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Coal seam gas exclusion zones fail community expectations

Posted on 24 October 2013

Coal seam gas exclusion zones fail community expectations

After considerable public pressure, the Government has finally implemented coal seam gas exclusion zones around certain areas in NSW. These have been implemented via amendments to the State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) 2007 [Mining SEPP].

Implementation of these exclusion zones is an admission that coal seam gas is unsafe, and this ban must be extended to include agricultural land, water catchments and sensitive environments.

With this announcement, there is an opportunity to make public submissions on the Stage 2 coal seam gas exclusion zones, critical infrastructure mapping, and strategic agricultural land mapping, which are on public exhibition until 8 November. Make submissions here.

While it’s important to comment on the accuracy of these maps, it’s also important to contact the Government and other members of Parliament to let them know the exclusions don’t go far enough. They don’t protect all residents, they don’t protect water catchments or agricultural land, and they don’t protect our precious environmental areas, such as the Pilliga forest.

Below is information that helps make sense of the latest changes, along with key concerns the Government needs to address to ensure that coal seam gas does not industrialise NSW.


What the SEPP does

  • Introduces coal seam gas exclusion zones on and around residential areas, and on critical industry clusters, and prohibits coal seam gas development in such areas.
  • Maps strategic agricultural land, future growth areas and appoints gateway panel to assess coal and gas projects on BSAL land.
  • Only applies to coal seam gas, not other unconventional gas such as tight sands or shale gas.
  • Applies to new exploration and production activities - not where environmental assessment for development approval has already been notified by the Director General before 10 September 2012.[1]


Residential zones

  • Applies coal seam gas ‘exclusion zones’ to residential land zoned R1, R2, R3, R4 and RU5 (villages).
  • The residential exclusion zones cover 2.344 million hectares across all 152 local government areas of the state.
  • Pipelines are allowed within the 2km ‘buffer zones’,[2] which means there may be pipelines up to the boundaries of residential areas.
  • No publication of residential ‘exclusion zones’ maps – only future growth areas - therefore leaving communities with uncertainty as to whether their land is protected. Leaves individual land owners to check their land zonings with council LEP. Residents may perceive they are protected when in fact they’re not.
  • Excludes rural dwellings from protection, which means these people will be the collateral damage of coal seam gas expansion. This will unfairly impact those living in rural communities and large lot residential areas. Large lot residential areas zoned R5 will not automatically be afforded the protection that other residential areas are given, unless they fit the village criteria. Therefore large lots residential estates such as Waterview Heights in South Grafton,[3] Forbesdale and Thunderbolts residential estates in Gloucester,[4]  and the residential areas around Crookwell, Gunning and Taralga in the Upper Lachlan LGA[5] will not be protected by the exclusion zones.
  • Government is proposing to extend the exclusion zones to seven ‘‘rural-residential’’ villages including parts of Goonengerry, Jerrys Plains, Broke and Bulga; all of Modanville, Camberwell and Sutton Forrest;  and to land earmarked for future housing in 56 council areas.[6]
  • Councils can still opt out of exclusion zones,[7] and although no councils have said they’d opt out,[8] this option will remain into the future, and will lead to risks of undue influence and corruption.


Biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land & Gateway Panel [applies to coal and gas]

  • BSAL guidelines only protect agricultural land that is the ‘best of the best’.
  • Although 2.8m ha of BSAL has been mapped (1m ha more than previously), this is only 3.5% of state.
  • The Director-General of planning will be the one that determines verification certificates for BSAL, not an authority with any experience of agriculture or any independence from the assessment process.
  • Areas mapped BSAL do not provide protection per se, merely means they go through the gateway process which has no power to reject a project.[9]
    • 90 days for Gateway panel to make assessment[10]
    • Section 17H of the Mining SEPP say the Gateway Panel “must determine an application by issuing a gateway certificate in accordance with this Division.” However, if the Gateway Panel runs out of time for their assessment, a certificate with no conditions attached will be automatically issued.
    • Section 17J (3) (a) says that in the event that a proponent fails to provide further information requested by the Panel, they can “reject and not determine the application” but this is not consistent with section 17H.
    • Gateway panel won’t assess projects that were issued with formal assessment requirements before September 2012 (when Gateway was announced)[11] – therefore only three existing mine proposals would need to go through the new gateway panel - Spur Hill mine near Denman, the Bylong Coal Project and the Caroona Coal proposal for the Liverpool Plains.[12] Department of Planning spokesman said a number of projects, such as the Drayton South coalmine proposed near the Darley and Coolmore horse studs, would also be referred to the panel for “advice”.[13]
    • Gateway panel members[14] have already been criticised for having links to the mining industry.
  • Mining on BSAL must also be referred to the Minister for Primary Industries for advice on the project’s impacts under the government’s aquifer interference policy,[15] and to the Commonwealth independent expert scientific committee for advice about water impacts.[16]
  • Exempt from both the exclusion zones and the gateway assessment process are any horse studs or vineyards that gas or mining companies have owned before its draft land-use policy was announced in September 2012. This is a major loophole and will lead to a ‘Swiss-cheese’ effect considering mining companies have been buying up land in the Gloucester and Hunter valleys for years.[17]


Critical Industry Clusters

  • Critical industry clusters only protect horse studs and wineries – not other enterprises such as horticulture, cropping, grazing, dairy, poultry etc
  • No ‘ 2 km buffer zones for CIC’,[18] which means industry can drill up to the boundary.
  • Reduction by 11% of the amount of land that comprises an Upper Hunter ‘‘critical industry cluster’’ of horse studs and vineyards compared to September draft land-use plan[19]
  • Mapping of vineyards has been a complete shambles.[20]
  • In allegations of collusion regarding mapping of CICs, the Department of Primary Industries says “it appears that the two vineyards in Broke owned by AGL were inadvertently omitted from the maps”.[21]


Other key concerns

  • 2 km buffer zone is unscientific and arbitrary – 2 km buffer zones are inadequate when considering that air, light, noise and water pollution can travel many kilometres.
  • Protections only apply to coal seam gas, not other forms of unconventional gas such as tight sands and shale gas, which is increasingly being targeted for exploitation. Northern NSW has tight sand gas deposits, which may well mean the 2 km protections do not apply.
  • Water catchments[22] and other sensitive environments still not protected
  • Insufficient area of land protected - NSW land area is 800,000km2, which is 80 million hectares. Government is saying they’re protecting 5 million hectares of residential and farmland, which is only 6% of the state (3.5% of this 6% is BSAL, which is still open to mining). CSG licences cover approx. 25% of the State. Brad Hazzard says the policy “still allows industry to access 90% of the land area that has the resource”.[23]
  • Protection excluded where project already approved - the buffer zones will not apply to exploration or production licences that have already been approved.[24]  This means that the buffer zones will not protect Gloucester residences from the Stage 1 project approval (pre March 2011)[25] but would apply to Stages 2 & 3. This would mean Metgasco’s drilling near Casino township (pursuant to Richmond Valley Power Station project approval) may be allowed.
  • Strategic regional land use mapping still incomplete - SRLUP maps have only been completed for 2 areas in the state – Upper Hunter and New England North West, therefore leaving most of the state unmapped.
  • Gateway and Mining SEPP do not promote existing rights – such as those that exist in sections 71 & 72 of the Petroleum (Onshore) Act relating to restrictions on exploration and production. Landholders may incorrectly assume that if they do not satisfy the criteria for BSAL, then they have no choice but to allow access. As it stands, landholders have the right to deny access (albeit contested) for exploration under soil conservation works etc and for production on cultivated land.



  • NSW Irrigators “happy to coexist with industry”, but want 2 of the following 3 demands met:[26]
    • detailed baseline data
    • making the aquifer interference policy a binding regulation giving control of water to the Water Minister
    • extending critical industry cluster protection to all irrigation farms
  • NSW Farmers
    • “The exclusion zones apply to towns and population centres, they don’t apply to agricultural land or water. The agricultural land and water is mapped as biophysical Strategic Agricultural Land and that land is not ruled out of development.”[27]
    • “[Gateway] panel lacked teeth.”[28]
    • “this government has chosen to ignore all feedback and deliver effectively the same Gateway Process that was offered up initially for public comment”[29]
    • Wants the aquifer interference policy to have teeth[30]
    • There is no gate in the gateway[31]
  • APPEA – “A policy anchored in blanket no-go zones to “protect” areas from an industry that has been producing natural gas safely in Australia for decades is not a policy based on sound science or experience,”[32]
  • Lock the Gate[33]
  • Lock the Tweed
    • “Lines on a map will not stop air and water borne contaminants from impacting on communities”
    • Cane land or eco-tourism not included as CIC
  • Lismore City Council – wants 2km buffer zone extended to schools (particularly country schools)[34]
  • Tweed Sugar Cane Growers Association - “Intensive cultivation is just not compatible whatsoever with CSG and we will do whatever it takes to protect our farming land.”[35]


Impact on Projects

SEPP seems to confirm that AGL’s expansion of its Camden project south of Sydney cannot proceed, nor its Hunter project. Expansion of the Gloucester project beyond the already approved first phase may also be impossible.[36]

Santos – Mr Baulderstone said Santos would not be affected by the NSW legislation and was happy the state government had agreed to support its Pilliga project and AGL’s Gloucester project.[37]

The Australian article suggests “most of NSW’s 13 CSG operators will be largely unaffected.”[38] [5 October]


Summary of Key Concerns

  • Fails to protect water catchments or sensitive environments (such as the Pilliga).
  • Fails to protect agricultural land (BSAL land will still be mined/drilled via Gateway process).
  • Fails to protect rural residents.
  • Allows councils to opt out from protection, leading to risks of undue influence and corruption.
  • Allows pipelines within the 2 km buffer zone.
  • Does not protect against other unconventional gas exploration, such as tight sands and shale gas.
  • Only protects narrowly defined critical industry clusters – horse studs and wineries.
  • Gives no protection to Gloucester residents where 110 wells have already been approved and where large lot residential estates have not been given residential protection.
  • Diminishes landholders’ perception of their existing rights under the Petroleum (Onshore) Act & Mining Act relating to access agreements and restrictions on exploration and production (albeit limited).


Documents & links

SEPP overview by law firm Clayton Utz

State Environmental Planning Policy (Mining, Petroleum Production and Extractive Industries) Amendment 2013

Strategic Regional Land Use Policy website

Gateway assessment panel & members

[14] http://www.mpgp.nsw.gov.au/?action=page&page=members

[31] http://www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/general/news/gaps-left-in-gateway/2674380.aspx

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Dubbo Zirconia rare earths project

Posted on 23 October 2013

Dubbo Zirconia Project: How do you feel about a radioactive rare earths mine 25 km south of Dubbo?

Have your say.


Alkane Resources is proposing a 20 million tonne open cut rare earths mine at Toongi, 25 km south of Dubbo. Alkane is specifically targeting zirconium, nobium, hafnium, tantalum, ytterium and other rare earth elements (REE) although minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, which are radioactive. The radioactivity associated with REE ores is a major concern, which highlights the strong need to be upfront, transparent and thorough in all aspects of REE production.

Although the Greens do not oppose the mining of rare earths per se, we support a responsible mining framework that safeguards our precious water supplies, community health and ensures products from such mining are not used to for nuclear power generation or nuclear weapons. We are especially cognisant of the need for the proponent of such projects to take responsibility for the storage of radioactive waste for the full lifetime of such waste (often hundreds of years).

The Environmental Assessment is open for public comment until 18 November 2013, so you have an opportunity to object to the development or suggest ways it should be improved. Submissions can be made on the Department of Planning’s Major Project Register website, either as an attachment or via the site form.

Project Summary

Alkane Resources intend to construct an open cut 20 Mt pit and rare earth processing plant at Toongi, 25km south of Dubbo. The project is specifically targeting zirconium, niobium, hafnium, tantalum, and rare earth elements (REEs). The project proposal includes upgrade of Toongi-Dubbo rail line and road network, and the construction of water, electricity and gas pipelines. The area of disturbance is approximately 170 hectares.

 The resource deposit is a radioactive ore but Alkane claims that the production process does not produce a mineral concentrate and hence the uranium and thorium do not get concentrated at the front end of the process like many rare earth projects. [1] The production of uranium is currently banned in NSW, although the NSW government overturned a 28 year moratorium on uranium exploration in February 2012.[2] A pilot processing plant at Lucas Heights was used to test the chemical processing and separation of the metals and REEs from the ore.[3]


 Impacts / Concerns

Radioactivity & the pretext of mining for rare earths may be a precursor to uranium mining – The mineralised material contains between 80-160 parts per million (ppm) uranium and between 250-500 ppm thorium, and contains radionuclides from the U238, U235 and Th232 decay chains. This means the ore is considered radioactive.[4] For reference, the world average for concentrations of these elements in soils is 3 ppm for uranium and 6 ppm for thorium.[5] The Environmental Assessment states:

The process is a whole-of-ore acid leach to extract the rare metals and rare earths, and this process also extracts much of the uranium (~100ppm U) and thorium (~400ppm Th) into solution. Through the flow sheet, uranium and thorium are isolated from the products but remain in solution where they are stabilised and neutralised by limestone within the waste streams. The addition of limestone further dilutes the uranium and thorium so that the average radioactivity in the residue storage facility is less than the ore.[6]

 Alkane claim they aren’t interested in the uranium and only want the rare earths, but Toongi has the largest uranium deposit in NSW, with mineral deposits containing between 10,000 and 100,000 tonnes of U3O8.[7] It is hard to believe that the uranium and thorium will be left in ‘waste facility’ when the infrastructure and market is already there for the sale of uranium and thorium. Although the project is ostensibly for the mining of rare earths, this project sets a dangerous precedent which could be a precursor to uranium mining and processing in the future. Further, the raw material zircon gets processed into zirconium which can be used in nuclear fuel rods and for nuclear cladding.[8]

Lifespan of the project likely to be longer than 20 years & pit likely to be expanded – Although the project claims to restrict mining to 8 Mt of the identified 73 Mt of resource in order to stay above the groundwater table,[9] mine projects have a habit of extending their terms once approved and/or removing conditions that originally protected the environment. There are numerous mentions of the project lasting longer than 20 years, with ASX announcements indicating that the pit is capable of supporting open pit mining in excess of 100 years.[10] The Environmental Assessment indicates that there is “likely to be the opportunity to continuation of the DZP site beyond the life of the current proposal.”[11] This means the project will irrevocably change the landscape and have long term impacts on Toongi and surrounds.

Rare earth mining is not a clean, ‘green’ process - Under-regulated rare earths projects can produce wastewater and tailings ponds that leak acids, heavy metals and radioactive elements into groundwater, and market pressures for cheap and reliable rare earths may lead Alkane to skimp on environmental protections.[12] Few independent studies chart the industry’s global ecological impact.[13] The radioactivity associated with REE ores is a major concern, which highlights the strong need to be upfront, transparent and thorough in all aspects of REE production.[14] REE mining requires appropriate engineering design, construction, operation and decommissioning – using world-class regulation, community engagement and business stewardship.[15]

Dilution is not the solution – Alkane plan to dilute the radioactive waste by mixing it with lime until it is below accepted international concentrations for the radioactive material. A similar project by Lynas in Malaysia contemplated turning the lime solution into solid structures that could be used for sea walls or construction materials.[16] Dilution does not neutralise the radiation, but merely puts it into a more dilute and manageable form. This would not preclude future mining of the radioactive materials if the government’s ban was to be lifted in the future.

Industrialisation of Toongi and surrounds – The project entails major infrastructure works which will irreversibly change the nature of Toongi and surrounds for the next 20-100 years, particularly the mass industrialisation of at least 170 hectares of agricultural land.[17] The project entails the construction of 30 km gas pipeline from Dubbo, the construction of 132kV electricity transmission line from Geurie, the construction of 8 km water pipeline from the Macquarie River, and the proposed upgrade of the Dubbo-Toongi railway. These are all major infrastructure projects that are resource intensive and will have long term impacts on the landscape.

Traffic impacts & railway – The project will see the exponential increase of light and heavy traffic movement between Dubbo and Toongi, with an estimated 158 truck movements per week along the Obley Road. Alkane’s claim to re-establish the railway would not happen for at least 5 years, and even then there is no guarantee.[18] Once reopened, the rail line through town will expose residents along the rail corridor to increased noise and dust pollution.

High risks associated with the project – Alkane’s own environmental assessment identifies high and extreme risks associated with the project, such as:

  • leachate from evaporation ponds affecting aquifers and bores
  • radiation affecting workers during mining and processing
  • chemical spills contaminating surface and ground water
  • reduction in environmental flows to Wambangalang Creek and other tributaries of the Macquarie River
  • clearing of native vegetation and endangered ecological communities
  • increased noise levels from blasting and processing
  • removal or destruction of Aboriginal heritage items

High risk is described on p 36 of the Environmental assessment as “requiring in-depth assessment and high level documentation of the proposed controls and mitigation measures. Ultimately, this level of risk may preclude the development of the Project.”

Extreme risk is described as “requiring in-depth assessment and high level documentation of the proposed

controls and mitigation measures and possible preparation of a specialised management plan. Unless considered to be adequately managed by the controls and/or management plan, this level of risk is likely to preclude the development of the Project.”

Waste and the need for long term waste management – Waste from the project is to be stored onsite in solid and liquid form. It is estimated that a total of 1.36 million bank cubic metres of waste will be removed during the 20 year mine life, and will cover 20 hectares.[19] This includes 6.7 million tonnes of salt. The liquid waste facility will remain for the life of the project.[20]

Greenhouse gas emissions – 260,000 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, which is equivalent to 52,000 cars.

Noise – particularly from blasting, 24 hour processing operations and rail transport.

Water – The project plans to use 4.05 GL of water per year, which will be sourced from the Macquarie River via the construction of a water pipeline. 1 GL is equivalent to 400 Olympic size swimming pools, which means the project will use over 1600 swimming pools of fresh water per year.

There are conflicting figures regarding the depth of the open cut pit, which the Environmental Assessment claims will stay above the groundwater table.[21] The depth is listed variously as 40 m[22] or 32 m[23], while the measured resource is up to 100 m depth.[24] Due to the conflicting nature of the pit’s supposed depth, and the critical need to avoid contaminating the water table, the depth of the pit and its impacts on the water table is of critical importance to assessing the project.

Energy intensive – The project will use 970 terajoules of gas per year, via the construction of a new gas pipeline. This is equivalent to approximately 33,000 tonnes of coal per year, or 270 million kWh – which is about the same amount of energy used to power 38,000 households. That’s more than twice the size of Dubbo.

Biodiversity – The project impacts on 3 endangered ecological communities, and a threatened species – the pink tailed worm lizard.[25] Alkane proposes an offset of 1021 hectares.

Aboriginal heritage – There will be “unavoidable” impact on 14 Aboriginal heritage sites, including two potential archaeological deposits.[26]

Royalties – less than $10 million annually are predicted by Alkane[27]

Rare Earths

  • REE are essential for many new developments in electronics and future energy technologies, including solar voltaic cells, LED’s, electric motors, wind turbines and computers.[28]
  • China produces 97% of global supplies of REE,[29] with two thirds mined from Baotou, Mongolia,[30] but China has announced that it would severely restrict its exports of REEs due to rising problems with its mines such as polluted waterways and radiation exposure affecting not only workers, but entire communities.[31]
  • The world’s REE deposits are abundant enough to supply the world for decades to come.[32]
  • Australia has 59.4 megatonnes (Mt) of sub-economic REE resources in addition to 1.65 megatonnes of economic REEs. Some 53 Mt of the sub-economic variety can be found in the giant Olympic Dam ore body in South Australia.[33]
  • Processing of ore can require leaching with hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid (both of which are products of the petrochemical industry), ion exchange separation, solvent partitioning and crystalisation.[34]
  • Minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, both radioactive elements.
  • For a case study of REE mining, read the story of Baotou,[35] in Inner Mongolia and of Lynas Corporation operating its Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Malaysia.[36]
  • For an excellent discussion of the impacts of the technology boom, read: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/26/rare-earth-metals-technology-boom


Greens’ Position

The Greens certainly oppose uranium mining, with NSW uranium spokesperson, Jamie Parker speaking out against the NSW government’s reintroduction of uranium exploration.[37] Australian Greens’ policies clearly oppose uranium mining, due to the strong link between the mining and export of uranium and nuclear weapons proliferation.[38]

The Greens do not oppose rare earth mining per se, but do support an approach that safeguards our precious water supplies, community health and agricultural land. We should be looking at ways to reduce the demand for resources, particularly those that pose potential risks in extraction, processing and waste disposal. The Greens have a comprehensive policy regarding waste,[39] and support the recycling of electronics and consumer items containing REE through robust product custodianship laws that require manufacturers to take responsibility for their products’ lifecycle. Europe has been doing this for nearly a decade, while Australian product stewardship laws are only voluntary.[40]


[1] 19 September 2011 ASX announcement

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-14/nsw-cabinet-endorses-uranium-plan/3829974

[3] http://www.ansto.gov.au/BusinessServices/ANSTOMinerals/Capabilities/RareEarthProcessing/index.htm

[4] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 16

[5] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 16

[6] 19 September 2011 ASX announcement, p 12

[8] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 66

[9] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 84

[10] DZP’s Marketing Presentation Hong Kong November 2010, p 28; 19 September 2011 ASX announcement, p 3

[11] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[13] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/boom_in_mining_rare_earths_poses_mounting_toxic_risks/2614/

[14] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[15] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[16] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/boom_in_mining_rare_earths_poses_mounting_toxic_risks/2614/

[17] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 115

[18] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[19] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 73

[20] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 13

[21] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 84

[22] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 67

[23] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 4

[24] Dubbo Zirconia Project Preliminary Environmental Assessment, p 70

[25] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 18

[26] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 21

[27] Dubbo Zirconia Project Executive Summary, p 24

[30] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

[31] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[32] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[33] http://theconversation.com/will-rare-earth-elements-power-our-clean-energy-future-2433

[40] http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/waste/product-stewardship/index.html

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