Opponents face off in latest showdown over Mount Thorley

 

RIO Tinto, its employees and its supporters have urged the Planning Assessment Commission to approve its plans for the Mount Thorley Warkworth mine, saying a new state government mining policy has had no impact on the project’s credentials.

But a host of Bulga residents and environmentally minded speakers have argued the other way, saying the commission should reject a project that is essentially the same as one knocked back twice in the courts in 2013.

More than 65 presentations were made to the commission on Monday, with dozens more scheduled for Tuesday’s closing session.

About 100 people attended Monday’s all day hearing, which began with a protest in the courtyard of the Singelton Civic Centre, involving about 40 people while dozens of Rio workers in high-vis work clothes watched on.

As the chair of the commission, Lynelle Briggs, explained, an earlier version of the project was before the commission in 2011.

Rio Tinto submitted a new version after the courts’ rejections, which the commission had recommended for approval.

But an amendment to the Mining State Environmental Planning policy or SEPP, known as clause 12aa, downgraded the importance placed on the economic side of the project – again ranking financial benefits alongside economic and social concerns.

This week’s hearing is ostensibly to consider ‘‘the effects of the amendment to the Mining SEPP’’, but as is often the case in these gatherings, many of the environmental speakers looked at the broader issues of fossil fuel is and climate change, while the Rio Tinto side repeatedly stressed the impact on jobs should the application not proceed.

Rio Tinto’s Mark Rodgers said the proposal met all relevant NSW planning policies and requirements and the changes to the Mining SEPP had no impacts on the benefits the mine would provide.

But Stewart Ewing of Hunter Wine and Tourism was one of a number of speakers to say that the benefits of the mine were greatly overstated.

Brian Fisher of consultants BAEeconomics, who did the financial modelling for Rio Tinto, said falling coal prices had materially affected the mine’s economics because the weaker Australian dollar more than offset the drop in coal prices.

But various speakers, including Steve Phillips of Lock the Gate, questioned this and said the project was financially viable only because the environmental impacts were ‘‘externalised’’ to the community.

A number of speakers highlighted the millions of dollars a year that Mount Thorley Warkworth put into the community, with Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Kristen Keegan reciting a list of community organisations that  benefited from Rio Tinto donations.

But James Whelan of Environmental Justice Australia argued the health impacts from coal far outweighed this type of benefit.

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