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It’s a rare metropolis that allows mining in its catchments

March 19, 2015

Sydney is a rare metropolis to allow mining in its water catchments.

Two weeks out from the NSW election the Baird government has announced the cancellation of three coal seam gas licences covering a small part the Sydney Drinking Water Catchments. Liberal MP Mark Coure, who holds the south west Sydney seat of Oatley by a margin of just a 3.8%, described the cancellation on his Facebook page as a win for the campaigning he had been doing to “protect our drinking water supply”.

Yet, he has said nothing on Wollongong Coal’s application for nine new longwalls  within 300 metres of the Cataract Dam. The decision for this application to undermine another 5,000,000 tonnes of coking coal from the water catchments is due out from the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) by 20 March. 

Sydney is a rare metropolis to have a pristine natural water supply on its doorsteps. Warragamba Dam is the largest but the Woronora, Cataract, Nepean, Cordeaux and Avon dams are also significant in this network which, without drawing on aquifers, takes groundwater flow from creeks and rivers and delivers it to Sydney and the Illawarra’s nearly five million population.  

Sydney is also a rare metropolis as the only city in the world, confirmed in a report last year by the NSW Chief Scientist, that allows mining in its publicly owned water catchments. No other country allows this. India doesn’t. America doesn’t. China doesn’t.  

All of Sydney’s major dams and their surrounding areas are still covered by the AGL-owned coal seam gas licence, PEL 2, the large coal seam gas licence runs from the water catchment areas of the Southern Highlands across the dams of Sydney and up to the Central Coast.  Three coal mining companies also already operate multiple mines in the Special Areas of Sydney’s catchments: Wollongong Coal, Peabody, the world’s largest private sector coal mining company and BHP.

When you drive into any of Sydney’s dams, fences protect the road on either side and there are signs every few hundred metres warning against trespassing.  This area is so protected that a bushwalker who ventures in could be fined $44,000.  Last December an application by Wollongong Coal for a new longwall mine near the Cataract Dam was approved by NSW Planning Department even though the one mine is expected to cause subsidence of nearly two metres and an increase in groundwater drainage loss of up to 1.6 million litres a day.

Mining in Sydney’ drinking water catchments is one of the great public secrets even though its damage to swamps, contamination of water-ways, cracking of riverbeds and impact on groundwater loss is well-documented. Rather than taking a precautionary approach, policy since the 1980s has been one of risk management: that is, potential damage should not block an approval being given. There is no consideration for cumulative impact either. Approvals are piecemeal. Damage is fixed piecemeal. It’s like sewing up tear after tear in a piece of clothing while pretending the overall garment retains its original condition.  

At an election forum in Narrabeen on Sydney’s Northern Beaches on Monday 9 March, the NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes told an audience member “that’s a different story” when asked about longwall coalmining in the special areas of Sydney’s protected drinking catchments. Consistently the expansion of longwall coal mining in the catchments is a topic that both the NSW Labor and Liberal parties refuse to discuss.

 In February, campaigners walked 165km from Cataract Dam into the centre of Sydney as part of a Walk for Water to draw attention to these issues. The walk passed the electoral offices of eight NSW MPS on its way. The only MP who accepted an invitation to talk to the group was the Greens MP Jamie Parker. The MP for Parramatta, Liberal Geoff Lee, cancelled a pre-arranged meeting five minutes before its start time sending an SMS message saying “something has come up”. Cabramatta MP Nick Lalich said he’d walk with the walkers then cancelled. NSW Mining Minister Anthony Roberts was simply out of office. Others said they were too busy.

Greens MP Jamie Parker said that when MPS “have to refuse to attend something it is not easy for them.” Mining’s impact on groundwater, aquifers, bore-water, dam safety and the long-term security of Sydney Drinking Water Catchments is not one the government can hide from. It’s not the bush-walkers who should be locked out of the wilderness on Sydney’s doorstep. It is all mining.

The future of coal and coal seam gas mining on agricultural land, in forests and water catchments is a hot topic as NSW gets ready to vote on 28 March.  On 1 March a door-knocking survey of more than 8000 households in Manly, the electorate of Premier Baird, returned a figure of 96% of people saying they wanted better protection for water catchments and farmland from coal and coal seam gas mining..

Before the 2011 election then premier Barry O’Farrell said, “The next Liberal/National Government will ensure that mining cannot occur…in any water catchment area, and will ensure that mining leases and mining exploration permits reflect that common sense; no ifs, no buts, a guarantee.” It is more than common sense to ban mining in water catchments, it is a no-brainer. The clock is ticking for Baird to say it’s time.   

Isabel McIntosh is a member of Protect Sydney’s Water, an alliance of community groups campaigning to stop mining in Sydney’s drinking water catchments.

A sydney Dam 

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