New research quantifies, for the first time ever, the size of coal mine pits or ‘final voids’ which will remain unfilled in NSW once the coal mining boom ends, which combined form an area greater than Sydney Harbour, with at least 45 voids planned or approved for the state, comprising 6,050 hectares.
Key environment groups are calling on the NSW government to require mining companies backfill the voids and properly rehabilitate land, a policy that has existed in the United States since the 1970s.
The research report, “The Hole Truth: the mess coal companies plan to leave in NSW”
- assesses the toxic legacy of final voids for water, the environment and public safety.
- examines the rationale used by mining companies to justify leaving the voids unfilled.
- explores the failure of the NSW government to properly regulate rehabilitation.
Lock the Gate and the Hunter Central Rivers Alliance have produced a short policy brief with recommendations for the NSW government, to accompany the report. The report was commissioned by the Hunter Communities Network and written by Energy & Resource Insights.
Ms Bev Smiles, spokesperson for the Hunter Central Rivers Alliance, said, “Mining companies have been living the high life. When the party is over, mining multinationals are free to walk away, leaving the public these huge voids, that if left unfilled, will exist for centuries, drawing in and tainting vital groundwater.
“The public would be shocked to realise that the strict regime in the United States which forces mining companies to fill coal pits does not exist in Australia, even though experts support the backfilling of final voids,” Ms Smiles said.
“Big, open mining pits, which can be hundreds of metres deep and kilometres long, are an eyesore for people who live nearby and sterilise the land from productive use.
“The pits, which will eventually become vast, ugly, saline lakes, pose serious risks to local groundwater and the massive high walls compromise public safety.
“Urgent reform is needed before the structural decline of the thermal coal market sees companies abruptly shut up shop, head back overseas, leaving the Australian public holding the can,” Ms Smiles said.
Steve Phillips from the Lock the Gate Alliance said, “The NSW government has already approved the abandonment of 39 open voids from coal mines across the state, and has done so against the advice of experts and the objections of local communities who fear the toxic legacy of these pits will continue for hundreds of years.
“Mining companies are being allowed to leave considerable swathes of NSW polluted and pockmarked.
“Despite the serious damage done by open cut coal mining to farmland, water and bushland, from the Hunter Valley to Western NSW and the Liverpool Plains, the government has never conducted a proper cumulative impact assessment.
“While experts recommend that all pits be backfilled, regulators have caved into the demands of mining companies and allowed them to take the cheapest and most damaging option of leaving the pits unrehabilitated, which will pose environmental risks for decades, even centuries, after a mine closes.
“Multinational mining companies in NSW have made a handsome profit from a public resource, and it is the public that will pay the price when the mining companies are long gone and these pit holes are left behind.
“For the controversial Warkworth expansion project, Rio Tinto recently cried poor, saying it could not afford to pay $2 billion to fill in the pit, which will be the state’s biggest, claiming it would make the mine ‘uneconomic.’
“The basis of the coal industry’s huge profits has been its strategy of shifting their costs and damage onto the community.”
Dr Gavin M Mudd, Head of Environmental Engineering, Monash University and Chair, Mineral Policy Institute writes in his foreword to The Hole Truth, “This report is a clinical and careful examination of the extent of the problem of final voids left after massive scale open cut mining.
“Despite industry and government assurances, there remain many unknowns in the long-term fate and behaviour of such voids – such as hydrology and the effects on surface waters and groundwaters, water quality issues such as salt loads and heavy metals, wall stability in perpetuity, and let alone what all of this means ecologically, socially and economically.”
Of the 36 open-cut operations now operating in NSW: 16 are located in the Hunter Coalfield, 9 in the Western Coalfield, 6 in the Gunnedah Coalfield, 3 in the Newcastle Coalfield and 2 in the Gloucester Coalfield. The largest open-cut mines by production volume are located in the Hunter, with a few other large operations situated in the Western (Wilpinjong and Moolarben) and Gunnedah coalfields (Boggabri and Maules Creek).
Media release http://www.lockthegate.org.au