Coal mines made to pay after years of free access to Sydney drinking water

NSW coal mines will be required to pay for the water they remove from Sydney’s drinking basin after years of doing so at no cost or limit after the government rushed to overhaul regulation in the hours before it went into caretaker mode last week.

The new measures, implemented by Minister for Lands and Water Kevin Anderson, will see coal mines pay for water removal located in specific areas along Sydney Drinking Water catchments – including the Nepean and Woronora dams, which account for about 28 per cent of the city’s water.

Avon Dam in the Woronora catchment area to Sydney’s south is one of the areas that mines currently pull water from.Credit:Janie Barrett

The government said the new rules would help mines remain accountable and pay for the water they remove, as well as allow the government to monitor their activities.

Under the rules, mines will be allowed to determine how much water is required to account for their incidental water take. “It is the mines’ responsibility to ensure they hold sufficient water entitlement/allocation to account for the water they take,” the department’s website notes.

While mines have previously been allowed to take water from the catchment, the new regulations will now charge them to do so. The government said the maximum price will be set by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.

Anderson said it was important the mines accounted for the water taken and paid management charges for it.

“This reform is something environmental groups and an independent assessment panel have been calling for. The new trading rule will not impact water supply to Sydney,” he said.

“The potential impacts of a mining development on the environment, water resources and water users are fully considered and rigorously assessed under the NSW planning framework when a mining development is proposed or modified. The environment and other water users will not be negatively impacted by these changes.”

Independent MP Justin Field said it was a step in the right direction that the government had acknowledged the effect coal mines had on the city’s water supply.

“However, in their usual fashion the Coalition is handing over a blank cheque to their friends in the coal industry with no limitation on water take, no clear costing mechanisms and no protections for the catchment,” he said.

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW Coordinator Nic Clyde said the water licenses were an attempt to legitimise the behaviour of mining companies that had been removing water for years.

“After years of saying there would be no impact on water supply from these coal mines, the government has now been forced to admit uncontrollable losses of water, due to the cracking of creeks and rivers.

“However, instead of responding to this devastating risk to our future by urgently banning any further longwall coal mining in Sydney’s drinking water catchment, the government will instead provide water entitlements from urban water supplies to paper over the problem.”

He added the move was particularly concerning as the country looks likely to head into an El Nino weather pattern – which typically brings drier and hotter conditions. The last time an El Nino cycle impacted Australia resulted in droughts and severe bushfires.

Underground mining in the catchment has become particularly controversial during the drought as the levels of Sydney’s dams drop faster than at any time since as least 1940 even with the city’s desalination plant at full tilt.

Environmental consultant and former mining manager for Water NSW, Peter Dupen said water removed by mining companies needed to be carefully calculated and compensated.

“Wars are already being fought over water, and the value of clean water for Greater Sydney’s growing population must be recognised and protected,” he said.

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