Monday, 16 April 2012

Government Forum: No Protection from Mining in NSW

The Upper Hunter Regional Land Use Public Forum in Singleton on 13 April was a frustrating waste of time. As the meeting progressed it became clear the NSW Government will not protect the State from coal or coal seam gas mining.

The Government lined up some senior bureaucrats and a few obviously uncomfortable politicians on the stage at the Singleton Civic Centre:

           Local National Party member, George Souris only briefly fronted his constituents.  He introduced his colleagues then sat down, behind the panel of speakers.

           Minister for Resources and Energy, Chris Hartcher said a few words about changing world security and economies and was then silent.

           Despite the significant impacts that the coal and gas juggernaut will have on the water resources of villages and farms in the Upper Hunter, no one from the NSW Office of Water was present, and of course, there was no sign of the Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker.

           Minister for Planning, Brad Hazzard dealt with questions from the audience by blaming the former government.

Mr Hazzard’s manner was patronising and dripped with platitudes.  His attempt to get our sympathy by talking about leaving his office at 9 pm one night fell on deaf ears.

Over and over, no matter what was asked, Mr Hazzard used tired rhetoric about the past and his over-use of the words “open and transparent” did not reassure anyone.

However, the audience was determined to get their messages across and many lined up at the floor microphones to speak.

Sadly, despite the numbers of people still patiently waiting for their turn to ask questions about the SRLUP, the process was stopped just after 2pm.

Some questions received cheers from the audience and some made the politicians and public servants squirm.  The maps used to define areas of agriculture were frequently questioned.

After a series of such questions it became very clear, (contrary to the claims by Mr Hazzard that his SRLUP is the first time that any maps of this nature have ever been created) that:

           The maps in the SRLUP are based on pre-existing “draft” maps which have never been subjected to peer review.
           There are apparently comprehensive CSIRO maps, but these maps, along with other authoritative cartographic material were ignored by the Government.
           Much of the agricultural assessment was based on Government officers speaking with a very small sample of farmers and conducting desk-top audits, rather than the rigorous, scientific approach that was promised.
           The mapping of some areas was a very imprecise exercise.
People were also shocked to learn that in the SRLUP only very flat land (less than 10% degree slope) is deemed prime agricultural land.

One map projected on a screen was particularly frightening.  It showed coal and equine and vineyard clusters, but failed to indicate the existing World Heritage National Parks, instead marking these areas as a coal resource.

Significantly, under the current SRLUP, while horses and grapes have a two kilometer buffer zone requiring the gateway process, there are no buffer zones for the people living in communities and villages in the Upper Hunter.

Frustration was also evident in impassioned speeches about inequality of access to decision makers and the stress, uncertainty and consequent ill health suffered by people campaigning against coal and gas developments…there were tears.

The Putty contingent asked the following:

“Minister, we understand that Putty is in the Singleton LGA, however, all our water flows into the Hawkesbury River. Given that this is supposed to be a land use plan (not a political document) the residents of Putty are keen to understand why we have been included in the Upper Hunter.”

Mr Hazzard was clearly unable to address our concern and after much muttering referred it to a Department officer who told us Singleton Council wanted all the LGA included in the plan, that we were unique in asking such a question and that most communities were trying to be included in this plan.

We responded that consequences from mining at Putty would not impact on the Hunter but on the people in the Hawkesbury.

Clayton Barr, Labor member for Cessnock pointed out that page 86 of the plan says:

“It is also proposed that Cabinet may declare a project to be an exceptional circumstance project if the subject resource is of exceptional value to the state.  For an exceptional circumstance project, the requirement for a gateway certificate would not apply and the project would proceed to full merit assessment at the development application stage.”

Mr Barr noted (to applause from the audience) royalties could be considered to be of exceptional value to the state thus making the entire plan invalid.  Mr Hazzard feigned surprise at such an inference.

We left the meeting angry and frustrated.  The resource management strategy of the NSW Government is unconscionable.  It is a betrayal of the people who trusted the messages and assurances given prior to the election last year.

Strategic Regional Land Use Plans have, at best, been released prematurely… they are sketchy, lack detail and even then are (judging by the audience questions and the answers from bureaucrats) riddled with inaccuracies.

In their current form they are a complete waste of time.

These Plans will only be effective if they are accurate and include all relevant information, including infrastructure plans, cultural heritage sites, existing biodiversity offsets, threatened species and biodiversity issues, maps of flood and bushfire prone areas and rigorous assessments of the cumulative impacts of any proposed land use.

The one certainty Mr Hazzard did deliver was that nowhere would be exempt from mining….and that he was moving fast to put his plans in place, supporting the rapid expansion of mining in NSW.

The Government’s urgency is a cynical exercise to get operations established before the ramifications are properly understood by the people in NSW.

Genuine strategic planning requires proper research, sound data and intelligence.  It takes time and resources…but the Government wants money from royalties... now.

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