EPA Demands Whitehaven Coal Explain Suspicious ‘Plume Of Black Smoke’


Whitehaven Coal has been ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to complete a detailed incident report as the government regulator investigates a mysterious plume of black smoke at its controversial Maules Creek Mine.

New Matilda first reported that the mining company was under investigation on Thursday, the day after a mysterious black cloud, said by one observer to be around 50 metres high, was detected by the independent regulator’s remote cameras.

“Concerning the ‘smoke plume’ observed on the morning of 2 March 2016, the EPA requested a report from Maules Creek Coal Mine,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

“The EPA received an initial report on 3 March 2016 about the incident. On the basis of that information and extensive discussions with staff from Maules Creek Coal Mine, the EPA have requested a detailed incident report.”

Last week, Whitehaven Coal denied outright that it had done any blasting on March 2. 

Asked why there had been no blast notifications – the usual process followed to alert nearby residents of the risk of toxic chemicals – a spokesperson said “there was no notification by [Whitehaven Coal], because there was no blast by [Whitehaven Coal]”.

As it turns out, Whitehaven Coal has been singled out for a range of other blasting incidents.

According to a spokesperson for the agency, “The EPA is currently investigating blast events at the Maules Creek Coal Mine in October 2015 and January/February 2016 to determine if any breach of licence conditions occurred.”

Whitehaven Coal was also investigated over blast fumes in July last year, but the EPA “determined that there were contributing factors which were beyond the control of the mine operator” and that the company had not breached its license conditions.

“These factors included possible entry of moisture into the explosive mix while it was in the blast holes, and cracking of ground around the blast holes which may have prevented efficient detonation of the explosive.”

IMAGE: Ros Druce. An aerial shot of Maules Creek and Boggabri mines. January 2016.
IMAGE: Ros Druce. An aerial shot of Maules Creek and Boggabri mines. January 2016.

In a separate incident, also last week, Guardian Australia reported that Whitehaven Coal is being investigated by the Department of Planning and Environment, which is auditing Whitehaven’s clearing of the critically endangered Leard State Forest.

The audit follows a legal complaint which alleged clearing had taken place when temperatures were over 35 degrees, which the mine’s conditions prohibit because it creates unnecessary risks to wildlife.

The Maules Creek Mine has been a flashpoint of community resistance for years, with nearly 400 people arrested protesting it. The mine is now operational, and a determined program of citizen science is being played out as the community seeks to hold Whitehaven Coal to its conditions of approval.

Clearing of the Leard Forest for the 2016 season is only allowed between 15 February and 30 April, and as the mining company seeks to bulldoze the forest – environments which provide habitat to 30 endangered species – protest actions have again escalated over recent weeks.

Most recently, over the weekend, protestor David Mould suspended himself from a rail bridge to stymie Whitehaven Coal’s attempts to transport coal to Newcastle for export.

As protests continue, the Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson said, Whitehaven has been instructed to provide an incident report on the latest suspicious blast event by no later than March 11.


Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.