A PROPOSAL to mine through a bushland ridge that buffers a Hunter Valley village from an open-cut coal pit has become a test of planning laws that force developers to ”offset” their environmental destruction by conserving other sensitive land.
The 300-strong community of Bulga, settled almost 200 years ago, could effectively become a ghost town if Rio Tinto wins a court case to expand its Warkworth mine to within 2.6 kilometres of the village.
This year the NSW Planning Assessment Commission approved its application to take up to 18 million tonnes more coal a year for the next two decades.
But Bulga residents, who have lived a stone’s throw from the massive coalmines of Warkworth and Mount Thorley since the 1980s, took the government to the Land and Environment Court. Summations began this week.
Central to the residents’ argument is that the parcel of land known as Saddleback Ridge between the existing mine and the town was set aside as an offset in 2003 to compensate for an earlier mining approval.
”What offsetting is designed to do … is to allow a project to proceed despite environmental impacts,” the residents’ barrister, Robert White, told the court. ”Offsets must be enduring, they must offset the impact of the development for the period that the impact occurs.”
Mr White said the community was led to believe the 2003 offset, which he said contains four endangered ecological communities of woodland and forest, would remain as a permanent buffer between it and the mine.
”It’s undeniable that the community was of the view … that the 2003 consent had put in place a permanent solution to the tension between the mine and the village,” he said.
Rio Tinto, which plans to compensate for the additional coal extraction with new offset areas – including one 100 kilometres away from the mine – argues the extension will create 150 jobs and keep 1300 people in employment.
But Stewart Mitchell, a 68-year-old electrician who was born in Bulga and has travelled to Sydney for each day of the hearings in Macquarie Street, said his home town would disappear if the court challenge fails.
”It’s going to come within 2.6 kilometres of Bulga. It’s going to wipe out Saddle Ridge, which is an icon,” he said.
Summations continue before the Chief Judge, Brian Preston, next month.
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