AN outcome on the long-running battle over the future of the Mount Thorley Warkworth open-cut coal mine is one step closer to fruition with the Planning Assessment Commission finding, in a second review of the project, that a 21-year extension of the mine is ‘‘approvable’’.
From here, the Department of Planning and Environment will respond to the commission’s review, which includes six recommendations in relation to matters raised in this latest stage of a long and convoluted assessment process.
Once the department’s response is received, the commission will be in a position to make a final determination about the project.
Given the department’s obvious support, and given that the commission has now twice found the project ‘‘approvable’’, the window of opportunity for those opposed to the extension appears to be rapidly closing.
In general terms, a growing wave of global opposition to coal has led to each new mining application becoming a testing ground for philosophical battles over climate change.
While the Planning Assessment Commission takes notice of these issues, it is required to base its decision on the relevant state planning instruments, and not on any moral – or even science-based – arguments against the continued mining of coal.
This is particularly apposite in the case of Mount Thorley Warkworth, because residents of the nearby village of Bulga originally believed they were protected from the very westward march of the mine they say threatens their existence, courtesy of a 2003 deed that Rio Tinto had signed agreeing to conserve the Saddleback Ridge area that the company now wants to mine.
Greens mining spokesman Jeremy Buckingham calls the project a betrayal of the 2003 agreement. But the unfortunate reality, for the mine’s opponents, is that the deed was never implemented: the protection the residents believed they had did not exist.
In finding the project ‘‘approvable’’, the commission said the mine was Singleton’s biggest employer with a very important contributor to the economy.
Rio Tinto says the commission’s recommendation gives hope to the 1300 people who work at the mine, and to the businesses and community groups it supports. At the same time, however, it is not denying media reports that it is keen to sell Mount Thorley Warkworth and its other Hunter coal assets.
Bulga resident John Krey says the battle is not over. The commission’s final determination will be examined for grounds of appeal, and politicians asked to intervene. Should this fail, the residents say another company could buy the mine and take the extension underground, sparing Saddleback Ridge. They are determined to fight on.