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The mining impacts inquiry report fails regional communities

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Amanda Cohn
NSW Greens MP
15 December 2023

The final report from the NSW Parliament Inquiry into the current and potential impacts of gold, silver, lead and zinc mining on human health, land, air and water quality in New South Wales has been released. The government and opposition have voted together to end the Inquiry prematurely and to remove significant amounts of evidence and content from the report.

 

This is Amanda's dissenting statement from the report:

 

As Chair, it is devastating for the committee to have produced a report from which I must dissent significantly.


The finding that the regulatory bodies responsible for mining projects and the detailed frameworks they administer “are fundamentally sound” goes against the vast majority of the detailed and convincing evidence the Committee received.


This report represents a missed opportunity to recommend strengthened regulatory frameworks to protect human health, land, air and water quality.
The extraordinary gutting of my draft report, including 47 separate motions to omit content without seeking amendment, by a majority voting block of government and opposition members is documented in the appended 57-page minutes (No. 16).


I support the dissenting statement of my Greens colleague, Ms Cate Faehrmann.


In addition, I am extremely disappointed that, in the face of a huge volume of concerns regarding the human health impacts of mining projects, from nearby residents and impacted communities as well as health and environmental experts, the Committee has not made any recommendations to change current practices regarding consideration of health impacts in the assessment of mining proposals. It is a significant weakness in the regulatory framework that cumulative impact is not considered, and that current social impact assessments often focus on economic and other issues without exploring the potential health risks of a project. This could have been addressed with a recommendation:

"That the Government amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 to require:

  • health impact assessment reports to be prepared as a standard requirement of any mining assessment or modification
  • the health impact assessment reports to address cumulative impacts
  • the health impact assessment reports to be prepared by independent experts engaged directly by the assessment authority."


Further, it is staggering that the committee has not made any recommendations to improve rehabilitation of mine sites, given its specific Term of Reference 1f: to inquire into and report on the effectiveness of current decommissioning and rehabilitation practices in safeguarding human health and the environment. The Committee received a large volume of evidence that current practices are not effective – for legacy mining projects such as Captains Flat and Sunny Corner, recently ceased mining operations such as Broula King, and those only recently approved. For example, the committee heard that the not-yet-commenced McPhillamys gold project will leave a 70 hectare open void following future cessation of mining operations because remediation is cost prohibitive for the mine proponent.


It is clear that more can be done at the development consent process for mining projects to achieve better rehabilitation outcomes. The broad recommendation that the Government strengthen the rehabilitation outcomes required by the Mining Act 1992, by ensuring that any approvals for mining projects under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1970 include conditions that specify the minimum geomorphological, hydrological and ecological rehabilitation requirements that must be achieved, was voted down by government and opposition members.


The committee heard that elevated lead levels are present in surface soils in public and community spaces in Captains Flat due to historic spread of contaminated fill, and that managing lead in Captains Flat will require action by the Government, local council and community over several years. Lead contamination of private land at Captains Flat has caused significant distress and financial cost to residents. While the EPA offers free surface soil testing for residents, development applications require a detailed site investigation at a cost of often thousands of dollars, and the cost of any required remediation, including removal and disposal of contaminated soil, is borne by the landowner - at no fault of their own. It is extraordinary, given the evidence received, that a majority of committee members voted not to undertake a site visit to Captains Flat nor to explore this evidence further at a hearing.


The following recommendation would have addressed these issues:


"That the Government as part of its ongoing rehabilitation work in Captains Flat:

  • develop a financial support system to indemnify residents and local government for the costs of the historic spread of contaminated fill
  • implement clear guidelines and support for health needs, including indications for heavy metal testing and mental health
  • focus on enhancing community and recreational infrastructure."

The experience of landowners adjacent to the Broula King Gold Mine, which operated 2012-14, and resulted in acidic and heavy metal contamination of water from the use of 10 acres of their land for a tailing storage facility, is further evidence that current regulatory settings are not fit for purpose.


The evidence that treated effluent water is being diverted from Summer Hill Creek to Cadia Mine because of an agreement of indefinite duration struck 20 years ago - under a load-based water licensing system that is no longer in place - is extremely concerning. The committee heard evidence that this is impacting flows in the creek and agriculture in the Orange region, that this water could potentially be used in a variety of ways, even for drinking, and that the impacts of this agreement could be serious in times of severe drought. This agreement is no longer appropriate, if it ever was. The following recommendation could have addressed this:


That the Government investigate options to end the agreement between Orange City Council and Cadia Mine in relation to the mine receiving treated water for free with a view to ensuring that a more sustainable and appropriate arrangement is put in place that takes into consideration the needs of the Orange community and the environment.


This is only a selection of the issues which this report ignores due to the 1000-word limit for dissenting statements.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the hundreds of members of community and environmental groups, and to experts, who gave up your time to contribute to the Inquiry.


This is not the report that you deserve.


The Greens will continue to campaign for the critical reforms regional communities across NSW need to reduce the impact of mining projects on human health, land, air, and water quality.

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Amanda Cohn
NSW Greens MP
15 December 2023
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