After five years of community resistance a controversial gold mine on the NSW far south coast appears ready to begin operating.
Dargues Reef Gold Mine gets another approval to start amid ongoing pollution concerns
ABC South East NSW reporter Bill Brown writes.
Last year, the mining company dropped proposals to use a cyanide processing method and now the New South Wales government's Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) has approved the project subject to a further range of modifications to the operation.
The Dargues Reef Gold Mine at Major's Creek, near Braidwood, is in the upper catchment of the Deua-Moruya river system, an essential water supply for the Eurobodalla Shire.
The system supplies stone fruit producers in the Araluen Valley before flowing as the Deua River through the Deua National Park down to the coast where it enters the Batemans Marine Park at Moruya.
Both the Eurobodalla Shire Council and the Palerang Council — now Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council — had major concerns about the potential for contamination of the water supply.
The project had already been subject to a Land and Environment Court appeal against its approval and then two planning modifications before community outrage over the cyanide processing proposal became so great that the company (then Unity Mining Ltd) withdrew the proposal and the company's then managing director and two directors stood down.
The modified approval announced on August 10 responds to further community claims that the mine design was risky because it has been based upon insufficient weather data..
The company is now required to base their designs on all available weather data, not just rainfall data, from both the Braidwood and Majors Creek weather stations, so that the mine will be able to withstand 'worst-case [weather]scenarios'.
The approval extends the mining period to 2025 and increases the amount of ore to be extracted from 1.2 million tonnes to 1.6 million tonnes.
James Dornan, project manager with the new mine operators, Diversified Minerals Pty Ltd, said that the timeline extension was due to delays in beginning the project, originally approved in 2011 for completion in 2018.
"We're looking to bring the project into production in the first half of next year," Mr Dornan said.
"This approval is a significant step in us achieving that goal."
The PAC determination states that the Eurobodalla Shire Council had advised that "the removal of cyanide … takes away most of Council's concerns".
However, the PAC notes that the council also stressed "the necessity of ensuring that the Moruya River water supply is protected for the community as its objection to the mine is on the basis of potential impacts … to this water supply".
Eurobodalla Shire Council Mayor, Lindsay Brown, said he was pleased that cyanide had been removed from the proposed production process, describing that as a great win for the community.
"We need to make sure that our community has safe drinking water."
He said the council still had concerns about the potential risk of water supply contamination and would want to see that an effective mechanism was in place to take action during mining operations and after the mining operation had ceased.
The PAC's determination, however, accepts the Department of Planning and Environment's assessment that any impact upon water could be managed by the existing and modified approval conditions.
Mr Dornan pointed to the level of assessment that his company's project had been through with the Land and Environment Court as well as three modifications to the company's proposal.
"[This project] has been assessed as appropriate [and] provided with strict project approval condition within which it needs to operate. The impact of the surrounding environment has been deemed appropriate be all these regulators."
Potential to pollute regional water supply "an unacceptable risk"
One of the community opponents to the mine, Tom Wells, said he did not accept those assurances, and challenged the Commission's view that risks to the water supply were "likely to be low".
"If you think about that, it means there are impacts to groundwater."
"The mine still does, and I would say more so, represent an unacceptable threat to the health, ecosystem, and economy of the Eurobodalla and Palerang shires."
He said the series of approval modifications had 'whittled away' the protections required by the Land and Environment Court outcome in 2012, rather than strengthening the environmental protection conditions of the project.
Mr Wells, representing Dargues Mine Watch, called on the Eurobodalla council to appeal against the determination
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment provides for a judicial appeal which must be lodged within three months.
Cr Brown said the Eurobodalla Council would be swiftly examining the determination in detail before deciding on if and how to respond.
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