Maules Creek coal mine elevated to highest environmental risk level by EPA

UNENVIABLE PROMOTION: Whitehaven played down its new level three environmental risk rating.
UNENVIABLE PROMOTION: Whitehaven played down its new level three environmental risk rating.

WHITEHAVEN’S Maules Creek mine is now one of only three mines in NSW to hold the highest environmental risk level, after the state’s environmental watchdog reviewed a number of incidents from the past 12 months.

The NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), elevated the coal mine’s environmental risk to a level three with “moderate” consequences, in response to the mine’s environmental management performance between May 2016 to May 2017.

However, the company played down the unenviable promotion, pointing to its “strong compliance” record.

“We have a great deal of confidence in our record of environmental management and the trend of strong compliance we believe the company has demonstrated over many years,” a Whitehaven spokesperson said.

As proof of its track record, Whitehaven pointed to a recently commissioned independent study, which found dust management at Maules Creek “was compliant with licence and project approval conditions and generally consistent with best practice”. 

However, the EPA said poor dust management was one of the reasons the mine was elevated to a Level 3.

“The new category reflects the non-compliances identified throughout the year, including an official caution for failing to minimise dust impacts and a penalty notice for failure to comply with a notice to provide records,” an EPA spokesperson said.

Whitehaven also cited a noise audit which found that noise management was “considered appropriate, effective and consistent with good practice”. However, the EPA added the “audit also included recommendations for further improvement”.

Higher risk mines are subject to increased regulatory oversight, including more frequent inspections. Poorer environmental performers also pay higher licence fees.

Lock the Gate national coordinator Phil Laird said the Maules Creek community, particularly those living near the mine, were surprised the increased risk level took so long.​ “It shouldn’t be granted any modifications until it is totally compliant,” he said.