Environmentalists have said a $ 200,000 fine issued to the Whitehaven Coal for water theft at its Maules Creek mine near Boggabri “will not stop this repetitive behavior”.
The fine was handed down in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court on Wednesday after the company pleaded guilty to taking $ 1 billion. liters of surface water without permission over three years from 2016 to 2019.
The charges were filed by the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) for violating the Water Management Act and resulted in a maximum penalty of $ 2 million.
The judgment accepted that there had been undefined actual damage to surface water currents and it was likely that there was damage to the vegetation around Back Creek and its aquatic ecology as a result of the offense.
It found that Whitehaven’s non-compliance with the water rules undermined the scheme in a significant way and believed that the seriousness of the offense was at the low end of the middle ground.
The verdict took into account mitigating circumstances, including Whitehaven’s early admission of guilt and the fact that it had cooperated with the authorities.
“Given my conclusion about objective seriousness and mitigating factors, I believe the appropriate penalty is $ 250,000, which will be reduced by 25% to $ 200,000 in light of the early guilty plea,” it states.
Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter said the fine was not close to reflecting the seriousness of the offense.
“While farmers plowed in their crops and the stock died during the drought, Whitehaven took a billion gallons of water without a license,” she said.
“This water was invaluable at this time and would have been a lifesaver for many farms and businesses.”
The fine is one of a number of breaches Whitehaven has been accused of at its mining sites.
The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said this week that it had ordered the company to stop blasting at the Maules Creek site, while investigating seven blasts from the mine that are alleged to have generated unconverted and potentially toxic fumes between October 1, 2021 and November 11, 2021
Earlier this month, the EPA fined the company $ 30,000 for discharging dirty water from a failed sediment dam at its Tarrawonga coal mine near Boggabri.
It was the third alleged discharge of dirty water from the mine, and the EPA said it had found high levels of metal and bicarbonates discharged from the mine site to nearby Goonbri Creek.
Hunter said the fine handed down Wednesday “will not stop this repeated behavior”.
“Ordinary members of the public get far more fines for much less,” she said.
“It is long overdue for the NSW Perrottet government to crack down on mining companies and punish them appropriately for the heinous crimes they commit.”
Whitehaven said in a statement that the verdict had noted that the offense was at the low end of the middle ground and that the case had not established that there had been a negative impact on other aquaculture users.
The company said that there was no claim on the part of NRAR that the passive intake of water was intentional or premeditated, and “it was not established that any significant environmental damage occurred from the passive intake of water”.
“During a two-year study, NRAR thoroughly investigated water management at Maules Creek,” the statement said.
“Whitehaven has previously acknowledged deficiencies in the operation of some of its systems and has made significant progress in implementing measures to improve clean water management in the mine.”
Grant Barnes, CEO of NRAR, said the water regulator had worked inside and outside the court to remedy the illegal water consumption.
“This verdict must be seen in the context of our complementary work outside the courtroom,” he said.
“In addition to the fine, we have entered into an enforceable commitment with the Maules Creek Coal, which requires it to take a number of actions, including shutting down a dam and updating its biodiversity management plan.”
He said the enforced commitment strengthened Wednesday’s ruling and had been accepted by both parties “as part of the mine operator’s move to a position of water compliance”.
But Georgina Woods, a spokeswoman for Lock the Gate Alliance, said people were “tired of mining companies getting away with serious crimes with insignificant consequences”.
She said it was particularly jarring during a week in which an activist had been sentenced to 12 months in prison for blocking coal trains in the state’s Hunter region.
“It’s hard to see how the public can have confidence in the legislation governing coal mining companies when it so clearly fails to keep the companies in line,” she said.