The Global Mail has ceased operations.
<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Boggabri Coal mine from the air

Things To Do In The State Forest: Hiking, Camping, Coal Mining…

In the laws that protect New South Wales state forests, there’s a loophole so big you could fit an open-cut coal mine through it. And the state government has done just that — approving a giant mine in habitat that the federal government lists as critically endangered.

When visiting a state forest, the government of New South Wales reminds you to "tread softly" in the bush. "All native plants and animals are protected in forests, parks and reserves," the Department of Primary Industries warns in its guide for visitors.

"With large numbers of visitors to national parks, state forests and other natural areas, we run the danger of loving our bushland to death," the department cautions. So great is the concern for the well-being of the forest that taking firewood or using soaps to wash up can cost visitors hundreds or even thousands of dollars in state fines.

“It takes 200 to 500 years to get a piece of habitat back ... In most cases, it’s not apples to apples when you’ve lost something that’s quite unique and you try to replace it with something else.”

You'd think, then, that the state would knock back projects that promise to obliterate forests altogether.

Think again.

Last month, the NSW government green-lighted the expansion of Boggabri Coal mine within Leard State Forest in the state's far northwest. The July 18 move will likely see Idemitsu, a Japanese conglomerate, raze more than 600 hectares of white-box woodlands near Maules Creek. These are the same woodlands that have been listed as critically endangered under the federal government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), the overarching law intended to protect threatened species in Australia.

"Leard State Forest is the largest remnant of bushland left on the Liverpool Plains," says Carmel Flint, spokeswoman for the Northern Inland Council for the Environment. "We believe this decision shows the system is biased strongly towards development, in that the most threatened parts of biodiversity are still fair game."

Leard Forest contains dozens of plants and animals that have been deemed threatened or endangered by state and federal governments, including a population of koalas. It's also home to some of the most fragile critters on earth — eyeless, translucent beetles and prawns, which have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to survive in underwater aquifers that are abundant in the region. If disturbed, entire subterranean ecosystems could be wiped out, before scientists have had a chance to study them in depth and fully understand how these systems work.

Boggabri is not the only open-cut mine proposed in a state forest in NSW: on the fringe of the Blue Mountains, another proposal would open-cut a significant tract of Ben Bullen State Forest. Environmentalists fear that the Leard forest project heralds a new phase of mining in NSW, with companies poised to dig more open-cut mines in state forests and conservation areas.

NSW is at the vanguard of mining in endangered ecosystems. Other Australian states either do not currently have open-cut mines in state forests, or have small mines that are used for power, not commercial exportation of coal.

"There is a shift to a more destructive form of mining [in NSW]," says Keith Muir, director of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, a national environmental group. "The industry has operated for decades in public forests without destroying them. The issue is the open-cut mines, which destroy entirely the other values of the public lands."

PHIL LAIRD is an unlikely environmental campaigner. A grazier living in an electorate that has for years reliably voted for the National Party at both state and federal ballots, he's been transformed into a champion of the forest by concern for the effect that nearby open-cut mines could have on the health of his land and his family.

Laird's family first moved to Maules Creek, north of Leard State Forest, in the 1830s. In fact, the family's roots in the area run so deep that the forest bears his family's name, though the spelling has changed over the years.

Phil's parents, Bruce and Wilma, still live on the family property at the foothills of the majestic Mount Kaputar Ranges. It's countryside that sends you back to the poetry you learned at school. Blond fields of wheat shift in the wind, and plump cows lounge beneath the trees that dot the fields.

Looking out over the countryside, Phil Laird plucks the obvious question from the silence surrounding him: "One of our issues is, how does this mining-and-agriculture thing work?"

The Liverpool Plains is famous for its rich agricultural qualities. Sitting atop rich black soils, farmers in the area can regularly pull up two crops a year. And unlike so much of our arid country, in the Liverpool Plains the rainfall is very reliable. That combination — rich soils and the rains to water them — has made this land some of the most valuable in Australia. And it's a big part of the reason that farmers like Laird can't believe the state government is about to give it up to mines.

"It's a debacle," he says. "From our point of view, we've got the environmental, health and community costs, and there's absolutely no benefits. None whatsoever."

The first Lairds in the area were woodcutters. Maules Creek town hall was built with wood hauled there by Phil Laird's ancestors. Now the hall echoes with the voices of Phil and other locals in meetings that debate the mining project, which he says is decimating not just the forest, but the community.

"I've got members of my family who were actually bought out by the mine," says Laird. "It was just impossible for them to stay."

Among the factors that drove his family members out, Laird says, is the dust emitted by the mine. Mines puff out large quantities of dust, and mining companies are required by state regulators to show how they plan to minimise the effects of that fallout on surrounding communities. Scientists and doctors are increasingly raising alarms about the link between dust and other health complaints — both short and long term.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Boggabri open-cut coal mine operating in the Leard State Forest

Laird fears that his own family property, sitting as it does between the forest and the mountains, will be sprinkled with dust escaping on the winds when the open-cut mines expand. "Because of the topography of the area, most of the dust is captured in the prevailing winds, and then comes over to us," he believes.

The Liverpool Plains is a few hours' drive from the Hunter Valley, that other great agricultural heartland that has been overrun by mines. Farmers from both areas have been talking to each other, and those in Maules Creek are alarmed at what they're hearing.

"We're looking down the line and we can see what these people are going through, and it's just not pretty," says Laird.

And then there are the environmental concerns.

"You've got this nationally-listed forest, with 130 species, 34 of which are threatened or endangered," he says. He also notes that the forest is the main refuge for animals and birds travelling between the Pilliga Forest to the west and the majestic grey peaks of the Mount Kaputar ranges to the north.

"If you don't protect this, where do you draw the line?" he asks.

NOT HERE, according to the NSW government.

The mining company Idemitsu did not respond to The Global Mail's questions about the project's environmental impacts, but it has said that the mine will benefit state and local communities. In internal company documents, Idemitsu cites AUD39 million in annual royalties that will flow to the state, and claims that the mine already provides jobs for 450 employees and contractors — a figure that, Idemitsu suggests, could increase by another few hundred workers when the mine is in full gear.

The state government says there's nothing in state law to prevent mining a state forest, and that it subjected the proposal to a "rigorous merit-based assessment by the department". In a statement to The Global Mail, a government spokeswoman said that before approving any such project, the government "examines the range of potential impacts from the project, including any potential environmental and biodiversity impacts".

“Leard State Forest is the largest remnant of bushland left on the Liverpool Plains. We believe this decision shows the system is biased strongly towards development, in that the most threatened parts of biodiversity are still fair game.”

However, in considering the proposal to expand the open-cut mine into Leard State Forest, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission, an independent body that decides whether to approve mining applications, found that the project "would have a number of adverse impacts" on the forest, on the noise and air quality in the vicinity, and on nearby Aboriginal cultural heritage sites. The forest is home to more than 30 threatened or endangered species, including koalas — according to the mining company's own environmental assessment.

"Forestry and recreation are compatible in broad terms with retention of biodiversity values, but open-cut mining can seriously compromise them — at least in the short- to medium-term," the commission wrote.

"The area also appears to have a significant corridor function, being located at the junction of a number of biogeographic subregions."

And yet the commission concluded that the company could mitigate those effects and recommended that the project go ahead. It imposed "stringent conditions" that include rehabilitating the area, and buying up additional land for what are called environmental "offsets".

This need to purchase area for offsets is also pushing farmers out of the area, even as there is still substantial doubt among experts about the extent to which it is possible to rehabilitate this type of forest.

"You can make rehabilitation very good," says Andrew Macintosh, associate professor at the Australian National University's College of Law, who specialises in environmental law. "But very good rehabilitation requires a lot of money and commitment."

While Macintosh credits some mining companies with making such commitments, he says there are other issues that complicate rehabilitating critically endangered forests.

"The problem is time-lag. It takes 200 to 500 years to get a piece of habitat back," he says. "In most cases, it's not apples to apples when you've lost something that's quite unique and you try to replace it with something else."

THE BOGGABRI MINE consists of two parts. One is the continuation of a mine that was first approved back in 1989, but which lay mostly dormant until 2006. Since then, that site has grown into an enormous pit on the southeast edge of the forest. Mining trucks now rumble along the state forest road, which is occasionally closed to the public to allow the miners more convenient access.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Sign at the entrance to the Leard State Forest

Locals were angered by the fact that the mine was allowed to rev up again in 2006, nearly two decades after the original approval was granted. They say that even that approval was based on very old environmental assessments and surveys completed in 1978.

"Since 1978, we've discovered a few things," says Laird, referring to the identification of numerous new species, and the fact that other inhabitants of the forest have since become endangered. "The importance of that forest has increased, but it's still being valued based on a 1978 assessment," he explains.

The July approval would see the current mine expand into a second phase, in which it would engulf more than 1,800 hectares of land. Locals also note that two more open-cut mines planned for Leard Forest are currently awaiting approval from the state. If all three were approved, say environmentalists, the forest could be permanently destroyed.

The Minerals Council of Australia disagrees, saying forests can recover after open-cut mining.

"Our member companies carefully monitor environmental impacts and have strict rehabilitation policies," says council spokesman, Ben Mitchell. Mitchell noted that Idemitsu is not a member of the Council, but said that in general, rehabilitation can be a success.

Locals say the mine has already encountered problems; for example, they believe Idemitsu was caught flat-footed by heavy rains earlier this year, which left the pit inundated and brought work to a standstill. Unable to deal with the water on-site, the company approached the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which allowed it to release hundreds of megalitres of water into the Namoi River.

The release angered locals, because the annual Narrabri carp muster had taken place downriver not long after the release, an event at which children played on the riverbanks.

Locals feared that the water could have been contaminated, but the EPA says that the release did not put the river or nearby communities at risk.

"After reviewing the matter thoroughly, the EPA issued a license variation to the Boggabri Mine with strict conditions to ensure there would be no impact on the water quality in the Namoi River or harm to the environment," a spokesperson said in an email.

“If you don't protect this, where do you draw the line?”

The spokeswoman directed The Global Mail to the company's web site, where it had posted results from water monitoring undertaken at the time of the release.

The testing, however, lacked basic information about key contaminants that would be expected to be present in water that is related to coal mining, according to Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior advisor to the National Toxics Network.

"Having looked at the available testing results, I can see that for a range of important contaminants, including mercury, aluminium and naturally occurring radioactive materials, they have not been tested," she says. "And there appears to be no results for hydrocarbons, which is surprising, if this is water related to a coal mine."

The EPA issued no fines or penalties but did require Idemitsu to undertake some conservation work on land nearby.

BECAUSE THE FOREST is home to critically endangered species, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke must review the proposal for the new part of the mine. That's because federal oversight is triggered when a project could interfere with animals or habitats that have been listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. His decision is due by late August — any day now.

The federal government will not be able to scrutinise or intervene in mining of the older part of the Boggabri mine, because the older site has been 'grandfathered' in by the pre-existing approval — a provision of national law.

In looking at the proposed expansion of the mine, Burke will take into account the potential impacts on ecological communities and threatened species, including the Regent Honeyeater, the Swift Parrot and the stands of white-box, says a department spokesperson.

Theoretically, the minister could knock back the proposal on environmental grounds, as the act empowers him to dismiss projects that would jeopardise the environment. But locals hold little hope that the project will be rejected, saying the act is toothless — a view with which some experts agree. An October 2009 federal review of the act pointed to gaping holes, including the lack of any independent authority that could advise the minister on important decisions under the act, as well as a deep public mistrust of how those decisions were made.

"The act is both expensive and ineffective," says Andrew Macintosh, of the ANU. While the EPBC Act has weaned out some of the most environmentally destructive proposals, Macintosh says "on the whole, the Commonwealth hasn't captured the things that are driving a major loss in biodiversity".

The Global Mail analysed decisions made under the EPBC Act, and found that since the act was introduced in July 2000, the department has approved around 98 per cent of proposals it has received.

This of course has coincided with an unprecedented expansion of mining operations throughout Australia, which experts say illustrates the inadequacies of the law.

"The fact of the matter is that the Commonwealth doesn't usually knock back projects," Macintosh says. "By the time the Commonwealth gets a project like this, it's usually been in development for a few years, which makes it politically very, very hard to knock it back."

Instead, Macintosh says that the federal government usually tinkers around the margins of a proposal — requiring more rehabilitation, permitting a slightly smaller area to be cleared. "Structurally, the legislation is weighted against the environment," he says.

As a result, environmental advocates say the act is inadequate and doesn't stand in the way of mining companies, no matter what environmental values are at risk.

"It really doesn't matter if there's a national park, or a critically endangered ecosystem in the way of a profitable venture," says Professor Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and an award-winning environmental scientist. "Governments will generally approve it anyway."

Lowe worries that the new mines would also see a dramatic jump in the level of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, with the expansion of Boggabri slated to see annual coal production leap 350 per cent, to 7 million tonnes from that site alone. If all three mines in the Maules Creek area won approval, the new coal-production complex would become a greenhouse gas-emitter of global significance, he says.

"The total greenhouse gas impact of the mining province would rank above all but 50 entire nations: more than such countries as Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Portugal and Norway," he wrote in a court submission, which was considered by the committee that approved Boggabri Coal Mine.

For Phil Laird, the decision to go ahead with all phases of mining under consideration in the area could bring an end to generations of farming and timber harvesting around Maules Creek. And while he isn't opposed to mining as a whole, or even underground mines in the region, Laird cannot fathom why the government has approved open-cut mining in this particular situation.

"I don't think we should be clearing a forest for a coal mine," he says. "That's just completely out of step with current thinking."

Read more Sharona Coutts investigations into Gina Rinehart's political reach, the world's most expensive water and inconsistencies within Australia's national health register putting patients at risk.

6 comments on this story
by Graeme Errington

What is it with state governments. In NSW, Qld and WA they are prepared to ignore good scientific evidence and plough ahead with any development related to resource exploitation. What is the friggin point of having something declared Critically Endangered if you can go ahead and knock over 600 hectares. The state government in NSW has been continuing to allow Cumberland Plain Woodland, an EEC in western Sydney with only 6% remaining, to be be removed for housing development.

August 24, 2012 @ 9:36pm
by Peter Franklin

This dreadful ruination of Australia can't be allowed to continue. The fact that farmers, a fairly conservative group, are getting involved in the fight speaks volumes.

August 26, 2012 @ 2:55pm
by Penny Newcombe

"The Minerals Council of Australia disagrees, saying forests can recover after open-cut mining".

I love this comment - just like Phillip Morris saying that smoking doesn't kill you.

September 11, 2012 @ 1:00am
Show previous 3 comments
by Miner Threat

So all of the Liverpool plains have been cleared fr agriculture and that is ok, but when a mine wants to develop a site it is an environmental emergency. Enviro tripe at its best

July 25, 2013 @ 3:23pm
by Lev

Hey Clever Miner, why don't you go eat coal, breathe coal dust and drink polluted carcinogenic ground water? Ponder on all of this once mine shuts, due to declining demand from China

December 18, 2013 @ 9:59am
by David

The Liverpool Plains isn't completely cleared by agriculture, in fact a lot of it was grassland before Europeans came. Most agencies and scientists recognise the need to keep what woodlands left, except , well they used to. But these are facts not something that mining advocates (or their consultants) are interested in.

January 19, 2014 @ 8:08pm
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist