Speech on the Environment Planning and Assessment Amendment (Sydney Drinking Water Catchment) Bill 2017

In Parliament | 11.10.17

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (21:43): I point out that the Environment Planning and Assessment Amendment (Sydney Drinking Water Catchment) Bill 2017 should not be before the Parliament at all. The fact that it is here is in an indictment on the Liberal-National Party, who boast that they are somehow governing this State with competence. It is a rare and special talent to have been in government for more than six years and to have delivered an outcome where a regional community is on the brink of losing 600 jobs, the State is facing electricity blackouts during our ever increasingly hot summers, electricity prices are spiking and the quality of the water that more than seven million people rely on is deteriorating. But here we are.

We are here because for six long years this Government has dithered about the need for this State to get serious about transitioning to a lower carbon economy.

The hostility to clean renewable energy is not an illusion, it can be felt every day in this Parliament. Indeed, we know that for many in the Liberal-Nationals Coalition there is still a debate about whether climate change is real. It is not just the most recent cash-for-comment ramblings of our failed ex-Prime Minister. Let us not forget that it was the New South Wales State Liberal Party Conference that wanted to have forums on the science of climate change. The National Party is riddled with climate change skeptics, including some in this Chamber, but the approach now championed by their leader, John Barilaro, is to advocate for locations around regional New South Wales where a government could consider putting a nuclear power station.

Without acceptance of the reality of climate change, without a commitment to a plan to transition New South Wales away from its over-reliance on coal-fired power, without a commitment to diversify our energy towards renewables backed by a commitment to storage, these problems are going to continue. What Labor understands, but some of those opposite do not, is that climate change is real and that we need to massively increase the contribution of renewables to our power generation. Labor understands that there are jobs in renewable energy that have been lost in New South Wales because of this Government's failure to act. The most recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2015-16 New South Wales has lost 1,000 jobs in renewable energy.

Labor understands the need for proper planning, proper consultation with coal-dependent communities, and concrete and detailed plans for a just, fair and equitable transition for those jobs that are declining as our economy becomes less reliant on coal. Labor will not support 600 jobs in Lithgow being lost before Christmas. We will not allow power blackouts over the coming summer. We will not allow electricity prices to further increase as the State is forced to rely on electricity from other States and/or gas peaking plants if Mount Piper cannot operate. We also will not allow the Government to overreach and use this problem—a problem entirely of its own making—to erode the standards required to keep the water in the Sydney catchment safe and clean. The object of this bill is to amend the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and the State Environmental Planning Policy (Sydney Drinking Water Catchment) 2011 so as:

(a) to clarify the application of the neutral or beneficial effect on water quality test in the case of a development application for the continuation of development under an existing development consent relating to the Sydney drinking water catchment—

That would be Springvale—

(b) to validate the development consent granted on 21 September 2015 in relation to the Springvale mine extension, and to validate any other development consent that would have been invalid under the test as so clarified.

My colleague the Hon. Adam Searle has outlined in detail Labor's position in relation to this bill. I am not going to go through that again. I do, however, wish to speak about the issue in relation to water. In relation to this bill though we also have to understand a bit of the history. I know that some members have already gone through that. In 2006 the mine was instructed by the Environment Protection Authority [EPA] to begin transferring wastewater to Wallerawang power station for treatment and reuse to avoid dumping it in the upper catchment of Sydney's drinking water in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. When Wallerawang closed in November 2014 the water treatment plant was decommissioned and the Government protection licence for the mine was altered to allow the water to be discharged instead.

Springvale is now licensed to discharge 19 megalitres—that is 19 million litres—of water from its discharge point into Sawyers Swamp creek and the Coxs River, the second largest stream flowing into the Warragamba dam. The water comes from the coal seams being mined, is highly saline and contains heavy metals. I have been down the Springvale mine and I have seen this in action. The Springvale mine has repeatedly been found by the EPA to be in breach of its licence for exceeding limits on arsenic discharged via Discharge Point 9. There has been an impact on the river. Testing carried out by the Blue Mountains Conservation Society found that the upper Coxs River had high levels of heavy metals, including zinc, copper and manganese, 125 times more sulphate than surrounding streams, and only 5 per cent of the oxygen that fish require. This is in our World Heritage area, on the doorstep of our city.

In 2014 the mine sought and received approval to expand. Because of its location in the Sydney drinking water catchment, the mine was subject to the provisions of the catchment State environmental planning policy [SEPP]. The environmental assessment for the expansion found that it would cause a significant increase in salinity in the swamp and creek immediately downstream and admitted that the discharge would increase the salinity of Warragamba dam by 6 per cent. In June 2014 the NSW EPA's comments on the environmental assessment for the extension said that there had been a failure to adequately assess the impact of the mine expansion on the water quality. The EPA said that it was a "major concern".

The EPA described the contaminant load as a "major issue", stating that the "potential salt load alone (7,500 to 13,000 tonnes per annum)" is "extremely large for a fresh water system". The Sydney Catchment Authority said at the time that the project should be refused consent unless a requirement were imposed that the discharged water be treated. Without this requirement, the mine would not achieve the test of having a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality in the catchment. It would be degrading the quality of water flowing into Warragamba, making it saltier, adding heavy metals to it, and contributing to the toxicity of the aquatic environment. The approval was granted in September 2015 with the condition that there be a water treatment plant.

Everyone in this place supports the water treatment plant because we know it will have a good outcome for water quality. However, this bill seeks to secure the future of the Springvale mine at the same time as degrading the environmental standards for all mines and other developments that impact on Sydney's water catchment. This is a sneaky attempt to erode environmental protections, and Labor will move, as we did in the other place, to stop this massive overreach. The 2016 audit of the Sydney water drinking catchment points to significant problems with Sydney's water supply. The audit reveals that the Coxs River flows into a lake that had the poorest standard for surface flows. The audit reveals a significant increase in bushfire-affected lands, with a subsequent negative impact on water quality. The audit also points to increased impacts from coalmining. In response to that audit, the Minister for Resources, Energy and Utilities noted that:

The Government is looking closely at the independent audit and will ensure that whatever actions are required to protect our catchment are taken.

That is not what is happening here tonight. What the Government is doing is trying to water down protections for the water catchment. The State Environmental Planning Policy (Sydney Drinking Water Catchment) 2011 prohibits the granting of development consent unless the consent authority is satisfied that the proposed development will have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality. The issue turns on what the baseline measurement is. This test is currently required to be applied to the baseline quality of water prior to the operation of the mine or development. This bill seeks to shift that goalpost. If this part of the bill is supported, it would mean that the neutral or beneficial test would be applied against baseline water quality after the operation of the mine has commenced. Will the Minister stop interjecting?

The Hon. Don Harwin: Now the member knows what it is like in question time because she has been interjecting for six years.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( The Hon. Paul Green ): Order! The Minister knows it is disorderly to interject. Given he is the senior role model in this place, I expect him to act accordingly.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: Given that there is a solution for Springvale but not any other mine, this means that any other mines or developments could argue that the impact is neutral or would not necessarily be required to put in place water treatment to stop pollution of rivers and streams feeding the water catchment. Labor does not support this, and we will seek to move amendments to remove these from the bill. I also restate the commitment from the Labor leader, Luke Foley, that if our amendments are unsuccessful, a future Labor government will reinstate the proper protections for the Sydney Water Catchment.

In my concluding comments, I wish to acknowledge the work of those who continue to raise the issues and campaign to protect our water supply and the integrity and beauty of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. It is important work, and I thank them for continuing to raise with me the issues around these matters and taking the time to show me the problems that we should all seek to work together to address. When future generations look back at this bill they will scratch their heads about how this Government could get to this position. Those who are impacted now will judge this Government in 2019 based on the level of incompetence in this matter, which is simply breathtaking.

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 11 October 2017