NSW to weaken water quality test for extensions to mines


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Rather than require no negative impact on water, requirement would be for no more impact than from original development

The New South Wales government is rushing through changes to laws that protect Sydney’s drinking water, weakening them to allow extensions to mines, or any other development, that pollute the water catchment.

The existing law, before the new amendments, requires that both new developments and extensions to existing developments, either have a neutral or beneficial effect on Sydney’s drinking water.

But that requirement came under the spotlight in August when a court ruled that the Springvale coalmine’s expansion approval, which it was currently operating under, did not pass the test, and it was therefore operating without a valid licence.

The Springvale mine is the sole source of coal for Energy Australia’s Mount Piper power station, which supplies about 10% of NSW’s energy needs.

Yesterday, the NSW energy minister, Don Harwin, said: “My top priority as energy minister is to ensure NSW households and business have an affordable, secure and reliable energy supply – this decision supports that.”

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Sydney Drinking Water Catchment) bill 2017, seen by the Guardian, has two parts. Firstly, it validates the approval of Springvale’s development consent, meaning the mine will be allowed to continue operating.

But it goes further, and “clarifies” the water quality test that is applied to extensions of existing developments.

Rather than ensuring extensions don’t have a negative impact on Sydney’s drinking water, the change would merely require that the extension doesn’t pollute the drinking water any more than the original development did prior to the extension.

Andrew Cox, president of 4Nature, which brought the successful case against Springvale mine, said the changes will lock in the weaker pollution regulations of decades-ago, by allowing existing mines to keep expanding without meeting today’s pollution standards.

“It provides an infinite pollution holiday,” Cox said. “Existing pollution levels will be grandfathered.”

Cox said the change undermined a fundamental principle of planning, in which environmental conditions are ratcheted-up over time to meet new community standards and cope with increased pressures.

NSW Labor spokesman for industry, resources and energy, Adam Searle, told the Guardian Labor would oppose that part of the bill, and would move an amendment to it.

“It’s not desirable and we oppose it because we think there should be a higher standard of protection,” Searle said.

Searle said Labor supported the approval of the Springvale mine to secure supply of coal for Mount Piper power station. But he said the other half of the bill was “unnecessary and potentially dangerous”.

The Greens energy spokesman, Jeremy Buckingham, said the legislation will, in effect, penalise newer, cleaner development in favour of extensions to older, dirtier developments. He said the Greens would also be moving amendments.

“A perverse outcome of the legislation is that it will penalise new environmentally sensitive development over older, more polluting developments. New developments will be held to a much higher standard than the extension of existing developments,” Buckingham said.

The government says the change just formally validates how the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (Pac) and the land and environment court were interpreting the law already, and this change meant that interpretation could continue.

A spokesman for the NSW Minister for planning, Anthony Roberts, said the Pac and the land and environment court’s future decisions would now be consistent with their past ones.

The spokesman said the rushed process was needed to alleviate uncertainty in the energy market, which he said was causing higher prices already.

Buckingham said the energy supply problem was being used as a ruse to weaken environmental protections.

“The Berejiklian government is using the confected crisis of Mt Piper’s coal supply to sneak through laws that gut protections for the quality of Sydney’s drinking water supply,” he said.

“The legislation goes far beyond the Springvale coalmine and allows any extensions to existing developments in the whole Sydney Drinking Water Catchment to avoid the ‘neutral or beneficial’ test designed to improve the quality of Sydney’s drinking water,” Buckingham said.

“It freezes in time poor levels of pollution control at the expense of Sydney’s drinking water quality,” Buckingham said.

The bill is expected to go before the NSW lower house today and the NSW upper house on Wednesday.

Online Source: The Guardian

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