Concerns: Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush, council staff and Ridgelands Resources representatives after the company’s secret approval condition with the NSW Government to fund a $5 million community fund was made public. A HUNTER Departmentof Planning employee married to a coal miner playeda key role in mining company Ridgelands’ attempt to cut a community fund from $5 million to $500,000, prompting questions in NSW Parliament about associations with the mining industry and ending months of silence from the NSW Government about department involvement.
Documents obtained by theNewcastle Heraldunder freedom of information legislation show themid-levelemployee recommended the reduction in March, 2017, despite the $5 million fund being a condition of Ridgelands’exploration licence consent, and despite the company’sfailure to establish and publicise the fund “as soon as reasonably practical”from 2013, as required under the licence.
The employee said her unit had“no objections” to a“significant decrease” in thework programRidgelands was required to complete within the exploration licence’s five years, including establishing the fund, because the companyhad experienced“circumstances beyond”its control.
Confirmation of department support for the reduction has raised new questions about whether it played a part in the Resources Regulator’s decision not to prosecute Ridgelands for breaching the condition –with a maximum penalty of$1.1 million if convicted. The Resources Regulatoraccepted an enforceable undertaking from Ridgelands in June.
While the department on Thursday continued to deny the community fund condition was varied, an email written by a Ridgelands consultant to a Hunter department employee in July, 2017 showed Ridgelands believed the “revised community fund spend” was “negotiated and approved” by the department.
“Where does this leave Ridgelands? I would have thought an approved variation would put Ridgelands in a legally strong position,” wrotethe consultant after a meeting with Muswellbrook Shire Council in July, 2017, during which Ridgelands offered the council $500,000.
Email from Ridgelands consultant to Department of Planning manager after questions about $5 million community fund reduction.Herald’sattempts to obtain documents through freedom of informationrevealed this week that the department supported amending the community fund so that funded projects“have a commercial value toRidgelands”.
“Neither Ridgelands nor the department conducted any sort of public consultation or made any of that information transparent before apparently reaching an agreement between them. The attempt to vary the condition without a public process was, in council’s view, unlawful,” Mr Rush said.
He said there were other occasions wheremajor project proponentstold the councilthe departmenthad assured them of an outcome before any public consultation or process.
Referral: Resources Minister Don Harwin declined to answer questions in NSW Parliament about Hunter mining controversies after allegations were referred to ICAC this week.
“These are all matters which should now be the subject of a judicial commission of inquiry,” Mr Rush said.
In Parliament Mr Harwin declined to answer questions about Ridgelands, after confirmingallegations raised by sacked Department of Planning mining titles operations manager Rebecca Connor had been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
“I’m not confident that matter isn’t connected to the matters that have been referred to the ICAC so I am not going to add anything to my answer at this stage,” Mr Harwin said.
Department secretary Carolyn McNally referred allegations by Ms Connor to ICAC this week after theHeraldspoke to a farmer, 83, whose agricultural land objection to a NSW mine in August, 2016was not assessed before the mine was approved three months later.
The department denied receiving the objection but an employee produced it shortly after a mining licence was granted in October, 2017.
The farmer was not advised his objection was found until September, 2018, one month after Ms Connor complained to the NSW Ombudsman that she was sacked after making a protected disclosure to a superior about the farmer’s case.
Mr Harwin told Parliament he would be“doing whatever I can to make sure there’s a satisfactory outcome as far as all of the stakeholders involved” in the farmer’s case if the matter was not referred to ICAC, but he was waiting for a briefing from Ms McNally.
Labor resources spokesperson Adam Searlesaid it was“staggering the minister appears to not have been briefed on the issue of the‘lost and found’ mining objection” after months of controversy about Ridgelands.
“It is clear the minister has no control of his portfolio and that there now needs to be a full external inquiry into theadministration of mining in this state,” Mr Searle said.
“As to Ridgelands, the matter of why thecommunity fund obligation was reduced from $5 million to just $500,000, and what has been done about it, has never been properly addressed by the minister.”