EPA Investigating ‘Black Dust Plume’ At Whitehaven Coal Site

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The long-troubled Whitehaven Coal is being investigated by the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency, just one day after it emerged that the Department of Planning and Environment is also following up community complaints over how the controversial company is operating its Maules Creek Mine.

A spokesperson for the EPA told New Matilda the environmental regulator is “investigating a plume of black dust that appeared [yesterday]morning, which was captured on our remote camera”. The company had not posted any blast notifications on the website, and did not notify nearby residents to expect blasts by text message, which are standard procedures followed to make locals aware before the toxic chemicals used in mine blasts are released.

A spokesperson said that Whitehaven Coal did not blast at the Maules Creek Mine at any time yesterday. A spokesperson for neighbouring Boggabri mine, which could feasibly have been the source of the black dust, similarly confirmed that “Boggabri Coal didn’t have a blast at all yesterday”.

Where the black cloud came from remains a mystery, but according to one observer the plume of black dust being investigated by the EPA was at in the order of 50 metres high, and black as coal.

Anna Christie is on the Maules Creek Community Consultative Committee, which is charged with communicating information about the mine to locals and other stakeholders. She said she saw the black cloud yesterday morning.

“I arrived at a vantage point, and the moment I arrived there I saw a curling black smoke – or dust plume – which I think was about three kilometres away,” Christie said.

“The plume was rising and I guess it was about 50 metres high, something like that, and at the same time I noticed that the plume was being carried in a south easterly direction by the breeze.

“When I rang the EPA, the guy who answered said to me ‘I’m looking at the photos right now’.

The EPA investigation follows reports in The Guardian yesterday that the Department of Planning is auditing clearing activities currently underway at the Leard State Forest – a critically endangered ecological community that is being knocked down to make way for Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine.

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine, near Bulga.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Mount Thorley Warkworth Mine, near Bulga.

In late February the Environmental Defenders Office, writing on behalf of South East Forest Rescue in a letter to the Department of Planning and Environment, alleged Whitehaven had breached its conditions of approval.

South East Forest Rescue alleges that on February 25 Whitehaven began clearing in the Leard Forest when temperatures were exceeding 35 degrees, despite this being banned under the mine’s approval.

“There is a risk of irreversible harm for the fauna on site, which as you would be aware, use the hollows of trees to shelter from hot temperatures in order to conserve energy,” the letter states.

“Undertaking clearing when temperatures exceed 35 [degrees celsius]means that fauna are likely to be remaining in tree hollows which are cleared… causing unnecessary and reckless harm, for which damages will not be an adequate remedy.”

Whitehaven has denied the alleged breach of conditions. The company’s Executive General Manager, Operations, said the miner’s own weather stations “send a series of automated text messages to the clearing team as the temperature approaches 35 C”.

“When the temperature reaches 35 C clearing ceases, and this is exactly what occurred…”

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. A goanna in the Leard Forest.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. A goanna in the Leard Forest.

The Department of Planning has since received copies of temperature readings during the period in question, which it says are being analysed as part of a broader audit of whether Whitehaven Coal is complying with its conditions.

“The Department can take a range of actions if a company is found to have breached conditions, such as issuing a fine, imposing an order, issuing warning letters or prosecution for the most serious offences,” a spokesperson said.

Whitehaven Coal is permitted to clear the Leard Forest, which is home to 30 threatened species, until April 30. Several arrests have been made since clearing was allowed to commence for the year on February 15, bringing the total number of protestors arrested protesting against the Maules Creek Mine to nearly 400.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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