IN the same day that the region’s biggest coalmining development was approved with a forecast of hundreds of jobs and huge economic benefits, the mine owner also announced the closure of its Gunnedah mine with the loss of 14 jobs.
It has taken two years for Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek open-cut coal project to get approval from the state’s planning assessment commission (PAC).
It was granted yesterday, subject to strict conditions, and now awaits the final nod from the federal Sustainability and Environment Department.
Depending on that approval, mining operations are expected to begin in the middle of next year.
The project has been the subject of a concerted environmental campaign by local groups, who yesterday condemned the decision and vowed to continue their blockades and protests.
Maules Creek will be Whitehaven’s largest North West venture after its operating mines at Narrabri North, Werris Creek, Rocglen near Gunnedah and Tarrawonga near Boggabri.
An approval is still being sought for its Vickery project.
The Maules Creek project is expected to provide more than $13 million in local funding to the Narrabri Shire Council under a voluntary planning agreement, which will see $6 million of that go to road and infrastructure upgrades and another five to the upgrade of the Narrabri airport.
Whitehaven managing director Tony Haggarty said they intended to bring it into production as soon as possible. “We now have in place detailed guidelines which will allow this project to proceed in both a commercial and environmentally acceptable manner,” he said.
The approval is subject to a set of stringent conditions laid out in a 64 page document by the PAC.
They take into account more than 20 administrative and environmental factors, including an obligation to minimise harm to the environment and to consider air quality, waste, noise and vibration and transport.
Mr Haggarty previously told media outlets the approvals process had been “torturous and dysfunctional” and was a main contributor to the 6 per cent rise in costs for the Maules Creek project, to $776 million.
Speculation had been rife throughout the year that the project faced delays due to the difficult approvals process, the downturn in the market and community opposition.
Front Line Action on Coal, a group engaged in an almost three-month long blockade against the development, said the company will destroy about 1360 hectares of native vegetation in the Leard State Forest if the mine proceeded.
The group yesterday accused the PAC of buckling under pressure from the state government.
“If the government can’t say no to its mates in the coal industry, then it’s up to the community to stand up for our future,” the group’s spokesman, Murray Dreschler, said.
Maules Creek Community Council president Phil Laird said with Whitehaven’s Tarrawonga mine also being expanded, many more hectares in the Leard Forest would be cleared at the hands of the company.
Mr Laird said the state government had just “substantially increased” fines for not
adhering to environmental conditions.
“Whitehaven better lift its game,” he said.
Northern Inland Council for the Environment spokeswoman Carmel Flint said the approval showed that the system was not capable of saying no, even to the worst mines.
Mr Haggarty previously said the local campaigners would love to have thought work had stopped on Maules Creek, but there was no truth to it.
He had said there was no way the company was giving up on it, describing it as the “best project in the country.”
When its up and running, the company anticipates to recruit about 470 workers – on top of the more than 600
people it will employ during construction.
Mr Haggarty said wherever possible they were committed to providing a locally-based workforce.
But he has suggested in the past that international recruitment and fly-in fly-out hirings had a role and the company confirmed, in June, that workers had been sought from the UK.
Just last week, the DA for an 852 room Boggabri miner’s village was approved in anticipation of the non-local employees from MaulesCreek who would require accommodation.
The mine’s approval has come days after one of Whitehaven’s major shareholders demanded to know its status.
Nathan Tinkler, whose own company Aston Resources merged with Whitehaven in April, sent a letter to the company threatening to vote the Tinkler Group’s 19.4 per cent stake of $628 million against the election of five new directors unless he was given answers.
The mining magnate is seeking an updated figure on its development costs and confirmation that Maules Creek will be in production by the 2014 financial year.
Further details about the economics of the project are expected to be revealed today when Whitehaven releases its quarterly financial forecast.
Lost coal production from the Sunnyside mine is expected to be made up at the Werris Creek mine, where the approved rate has been lifted to 2.5 million tonnes of coal per year.
The mine’s 14 workers and 23 contractors will be offered positions at other Whitehaven sites but the company hasn’t ruled out Sunnyside completely.