WHITEHAVEN Coal has been whacked with a $38,500 fine after a post-blast fume cloud of toxic gas left the mine site and passed over a neighbouring farmland.
The NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) took the 2016 incident, which happened at the Rocglen open-cut mine, to the NSW Land and Environment Court, where the company plead guilty to breaching its environment protection licence.
Fortunately, no people or livestock were harmed as a result of the fume cloud, which was made up of harmful oxides of nitrogen gas.
Along with the fine, Whitehaven was also ordered to pay the EPA's legal costs and to publish notices of the result on its parent company website and in national, state and local newspapers.
In court, Whitehaven agreed it had carried out its licensed activities in a less than competent manner.
This included failing to use a type of explosive that would have minimised the risk of hazardous fume generation, overloading some blast holes with explosives and breaching its own blasting procedures.
The court also heard Whitehaven failed to notify neighbouring properties when the potentially hazardous fumes moved offsite.
EPA acting chief regulator Giselle Howard said the decision sent an important message to Whitehaven and other mining companies regarding the importance of fulfilling each and every obligation under their environment protection licences.
"The conviction, fines and other orders stand as an reminder for those holding an EPA licence to carry out their activities lawfully," she said.
Whitehaven expresses regret
A Whitehaven spokesperson said the company expressed regret for the incident.
"During the course of the subsequent investigation Whitehaven cooperated fully with the EPA," they said.
"The fume event did not interact with, and caused no harm to any person or any livestock, and was considered by the Court to be at the lower range of seriousness.
"[Whitehaven] has implemented a number of additional blast fume management measures at the group level to mitigate against any further events of this nature."
'Fine is pocket change to Whitehaven'
Lock the Gate spokeswoman Georgina Woods said she was disappointment at the size of the fine, given the breach was the latest in a series of breaches.
"Whitehaven would spend more than this fine on a company lunch," Ms Woods said.
"We are concerned that this court imposed penalty is not sufficient to deter mining companies who are weighing up the cost of meeting environmental obligations against the risk of being caught disobeying them."
She wants the fine, along with other fines the company has been hit with, to be taken in to account by the Independent Planning Commission in its consideration of the company's proposed Vickery coal mine extension.
"This is part of a pattern of behaviour by Whitehaven," Ms Woods said.
"The company has been fined on numerous occasions at four coal mines. It has received cautions and been the subject of countless community complaints, including other blast incidents.
"There needs to be accountability and more serious consequences for these breaches if communities and the environment are to be protected. The commission is now assessing the Vickery proposal and must take Whitehaven's dismal track record into account."