CONTROVERSIAL coalmines at Maules Creek and Boggabri have been approved less than a week after they were delayed to consider environmental factors.
The decision has shattered environmentalists and farmers who have been fighting against the projects for the past few years.
The Environment Minister Tony Burke yesterday gave conditional approval for the mines, as well as the Gloucester coal seam methane gas project.
A report in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, however, claimed Mr Burke had flagged his intention to approve the controversial Maules Creek coalmine before Christmas, only weeks before it was the subject of a hoax media release claiming funding for the project from ANZ Bank had been withdrawn.
The revelation, the paper said, was contained in a confidential letter Mr Burke sent to the NSW government, obtained by Fairfax Media.
Mr Burke said yesterday the approvals were subject to strict conditions and further work, which would minimise their potential environmental impacts.
He made the unexpected announcement despite extending
his deadline last Thursday until April 30 to approve or reject the projects.
The Maules Creek project, worth more than $770 million, is set to be the North West’s biggest coal venture for Whitehaven Coal.
It has been nearly three years in the making and is tipped to provide more than 1000 people with jobs during construction then production, as well as injecting billions of dollars into the local economy.
It faced several delays due to environmental checks and assessments after the state Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) gave its determination late last year.
Opponents had campaigned against its approval, with Maules Creek Community Council chairman Phil Laird at the helm.
They have argued the Leard State Forest stands to lose thousands of hectares from clearing for the Maules Creek mine, as well as Idemitsu’s nearby Boggabri coalmine expansion – the second project given the federal government’s green light yesterday.
Mr Laird said the decisions were not entirely unexpected but they had expected to find out closer to the April 30 deadline.
“No miner has ever been stopped,” he said.
“If ever there were mines to be stopped though, these were the ones.”
Mr Laird said there were three courses of legal action they could take and they were looking into all avenues.
He said Mr Burke had crumbled to NSW government pressure.
Mr Burke yesterday revealed the NSW government had leaked commercially sensitive information about the projects.
“(This) has caused me to have to bring these decisions forward today with the remaining work to be resolved directly between the company and myself,” he said.
“The development of these further conditions will be conducted without reference to the NSW government, which is unfortunate but a decision that they have effectively made for themselves.”
Mr Burke said, with the conditions in place and subject to further work being agreed, he was satisfied the projects could go ahead without unacceptable impacts on matters protected under national environmental law.
“The companies (Whitehaven and Idemitsu) must now work together to minimise their cumulative impacts on the Leard State Forest and to maximise their biodiversity outcomes through their required offsets,” he said.
Whitehaven expected to begin its operations at Maules Creek in the second half of 2013.