Watermark lands federal approval

FEDERAL Environmental Minister Greg Hunt has finally given his conditional environmental approval to China Shenhua Energy’s vast Watermark coal project in the Gunnedah Basin but there are still some greentape challenges ahead.
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Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Blair Price

Hunt had previously delayed a verdict in March before the state election that month and again in May after the Independent Expert Scientific Committee came across more “information gaps”.

In making his approval Hunt said the project was still subject to 18 of the strictest conditions in Australian history.

“There will be no impact on the availability of water for agriculture,” he said.

“The conditions I have imposed limit water use to less than 0.09% of available groundwater – that’s less than 1/1000th of the resource and less than the amount of water from one agricultural bore.”

Hunt further said the conditions made the black soil plains off limits for mining with the project area restricted to the ridge country around Mt Watermark.

“The conditions I have imposed include the power to stop work and stop mining if there are any impacts on agricultural water supply, and if this occurs, the mine must immediately provide an alternate water supply to farmers,” he said.

The minister also said the approval was at stage 15 of a 17 stage process.

“Before mining can commence a mining lease is required under NSW Mining Act 1992 and I must approve three comprehensive plans to make absolutely sure that water is managed responsibly and the site is properly rehabilitated.

“There are safeguards to ensure that the mine does not have a bigger impact than predicted, and the community will have an ongoing role in its operation through a Community Consultative Committee.

“As with all major projects, the Commonwealth Environment Department’s compliance and enforcement officers will be watching the operation very closely.”

While Shenhua welcomed the decision, the company also said it will progress development of operating and management plans to comply with strict state and federal conditions.

“Many of these plans must be approved before any works can commence,” Shenhua said.

“The project expects to have these plans ready for assessment by Q4 2015.”

The $1.2 billion project has previously passed exhaustive NSW environmental approvals with Shenhua boosting its chances years ago by buying up farms and property in the project area.

On the federal environmental approval, Shenhua Australia chairman Liu Xiang said it was the culmination of more than five years of unprecedented scientific scrutiny.

“With the formal assessment now concluded, we can begin the next phase of the project, to put in place the strict operating conditions required by both levels of government,” he said yesterday.

“Our immediate priority is to carefully review the Commonwealth approval conditions to determine if they will have any impact on the project’s technical feasibility and economic viability.”

Shenhua Watermark project manager Paul Jackson said yesterday’s decision was the final, irrefutable confirmation there will be no adverse impacts on the region’s groundwater and that any impacts on sensitive ecological areas were managed.

“The minister’s decision relies on one of the most comprehensive groundwater studies undertaken in NSW and demonstrates mining can coexist with agriculture while unlocking new opportunities for employment and economic growth in regional Australia,” Jackson said.

“Hunt’s approval is the final piece in an overwhelming body of evidence showing the Watermark project will not harm the region’s valuable agricultural enterprises.

“After years of rigorous and scientific assessment, it is time to put aside emotive arguments and acknowledge the science clearly shows the project should proceed.”

The Watermark open cut project is targeting up to 10 million tonnes per annum run of mine over 30 years with about 84% of the saleable coal to be of a metallurgical grade.

Meanwhile, a legal challenge arguing that NSW Planning Assessment Commission approval of the project had put a local population of koalas at risk is expected to be heard in the Land and Environment Court in August.

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