There's more questions than answers when it comes to Shenhua's Watermark coal mine.
A lot of people don’t like coal mines just because they don’t like coal mines.
The reality is, they all have an environmental impact in some shape or other. The difference with the Shenhua Watermark coal mine, approved by both federal and state governments, is its extraordinary capacity to cause a number of very real issues in terms of groundwater systems.
When you then consider that the land in question is the jewel in the crown of Australian food production, sitting on the biggest groundwater system in the Murray Darling - and part of the famed Namoi Valley catchment - the risk is magnified.
What’s more, the government hasn’t used all the tools at its disposal to sufficiently minimise this risk.
Recent attempts by Tony Abbott to modify the so-called third party "legal standing " provisions of the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act have focussed on the rights of community groups and concerned citizens to have their say in the courts has significant ramifications for those concerned about the Shenhua coal proposal on the Liverpool Plains.
While the changes are unlikely to pass the Senate, the amendments indicate the Government’s intention where it can to take the community out of some crucial debates, even though in some cases the lethargy of process which is being blamed for the slowness of project approval can clearly be shown to be the fault of Government itself rather than environmental "vigilantes".
The Adani coal project has been at the forefront of this debate and the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains is equally in Abbotts sights because of possible embarrassment regarding Indian and Chinese trading arrangements. The Prime Minister’s mantra of Australia being open for business has been shattered by falling coal prices and a shift to renewables. Mr Abbott needs someone to blame if these projects fall over due to economic or environmental realities. Hence there is a propensity to speed up the process.
At the same time, Government Ministers are also suggesting to the community that all aspects of potential environmental impacts are being assessed objectively. Closer observation indicates this is not the case and will undoubtedly be tested in the courts.
Claims by Environment Minister Greg Hunt and local MP Barnaby Joyce that the Commonwealth is doing all it can to examine the mine proposal are erroneous. There is no doubt in my mind that both men have been complicit by neglect of important environmental signals and in league with their NSW coalition colleagues to provide a tick for the Chinese Government company to proceed.
The fact that the mine is in the middle of the largest groundwater system in the Murray Darling catchment does not seem to have registered. The lack of scientific knowledge regarding the connectivity issues of groundwater systems and the relationship between groundwater and surface water does not seem to concern them.
Surely the cumulative effects of the Shenhua proposal (that has a track record of draining agricultural aquifers) and the nearby BHP mine proposal - which together amount to 1 billion tonnes of coal - deserve appropriate risk assessment on water resources?
The largest irrigation bore in the world (with a capacity of 1 million litres per hour) until its licence was reduced to sustainable levels of extraction existed a few kilometres from both mines.
The terms used by Hunt in his approval documents such as "adaptive management” and "mitigation" of adverse impacts may not work in this environment but the very use of those terms indicates he knows there will be issues. Very few water models used by mining companies ever reflect reality on the ground. The risks in this case are manifest. Even the Independent expert Scientific Committee that has examined this issue without reference to a full Bioregional assessment have placed the risk of impacts on the aquifer as high as 1 in 3.
Joyce in particular has been shown to be incompetent by not engaging the processes that could provide the greater objectivity to the science. All he has done is say he doesn't agree with the mine proceeding on the Liverpool Plains. Most people would agree but there is a need for substantive action rather than mouthing platitudes. It is unlikely that the NIMBY syndrome will work and it is obvious that he is powerless in the Cabinet.
There are many questions Mr Joyce needs to answer.
Why did he allow Greg Hunt to sideline the funded valley wide Bioregional Assessment of the Liverpool Plains project that former Minister Burke had initiated? This assessment was to provide valuable information relating to the capacity of the landscape to absorb certain impacts of mining and coal seam gas, particularly but not only to water.
Why did he support the removal of the Namoi Catchment Authority’s peer reviewed Spatial Risk Assessment of extractive activities and their cumulative impacts?
Why did he vote in the current parliament to devolve the Federal Water Trigger powers under the EPBC Act back to the States in the guise of reducing red tape?
Given that an unexpected disruption to the Namoi Valley catchment aquifers could have adverse impacts on the Murray Darling Basin plan does that mean all constituents within the Basin would have standing before the courts or would it be restricted to neighbours as Mr. Joyce has suggested?
Mr Abbott and Mr Joyce argue for Northern Australian development "where the water is ". To add some perspective - the Ord river scheme as it now stands after decades of "development" covers 50000 acres - the Namoi System covers 3 million acres of productive arable land. Why risk an asset whilst promoting an unknown?
It is clear that the Government is not doing all it can for its constituents and is more concerned about placating foreign Governments. So if the appropriate Ministers won’t do their job, there is an increased need for the community to do their work for them in the courts.
Tony Windsor is a guest on SBS’s Insight program ‘When Mining Comes to Town’ on Tuesday August 25, 8:30pm.