Update and explainer: Dendrobium SSI process, what you can do, and upcoming POWA community information night

This is an update to POWA supporters and allies about the latest developments around the Dendrobium extension project and how to intervene in the planning process to protect our water and environment. As part of our response to South32’s new extension plan, POWA will be holding a public forum on January 20. We encourage you to come along and participate. (See details below)

As you may be aware, the NSW Government has recently declared the Dendrobium mine extension as State Significant Infrastructure (SSI), in spite of the Independent Planning Commission’s (IPC) rejection of the mine’s extension as a State Significant Development (SSD) in 2021. In February, the IPC decided to block the mine’s expansion because it would have unacceptable impacts to water security as well as biodiversity, threatened ecological communities and cause irreversible damage to 58 identified Aboriginal cultural artefacts and values. It also found the mine would cause serious degradation to 25 watercourses and swamps in the Metropolitan Special Area and release significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

The IPC’s decision to protect the water catchment and the environment was an important outcome for numerous ecological campaigns and for POWA as the main group opposing the project. 

Overturning the Independent Planning Process

The IPC decision was immediately condemned by coal corporation South32 and criticised by prominent members of the NSW Government, who vowed to overturn it. South32 and the NSW Minerals Council have been lobbying the government for months to overturn the Commission’s decision. In early December, NSW Deputy Premier Paul Toole and Planning Minister Rob Stokes announced they were pushing forward with the Dendrobium expansion. The decision to grant SSI status followed a motion on the issue in State Parliament, moved by One Nation, which was supported by the Liberals, the Nationals, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, the Christian Democrats, and the Labor Party. 

The Government has designated the mine State Significant Infrastructure due to its alleged role in providing coal for the Port Kembla steelworks. However, the IPC found that most of Bluescope’s coal came from other mines, the majority of Dendrobium coal over the next 20 years would be exported or transported elsewhere, and Bluescope’s preferred coal would not be mined by the expansion until almost 20 years into the project. Recently, BlueScope’s general manager of manufacturing David Bell told a ‘virtual town hall’ that work on the Port Kembla wharves would allow the steelmaker to bring in coal from elsewhere if need be. 

The IPC decision stated that the economic value of the water supply catchment and the costs of scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions was an equally important consideration as the coal & steel industry. The Government did not mention the water supply, environmental, or emissions concerns of the IPC in its statement about the SSI mine expansion plan. 

As POWA continues to highlight, what the Illawarra needs is renewable energy, green steel, and a just transition, not another coal mine. This is where sustainable jobs and incomes will come from.
The new plan would extend the life of the Mine to 2041 and would involve the extraction of millions of tonnes of coal each year. This is the first time that a coal mine has been declared State Significant Infrastructure in NSW and would set an alarming precedent.

Crucially, the SSI declaration removes the IPC and any independent decision-making body from the approval process, making the NSW Minister for Planning and Homes the consent authority for the project. The Planning Department previously recommended that the IPC approve the project and the planning minister has now given himself the power to decide on this project. The removal of independent oversight calls into question the role of IPC and the Department of Planning, Industry & Environment (DPIE) and suggests the ‘capture’ of the State Government and most NSW political parties by coal companies. It is untenable for the DPIE to do the assessment of this project since they previously backed the flawed claims by South32, which were rejected by the IPC.

Extension Impacts

The powerful campaign opposing extended mining at Dendrobium has resulted in a revised plan, which is less destructive than South32’s original proposal. Due to our collective efforts the proposed longwalls have been reduced by half, which would potentially involve less damage to the water catchment, and have a reduced impact on Aboriginal heritage areas, with six sites to be directly undermined, compared with twenty-two previously. Nonetheless, POWA continues to oppose any mining in the water catchment, as well as the other destructive impacts of the extension proposal. These impacts include – 
– Perpetual surface water loss
– Undermining of streams & swamp
– A range of other risks to local ecology and biodiversity
– Undermining of at least six Aboriginal heritage sites
– Greenhouse gas emissions
– Increased danger of bushfires

The SSI assessment process

When an application is made for the Minister’s approval for SSI, the Planning Secretary prepares environmental assessment requirements, or SEARs, for the project. The Department published the SEARs for the proposed extension just two days before Christmas.
The SEARs identify the information that must be provided in the mining corporation’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), including the matters that require further assessment and the community engagement that must be carried out during the preparation of the EIS. 
What preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) typically involves:
In normal process, the preparation of an EIS usually involves the proponent (in this case South32):
• Engaging with community
• Undertaking detailed technical studies to assess the impacts of the project in accordance with any relevant Government legislation, plans, policies & guidelines
• Refining the design of the project to avoid or minimise the impacts of the project.

The preparation of the EIS should involve a process of impact assessment and design refinement, development of mitigation measures & consultation with community, stakeholders and government agencies.
The Dendrobium Mine Extension Project must take into account the issues raised by the IPC in its refusal of the project and should be subject to a whole of government merit assessment in accordance with the requirements of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.

Public exhibition & submissions

Once complete, the EIS will be checked by the Department before being placed on public exhibition for a minimum period of 28 days.
During the exhibition period, anyone can make a written submission on the EIS.
POWA has many questions and concerns about the Dendrobium SSI Process.
We remain opposed to the impacts on the water catchment and the environment as listed above.

Regarding this new and unprecedented process for mine approval, we think it is very important that the community has answers to the following questions:

1. Will NSW DPIE publish their final assessment report for the project and allow opportunity/time for the community to get expert critiques of the document prior to the Minister’s decision?  

2. Who will write the DPIE Final Assessment Report?   

3. Will the writer of the new DPIE Final Assessment Report assess South32’s EIS from an ecological sustainable development perspective as required by the NSW EP&A Act?

4. The economic analysis commissioned by the DPIE to assess the Dendrobium Expansion Environment Assessment was rejected by the IPC, particularly around the reliance of Bluescope Steel on the project. So, who will conduct the investigation and assessment of the importance of local coal supply to BlueScope Steel?  And what are the terms of reference for that?  

5. Who will conduct the economic costs/benefits assessment of the revised project? Will DPIE ensure that this work will go through a rigorous tender process where the credibility of any would-be contractor is thoroughly vetted?  Will DPIE ensure that it does not provide a biased brief or Terms of Reference to the contractor?  

6. Will the NSW DPIE uphold the current requirement of the koala SEPP 2020 for habitat value in its assessment of South32’s EIS?

7. Can the community be confident that the criticisms of the previous economic assessments (or economic assessment reviews) made by experts who appeared on behalf of POWA to the IPC, will be thoroughly addressed so that the same errors are not present?   

8. What are the community’s appeal rights related to any decision the Minister makes on the project?

What you can do

1) Contact Anthony Roberts, NSW Planning Minister’s Office
Phone – (02) 8574 5600
Request to leave a message for the Minister. Introduce yourself, tell the office staff what you are calling about and ask the person responding to record your concern.

DPIE Webform – https://tinyurl.com/2p88bdnm
The webform allows you to leave a message/enquiry. Use key words such as Dendrobium and State Significant Infrastructure in your title.

Here are some things you might wish to say/write:
– Tell the Minister/MP of your disappointment in this decision to change the Dendrobium coal mine expansion to State Significant Infrastructure (SSI)
– Demand a truly unbiased and transparent assessment of the proposal by DPIE, one that focuses on the public interest and the protection of the water catchment.
– Ask any or all of the 8 questions listed above 
– Seek assurance that all the criticisms, issues and concerns raised by experts in the IPC submissions process and by the IPC itself are addressed in DPIE’s assessment of the new proposal. 
– Ask for an independent economic assessment of the need for this project, including an investigation on how Bluescope Steel’s coal needs will be met while it transitions to zero carbon steel
– Demand adequate time for community and experts to prepare submissions on South32’s Environmental Impact Statement.

2) Prepare a submission on South32’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
It will help if you are ready to make a submission as quickly as possible during the EIS public exhibition period, whenever that may be. POWA will send out emails and messages on social media when the EIS becomes available and submissions are open.

3) What’s next for Dendrobium – Community Information Night
POWA is holding an informative online briefing for anyone interested in opposing the new mining extension proposal. The forum will be held on Thursday, January 20, 7pm. Please invite your friends/anyone who may be interested.

Register here:

More information is available on facebook here: – https://tinyurl.com/4pymachy

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