Legal Challenge to Xstrata Ulan Coal mine expansion

An expansion of the Xstrata owned Ulan coal mine near Mudgee in the upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales is being challenged partly based upon it's long term impact of exacerbating global anthropogenic climate change.

Xstrata has applied for a doubling in coal production to 20MT/annum and a 21 year lease but is being challenged in the NSW Land and Environment Court by the Hunter Environment Lobby with assistance from the Environmental Defenders Office. The appeal was lodged in January 2011 citing that the former NSW Government approved the Part 3A development without conducting a Planning Assessment Commission to independently assess the effect of the mine expansion.

According to the Environmenta Defenders Office website on the case "The mine expansion is predicted to have a significant impact on groundwater, which is expected to take 200 years to recover. It will also result in the clearing of 409 hectares of vegetation, including 69 hectares of endangered ecological communities and habitat for several fauna species. The greenhouse gas emissions from the mine will add approximately 12.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year to the atmosphere, exacerbating global anthropogenic climate change."

In November 2010 the NSW Government approved an expansion that doubled the output of Ulan Coal Mine in the western coalfields near Mudgee. Ulan Mine is across the headwaters of the Goulburn River diverting it and destroying groundwater systems. It is in the Hunter catchment with the iconic Drip and Corner Gorge.

The NSW Land and Environment Court is hearing the appeal over a 15 day hearing which commence on 6 June 2011. Some of the issues being raised in the appeal include:

* There had been no independent scrutiny of the plan to double the mine’s production.
* The Department of Planning conditions of approval were inadequate and did not have the capacity to properly assess the number of current applications for major coal mining expansions in NSW.
* The Ulan Mine was on the headwaters of the Goulburn River a tributary of the Hunter River and mine expansion could destroy aquifers and affect water quality in the catchment.
* The cumulative effects of mining in the region needed to be considered in approving developments, rather than each individual mine

"The government needs to know what the cumulative effect is and the community needs to know and decide" said spokesperson Jan Davis.

The Mudgee Environment Group website describes the Ulan Coal mine expansion as "This project is not consistent with the principles of Ecological Sustainable Development and is the fourth major coal mine expansion proposal in the Mudgee (Ulan-Wollar) area in four years. If all are approved 42.5 million tonnes of coal will be produced in the area annually. This is a major cumulative increase of global greenhouse gas emissions."

Friends of the Earth spokeperson Bradley Smith welcomed the legal challenge as part of an inevitable wave of litigation against coal mines. "Communities across Australia have had enough of coal companies jeopardising our future and are willing to stand up to stop climate change," he said.

There is a legal challenge to the Xstrata coal mine at Windoan in South West Queensland in the Queensland Land Court. The objection was lodged in March 2011 by Friends of the Earth citing the contribution this mine will make to severe weather events through greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.

If the Ulan and Wandoan challenges are successful it will stop the extraction of 40 million tonnes of coal per year. "Xstrata now faces two hurdles to it's massive expansion of coal production and climate pollution in New South Wales and Queensland." said Bradley Smith.

"The coal miners know that eventually they will be held accountable for the climate impacts of these mega mines, it's just a matter of when,” said spokesperson Bradley Smith. “Even in India coal mines must pay a 50 rupee per tonne (AU$1) carbon tax to help develop clean energy.”

"Thanks to scientists and the Government's climate commission we know the impacts that this coal will have on our climate, the reef, and extreme events like bushfires and storm surges. We know what's required to stop it – most of the worlds coal reserves must stay in the ground. Digging it all up is irresponsible, and it's time to take these polluting energy companies to court." concluded Mr Smith.

Renowned NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen, who visited New Zealand giving public talks in May 2011, believes coal mining and other fossil fuel extraction such as shale oil, tar sounds and deep sea oil drilling, needs to be quickly curtailed if we are to achieve the necessary emission reductions to avoid dangerous climate change.

"As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, we will continue to burn them. That is as certain as the law of gravity. The reason that they are the cheapest is because they are not made to pay for their cost to society - around one million deaths a year from air and water pollution, mostly from fossil fuels." he was reported as saying by the New Zealand Herald.

In 2008 James Hansen wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calling on the Australian government to halt plans for the mining of coal, the export of coal and the construction of new coal-fired power plants due to the climate impact. (Watch a 2010 video of James Hansen at Sydney University on 'After Copenhagen: Looking for real solutions')

* Friends of the Earth Media Release, June 8, 2011 - Coal cases snowball over warming - For more info see Six Degrees Coal and Climate Campaign
* Mudgee District Environment Group, Jan 24, 2011 - Land Court challenge to Ulan West Coal Project
* Environmental Defenders Office - Hunter Environment Lobby Inc v Minister for Planning and Ulan Coal Mines Ltd