Safety fears in West Wallsend mine expansion plan

PREVIOUS DAMAGE: Subsidence from the West Wallsend coalmine last year sparked warnings in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area. Picture: Darren PatemanA ‘‘HIGH level of damage’’ would likely occur with expansion plans at the notorious West Wallsend coalmine, with ‘‘major implications for public safety’’, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage says.

The mine, owned by Glencore Xstrata, was exposed in the Newcastle Herald last year for causing environmental destruction in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area.

The NSW Planning Department is assessing Glencore’s expansion plan in Sugarloaf, which includes two new longwall panels near Ryhope in west Lake Macquarie.

Subsidence of 2.4metres to 2.6metres was predicted, including on steep slopes and unsealed gravel roads, planning documents show.

An environment office submission to the plan said this was ‘‘the highest’’ subsidence prediction it had reviewed and had ‘‘major implications for public safety, public access and the conservation values of Sugarloaf’’.

In response to this, the mine said – in a report from consultant Umwelt – it was committed to ‘‘effectively remediating’’ subsidence, so public safety was not affected.

It had recently developed a revised public safety management plan.

The environment office noted the mine had previously ‘‘underestimated subsidence by up to 30per cent’’.

The mine’s response said: ‘‘It is unlikely that the subsidence predictions for the proposed longwalls will be exceeded by more than 10per cent.’’

The subsidence was ‘‘predicted to be less than other areas’’ of the mine, it said.

The environment office submission said the plan had ‘‘not sought to reduce’’ the effects that caused previous problems in Sugarloaf.

‘‘Instead of reducing the potential for such impacts in the current proposal … the mine is likely to increase their effects,’’ the submission said.

This was because the width of one longwall panel was planned to increase by 12per cent, compared with ‘‘existing longwall panel widths’’.

Pillars could be narrowed and panels widened to reduce effects, the submission said.

The mine’s response said ‘‘significantly reduced’’ panel widths would ‘‘not be economically viable’’.

The Herald reported last year that subsidence at the mine caused cliffs to crumble and collapse in Sugarloaf, with a huge chasm opening up and large cracks stretching across the reserve.

Additionally, tonnes of grout used to repair subsidence cracks was accidentally poured 280metres down a creek – which the mine later cleaned up.

The environment office submission said a recent inspection of the existing mine area uncovered ‘‘numerous fractures and holes on steep slopes that had not been remediated’’.

Additionally, there was ‘‘no clear risk management plan for selection of fractures for remediation’’.

The mine’s response said it had developed a new process to ‘‘guide remediation of subsidence cracking’’. ‘‘With this new process in place, [the mine] will prioritise remediating the existing subsidence cracking within Sugarloaf,’’ it said.

The environment office submission said the mine’s expansion plan defined cliffs and rock faces as those with a length of 20 metres, meaning there were ‘‘potentially numerous features in the project area which have not received adequate assessment’’.

The mine’s response said ‘‘regardless of any such definitions, there are no cliffs … or rock face features in the project area’’.


MINING giant Glencore has lashed out at privatisation, saying there has been a ‘‘significant increase’’ in prices after ‘‘every instance’’ of port and coal-rail privatisation in Australia in the past 15years.

Glencore is one of the two biggest coal companies in Australia and its comments are contained in a submission to a federal review of competition policy announced in December.

Glencore’s assessment will be seized on by those opposed to the privatisation of NSW’s ‘‘poles and wires’’, which, like the coal-rail and port assets in Glencore’s sights, are viewed as ‘‘natural monopolies’’.

In its 12-page submission, Glencore includes the recent privatisation of the Port of Newcastle as part of a ‘‘wave of infrastructure asset sales [that] creates a renewed risk’’.

‘‘While in principle, we support privatisation, Glencore has experienced the consequences of privatisation across the east coast of Australia in terms of infrastructure asset sales and the results are not mixed, they are almost always negative,’’ it says.

‘‘In every instance of monopoly coal infrastructure being sold into private ownership in the last 15 years, there has been an associated significant increase in the cost of access …’’

Glencore says ‘‘public ownership’’ is ‘‘one potential solution to the natural monopoly problem’’.

It also backs the ‘‘common user’’ principle, the very structure that its predecessor, Xstrata, and other coal companies successfully lobbied to have removed from Newcastle’s coal-loaders.

The common user provisions were removed to make way for the long-term take-or-pay rail and coal-loading contracts that are widely credited with driving up costs.

Glencore says rail and port charges account for up to 40per cent of mining costs, twice the level of the pre-privatisation era.

It estimates one-third of Australia’s export coal is ‘‘cash flow negative’’, fetching up to $30 a tonne below production cost.

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