundreds of thousands of people in South Sydney. The impact on the drinking supply comes at a time when a warming climate increases the risk of severe drought. We should be securing the supply of water, and not allowing millions of litres to be lost every day due to mining activity.

It also shows the complete inability of current governments to think creatively and take advantage of significant developments in energy and steel production. Tim Buckley says “The global investment in green hydrogen, green iron, scrap recycling and electric arc furnaces by an increasing number of steel supply chain leaders highlights the massive shift away from antiquated and high emissions blast furnaces for steel manufacturing.” To continue to ignore this significant global shift not only puts Australia’s economic future at risk, but also the future security of the people who currently work in antiquated industries.

While the Dendrobium mine does not directly affect the people of Hughes, the implications are clear, that the State Government can overrule the Independent Planning Commission at any moment and ignore the significant immediate and long-term implications for the environment. This short-term thinking, and the lack of acknowledgement of the global shift to decarbonisation concerns all of us. We look forward to an opportunity to make further submissions in response to the NSW Government’s move, and to a future when our water security is not compromised.

"Upsidence" in the Waratah Rivulet leading to Woronora dam. Image credit: Julie Sheppard – National Parks Association of NSW Macarthur Branch. For more information see Sutherland Shire Environment Centre's campaign Dendrobium coal mine granted "State significant": ABC news .
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