Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

The Perversion of National Heritage Protection

Threatened heritage subversion - Centennial Coal’s swamp scam

by Keith Muir

Newnes Plateau supports two types of threatened swamp communities – Shrub Swamps and Hanging Swamps. Both types are listed as ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Any mining proposal that could potentially cause significant impacts to these swamps must be approved by the Federal Environment Minister after an environmental review.

The 2014 NSW Biodiversity Offset Policy is also intended to advance protection of areas with natural heritage values, like these swamps. 

Unfortunately a recently drafted swamp-specific offset policy now makes environmental offsets the prime focus of development control, not protection.

Centennial Coal’s 1,860 hectare Springvale Colliery mine-extension proposal under the heart of Newnes Plateau illustrates how the draft policy’s proposed offset process can go wrong.

Step 1 – Centennial Coal claims mining impacts on swamps negligible

In 2014, Centennial Coal in its Environmental Assessment claimed that its longwall mining would have negligible impact on twenty-nine nationally endangered, upland swamps on Newnes Plateau.

Step 2 – Centennial Coal obtains a draft approval, based on negligible impact

In response to Centennial’s Springvale mine-extension proposal, a negligible impact test was inserted in the draft consent conditions prepared by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE). The test requires ‘adaptive management’ if swamp impacts are more than negligible. But there’s a catch, the adaptive management can’t, under planning law, require any changes to mining operations. DPE claims that adaptive management can only require mine monitoring and habitat compensation by providing environmental offset.

Step 3 – swamp offsets formalised in planning policy

DPE formalises swamp offsets in a May 2015 draft Policy Framework for Biodiversity Offsets for Upland Swamps and Associated Threatened Species.

Step 4 – Centennial Coal seeks consent allowing swamp damage

Initially, the DPE accepted Centennial Coal’s claim of negligible swamp impacts when undermined, but after the release of the Planning Assessment Commission review report, the DPE changed its mind. The DPE now believes there will be more than negligible impacts.

If the development consent for the Springvale mine-extension is granted with these provisions, the worst that could happen to Centennial is a vigorous debate over compensation for swamp damage (i.e. offsets). The assessment process has given no consideration to swamp protection zones.

There are no substitutes for these unique and rare swamps that cover just a tiny fraction of Newnes Plateau.

Strong evidence of swamp damage

Evidence against 'negligible damage' is strong enough for longwall mining to be listed as a key threatening process for swamps in 2005*, strong enough for a $1.45 million penalty to be imposed on Springvale for damaging swamps, strong enough for Centennial’s consultants to state that there will be rock fracturing under swamps, and strong enough for Blue Mountains City Council to associate the most degraded Newnes Plateau swamps with the western areas where coal has been extracted.

In describing swamp impacts caused by the Springvale mine, Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) scientists stated that: ‘Despite having significantly damaged Newnes Plateau Shrub Swamp EECs [NPSS] in the past, Centennial have not provided any definitive evidence or guarantee that further NPSS will not be impacted by the current mine plan or future longwalls’.

Centennial Coal’s conclusion that its mining extension will cause negligible impacts, is contradicted by its own consultants. The proposed mining is predicted to fracture the Burralow Formation, the aquifer supporting the swamps. Further, Centennial’s groundwater experts state that a drawdown of 0.5 to 10 metres can be expected after longwall mining in the proposal area (Appendix E, page 75). The modelled groundwater drawdown indicates that the mine extension will cause a catastrophic loss of swamp vegetation and its dependent fauna as water levels will drop below the vegetation root zone of when the swamps are undermined.

The revelations in the Herald (5/7/15) by Centennial’s former consultant, Ray Mjadwesch, claims that more undermined swamps were damaged than the four conceded by Centennial Coal during the PAC review. Critically, the Mjadwesch report states that “the [swamp] damage can only be attributed to impacts from subsidence”.

Sunnyside East Swamp has recently been undermined by Springvale mine and  is now deeply channelized for approximately 200 metres (see below).  The stream that once flowed through this swamp has ceased flowing.

The review PAC recommendation for a form adaptive management can reduce the extent of longwall panels apparently has no legal standing, in the opinion of DPE. In any event, if the swamps need protection, then why not protect the swamps now? DPE announced on Friday August 14, 2015 it had  recommended swamps offsets and blood money for the proposed Springvale mine extension.

This is a classic example of bureaucratism. DPE started with twenty nine swamps. It allowed twentry nine swamps to be destroyed, that will probably cause the regional extinction of nationally endangered Blue Mountains Stink and Giant Dragonfly on Newnes Plateau. It will require millions to be given to land owners in blood money and cause the loss and pollution of pristine Carne and Marangaroo Creeks. 

The draft integrated mining policy currently on exhibition is a dupe, just like adaptive management is a dupe.
The first principle of the policy for biodiversity offsets requires that impacts must first be avoided and unavoidable impacts minimised through mitigation measures. Only then should offsets be considered for the remaining impacts (OEH, 2014). Centennial Coal thinks it has got away with the destruction of 29 nationally endangered swamps in direct contravention of the offset policy.
A large proportion of the remaining undamaged Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone are in areas that will be subjected to longwall coal mining. The NSW Government’s draft offset policy could see the best remaining swamps ruined.
Without legislative change, mining and planning regulation can not be integrated or adaptive management applied to mine operations. The coal industry has dragged the public debate over nationally significant swamps from protection into a side-issue of whether undermined swamps are to be damaged enough to be subject to a compensatory environmental offset.

Centennial recently avoided undermining Sunnyside Swamp, proving swamp avoidance is possible under development consent. The nation’s swamp heritage can and should be protected.

Take Action

Please write to the Minister for Planning, the Hon. Rob Stokes, asking him to require protection zones that prevent the undermining of upland swamps. Mining-related damage to these important ecosystems must be resisted.

Centennial Coal’s 'final solution to national heritage' must not be condoned.

The Colong Foundation will name each National Heritage listed swamp after a NSW Cabinet Minister. When a swamp dies, conservationists will hold a eulogy for it in the Domain under the 'tree of truth'. Let’s see who will be able to cope with the grief that will follow!
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* Longwall coal mining is listed under NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act, 1995 as a key threatening process that can have a ‘significant’ impact on upland swamps.