The recent approval will boost the mine’s footprint by about 30 hectares to increase dragline-related efficiencies and is separate to Rio’s larger plans to extend mining at Warkworth until 2031.
Those larger plans remain before the state’s Court of Appeal after the NSW Land and Environment Court overturned previous NSW government approval in early 2013.
Rio had warned that jobs would go if the smaller west pit expansion was not approved, however, the Planning Assessment Commission did not take this into consideration.
“If the environmental and social impacts of the application were found to be significant, the commission would have to verify the threat to jobs and the other economic costs and benefits, so it could balance these against the environmental impacts of the application,” PAC said.
“In this instance, however, the commission is satisfied the modification would have relatively minor impacts for an open cut coal mining activity and conditions would provide for improvements in the environmental performance of the mine as a whole.”
On Thursday the Lock the Gate Alliance said local residents had referred the handling of the approval process to the ICAC, “which is investigating the matter”
“The Planning Department has worked hand-in-glove with Rio Tinto to ensure this project was fast-tracked to approval, with an absolute minimum of oversight and assessment,” LGA Hunter coordinator Steve Phillips said.
“This is an extraordinary dark day for public confidence in government. They have not only abandoned the people of Bulga: they have abandoned any pretence of procedural fairness.
“The expansion of the Warkworth coal mine threatens the very existence of the historic village of Bulga.
“The government may be willing to sacrifice Bulga for the benefit of a powerful global mining corporation but there are many in the community who are not.
“We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bulga residents to protect their town.
“Too many Hunter villages have already been lost to mining – Bulga must not be next.”
Under its existing consent, awarded in 2003, the mine can continue to produce up to 13 million tonnes run of mine coal to June 2021.
The mine is operated by Rio’s Australia-listed subsidiary Coal and Allied.