Australia Coal Mine Approved in Face of Indigenous Opposition

A coal mine project has been cleared to proceed by state authorities in Australia despite opposition from Indigenous heritage campaigners and international horse breeders.

The New South Wales Independent Planning Commission’s approval of Malabar Coal Ltd.’s A$509 million ($385 million) Maxwell project in the state’s Hunter Valley comes just weeks after a national inquiry took aim at Rio Tinto Group’s “inexcusable” actions in badly damaging Aboriginal heritage sites in the Pilbara iron ore region.

The commission concluded that the risks associated with the new underground mine “can be ‘reasonably and satisfactorily’ identified, avoided, mitigated and managed,” it said in a media statement. Approval comes with 169 conditions including the preparation of management plans that address the potential impacts on sites of cultural significance, as well as air quality, water, greenhouse gas emissions and bushfire risk.

“Aboriginal cultural heritage in the Upper Hunter is a finite resource,” said Tim Owen, principal at Sydney-based heritage consultancy GML. “Continued coal mining, including the Maxwell coal mine, is having a direct and continued impact on Aboriginal heritage.” Around 5% of recorded archaeological sites across the region fell within Maxwell’s footprint, Owen added. The social impact on local Indigenous communities was also not being assessed by developers or regulators, he said.

Malabar said in a statement that it had conducted a comprehensive assessment of the potential impact of the project on Aboriginal cultural heritage with broad input from the local community and which complied with state guidelines.

“While no sites of high significance have been identified that would be impacted by the Maxwell Project, the proposed underground mining method significantly reduces impacts on Aboriginal heritage compared to open cut mining methods,” Malabar Chairman Wayne Seabrook said in the statement. The company plans to begin construction of the mine in 2021.

Scrutiny of the mining sector has intensified since an investor backlash over Rio’s blasts at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia forced its Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques to resign in September. A parliamentary inquiry into the affair said it was “aware that Indigenous heritage protection is a live issue across the nation,” and planned to expand its consultations to build a “nationally consistent response to heritage protection.”

Malabar plans to extract about 148 million tons of mainly metallurgical coal from Maxwell over 26 years. The project is located at the site of Anglo American Plc’s Drayton mine, which ceased operation in 2016 and has since undergone rehabilitation. Malabar submitted a proposal for an underground mine after previous separate applications for a new open cut mine were rejected.

The development also drew opposition from the thoroughbred racing industry. World-renowned breeders Coolmore and Godolphin have stud farms in the area and both made public submissions opposing the project. Their objections focused on the potential detrimental impact the mine might have on the region’s water systems.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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