BHP Billiton has kicked off the environmental approvals process in order to build a massive new underground coal mine in the Liverpool plans, north-west New South Wales.
The Caroona Coal mine could end up being one of the biggest in the world, and is expected to export 10 million tonnes of thermal coal a year for 30 years.
It is also expected to employ 600 people at its peak and 400 over the life of mine.
The mine would be located 40 kilometres south-east of Gunnedah, in the Liverpool Plains.
Planning New South Wales said it received a request to issue Director-General Requirements for an Environmental Impact Statement for the project, kicking off the environmental approval process.
Located under some of the most fertile farming land in the country, concerns have been raised around how the project will impact water in the region.
Farmers from the Liverpool Plains say that the mine will affect the floodplain, as defined in the Mooki River Water Sharing plan, but BHP says that the mine does not according to the guidelines provided by state government.
BHP Billiton NSW Energy Coal Asset president Peter Sharpe said that the Spring Ridge Jurassic rock aquifer is expected to see impacts from the coal mine, but not until 2040.
Sharpe said BHP would work to mitigate the effects with farmers and water modelling at least two years before any impact on the aquifer.
“The preliminary environmental studies undertaken for the Gateway submission indicate that the proposed underground mine will not impact the alluvial irrigation aquifers essential for agricultural production in the area,” Sharpe said.
“This work we’ve done is about understanding impacts on highly productive aquifers related to strategic agricultural land and the indications are there will not be an impact.
“We will only mine at Caroona if we can satisfy the strict environmental requirements for each stage of assessment and show real benefits of the project for the economy and community.”
However, some farmers remain defiant against the plans, raising concerns that BHP has admitted subsidence will occur.
Sharpe said that subsidence is expected in the region where the longwall panel will be cut.
“The modelling doesn’t indicate there will be any impacts that would be long term,” he said.
“Any impacts to agricultural productivity would be short term and easily managed.
“We would ensure no farmer would realise an impact.”
Landholders on the Liverpool plains have called for a declaration that the area is of national agricultural significance and say the proposed Watermark Coal project by China’s Shenhua Group will affect farming land in the area also.
BHP said the coal resource is valuable for the state and local community, and warrants co-existence between landholders and the miner.
Construction of the Caroona coal mine is scheduled for 2018.
In a speech last week, BHP’s coal boss, Dean Dall Valle labelled the Caroona coal project as a key focus for the company’s NSW operations.
He said energy coal would continue to be the source of around 35 per cent of the world’s electricity needs.
“In the next 20 years, we expect 1.7 billion people to gain access to electricity for the first time — that’s a hard number for 20 million Australians to absorb,” he said.
“So in our view coal remains one of the lowest-cost forms of power generation and is critical to the provision of this electricity.”