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Concerns of rural communities ignored as NSW Government pursues Critical Minerals Strategy

SUSANNAH WHITE:  We go for a drive, we go check the bulls? Then we’ll go back inside, we’ll pop our boots on.

JOANNA WOODBURN, REPORTER:  Susannah White’s farm near Mudgee in central western New South Wales has been in the family for generations. She hopes her son Sid will be able to take over the property one day.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  Can you see some over the back? Way up, over the hill. How many are back there. I see three.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  But she believes the future of their family farm could be threatened by a mine which will be carved into the land at the nearby hamlet of Lue.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  Living 10 kilometres downstream from the site, it is difficult to know what you would do, and you know, do you leave now. If you do, is that the right decision. If you don’t and you wait, are you risking your children’s health.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Bowdens Silver has owned the mining project since 2016 when it is operational, the mine will unearth lead and zinc as well as silver and local residents are concerned about the potential health impacts.

DR PETER BENTIVOGLIO, RET. NEUROSURGEON:  Everyone knows lead is a very dangerous product. Why have we taken lead out of petrol, why have we taken lead out of paint, why have we taken lead out of pencils?

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Dr Peter Bentivoglio is a former chair of neurosurgery at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital. He also lives near the mine site and believes it will have long-term consequences.

PETER BENTIVOGLIO:  I think lead contamination is going to be very significant because the lead is carried in the dust particles and of course, the main way of getting lead into you is through breathing it in and ingesting it through the water you drink.

RAVEEN HUNJAN:  The mine will be built just two kilometres from the local public school. 

JADE MISKLE:  How can a school that’s two kilometres from a mine not be impacted in any way? The dust. There’s no way they can stop dust settlement two kilometres from that mine.  

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Jade Miskle lives 10 kilometres from the mine site. Like Susannah White, she is part of the local action group opposing its development.

JADE MISKLE:  It’s always just been silver, so it sounds nice, it sounds comforting, and you just don’t really see there to be any implications of that and then when you actually start to see the numbers and see that lead is a massive proponent of what they will be mining, it’s terrifying.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  In a statement, Bowdens Silver told 7.30 a health risk assessment showed the intake of any heavy metal as a result of the project would be almost negligible. 

It added that the health and safety of the community is its top priority.

PETER BENTIVOGLIO:  I’m sure it will poison us, slowly but surely, depending on where the wind is blowing and how strong it is blowing will be how far the dust is taken. 

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Bowdens will offer residents voluntary blood testing to monitor their lead levels. The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) which approved the mine suggested this would help address community concerns.

It added the company has proposed suppressing the sites dust, monitoring air quality and keeping levels below a prescribed limit.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  If I don’t test my children for lead, am I being a bad mother, and if I do subject a two-year old to the trauma of routine blood testing, am I being a bad mother? The fact that that is the position that we’re put in as a community, because someone down the road wants to start a new business, is absurd.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  The Bowdens mine is yet to be built but its operator has been granted another exploration licence across two blocks either side of Lue.

Bowdens told 7.30 the company’s focus is on precious and base metals, whose strategic importance has been recognised by the New South Wales Government.

In 2021 the Coalition government in New South Wales released its Critical Minerals and High-Tech Metals Strategy. Its purpose is to make the state a global supplier of the materials need to build renewable energy projects.

SUE HIGGINSON, NSW GREENS:  One of the things that it does is send out a clear message and a clear signal to those mining corporations and interests that may want to come and capitalise on this former government’s vision.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  The strategy outlines plans to grow the sector by improving assessment timeframes for mines and reducing red tape, creating a concierge service to assist mining companies to navigate planning and approvals and helping with issues that impede mining project development.

A second government document aimed at investors spruiks 14 mining projects including Bowdens.

DAVID MORRIS, NSW ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENDERS OFFICE:  The worry when you see a policy like this come out, when you see things like removing red tape, when you hear terms like fast-tracking, often what that’s code for is we’re not going to do a thorough assessment project, we’re not going to engage with communities appropriately or early or through the entire process. 

JOANNA WOODBURN:  The New South Wales Planning and Natural Resources Ministers declined 7.30’s interview requests.

At a solar tech startup which relies on metals like copper, the Minister announced plans for a new Critical Mineral Strategy.

COURTNEY HOUSSOS, NSW NATURAL RESOURCES MINISTER:  There are huge opportunities for New South Wales, and we want to make sure, as a New South Wales government, that we are creating the right framework for that to do.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Echoing the former strategy, the government promises to support mining and encourage investment.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  There’s an opportunity for everything to be done in a better way, for the bar for approval to be raised.

At the moment it is on the floor.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Under current state planning laws, mines must be assessed by the Independent Planning Commission if more than 50 objections are raised. 

It’s then up to the minister whether the IPC holds a ‘public hearing’ or a ‘public meeting’. 

With a hearing, the potential for appeal is limited.

DAVID MORRIS:  In most instances of mining projects what you’ll see is the minister refer it to the Independent Planning Commission and the effect of that is to remove the community’s ability to seek a merit review in the Land and Environment Court.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  That was the case for Bowdens.

In late 2022, the former planning minister asked the IPC to hold a public hearing.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  Thank you for the opportunity to address the commission today.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Representatives from the Lue community, including Susannah White, gave evidence.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  We have real concerns about the prevention of dust and dust-borne contaminants like lead and heavy metals leaving the site.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  The IPC granted final approval for Bowden’s in April, saying the project can meet all relevant requirements for protecting health and safety.

The mine operator told 7.30 the commission’s conditions include monitoring and responding to potential lead exposure. 

SUSANNAH WHITE:  Because we engaged with that hearing and because we took it seriously and thought it was a fair process, we now have no right of appeal to the Land and Environment Court on the basis of this being a bad decision and we really feel like it’s a bad decision.

COUNSEL ASSISTING:  Could each witness please state their name.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  Thank you, my name is Susannah White. I’m a representative of the Mudgee Region Action Group.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  This week, a state parliamentary inquiry began to examine the potential health impacts of mining gold, lead, silver and zinc. 

It was a chance for the Lue community to speak directly to the government. 

SUSANNAH WHITE:  The framework for assessment and approval of metal mines in New South Wales is not fit for purpose and the Bowdens project is a clear demonstration of this.

JOANNA WOODBURN:  Having lost the ability to appeal the project on merit, the community is now preparing to fight the legality of the Bowdens mine in court.

SUSANNAH WHITE:  If this is the standard that these projects are going to be held to as they open up across the state, then I think we are going to be left with an extremely dangerous and long-lasting toxic legacy.  

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-09-20/mine-approval-backlash/102881726 Concerns of rural communities ignored as NSW Government pursues Critical Minerals Strategy

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