Protecting precious Liverpool Plains groundwater reserves remains the focus for farm groups following this week’s decision by the NSW Government to partially buy back part of the controversial Shenhua Watermark coal and exploration licence.
The Chinese-owned company was granted the licence in 2008 to carry out the coal project near Breeza, 43 kilometres south of Gunnedah.
On Wednesday, the NSW Minister for Resources, Don Harwin, announced an agreement with Shenhua that would result in just over 51% of the company's exploration licence handed back.
In return, Shenhua will receive a refund of $262 million from the $300m exploration fee paid to government by the company in 2008.
Mr Harwin said the Government had determined 'there should be no mining on the fertile black soils of the Liverpool Plains', and future mining activity would be restricted to ridge lands.
Further, Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Water, Niall Blair, said future mining operations must abide by 'strict water management conditions'.
NSW Farmers Association hailed the move as a step in the right direction but said the region was not out of the woods yet.
“The Association has been battling to protect the Liverpool Plains for over a decade. It is one of our heartland issues,” President, Derek Schoen said.
“We are not against mining but it must be developed strategically and not at the expense of precious land, water and agricultural jobs.
“NSW Farmers will continue voicing its opposition to the Shenhua Watermark project and impressing upon Government the critical importance of protecting prime agricultural land and water resources.
“NSW Farmers is urging Premier Gladys Berejiklian to visit the Liverpool Plains and see for herself why protecting one of the country’s most iconic food and fibre resources must be a priority,” Mr Schoen said.
The Liverpool Plains is Australia’s key cotton growing region. Representing the interests of Cotton growers, Cotton Australia said growers were frustrated that the significant impact of the mine on water resources had seemingly not be considered by the Government.
"While there is greater protection for agricultural land from this announcement, the reality is that a reduction in the exploration area for the mine will make no difference to the water impacts imposed by the mine,” Cotton Australian Chief Executive Adam Kay said.
“We will scrutinise the Water Management Plan that is required prior to activity occurring on the ridge lines.”
"Regardless of the reduction in exploration area, farmers on some of the finest soils in NSW will still have an open cut mine in their back yard that will cut through aquifers, intercept water and undoubtedly have negative impacts on water resources and farm productivity."
National Farmers’ Federation President and Liverpool Plains farmer, Fiona Simson said scientific evidence was needed to determine whether the mine would impact groundwater reserves.
“At the moment, the science is in and until such time that it is in, the mine should not go ahead.
Ms Simson urged both the State and Federal Governments to consider the appropriateness of the development.
“Why are we building an open-cut coal mine in the middle of some of our most valuable agricultural food and fibre producing lands?”
“I say, let us actually continue to develop the region as a booming centre for agricultural production.
“Let's continue to develop the ag-based jobs, let's promote growth, let's develop infrastructure; let's focus on doing what the Liverpool Plain does best and that’s grow food and fibre.”
Image credit: Jeremy Buckingham, Fllckr