A major petroleum and coal mining company has been spared prosecution for illegally using hundreds of millions of gallons of water from a river in rural NSW during one of the worst droughts in the state’s history.
Japanese energy giant Idemitsu was found to be illegally collecting and using water at its Boggabri coal mine in northeastern NSW following an investigation by the state’s water regulator.
Anti-mining collective Lock the Gate Alliance alerted the Natural Resources Access Regulator of the 2021 violation, saying water around the mine should have been diverted to the local creek system.
The regulator confirmed that Idemitsu had acted illegally, but said the parties made an enforceable commitment that was negotiated with the company itself.
“As a result of the investigation, NRAR determined that surface water was unlawfully withdrawn from an unregulated river water source at the mine,” said a June 16 email correspondence between the regulator and the alliance, viewed by AAP.
The regulator on Wednesday confirmed the terms of the commitment, which included an agreement to pay $54,000 in compensation.
Other terms include $15,000 to cover the regulator’s research costs and quarterly surface water reporting through 2027 and consultation with the local Indigenous community on the impact of past water use.
The agreement gave the regulator strong oversight of water management operations and ensured the mine had the necessary data to stay within water permit requirements, the regulator said.
Investigation and enforcement director Lisa Stockley said the decision was seen as the best outcome, as the results of the prosecution are not always certain.
“We felt that overall this enforceable undertaking was the best outcome for continued compliance toward drier times, as well as community and environmental benefits resulting from the violation,” she said.
Ms Stockley said improving the way water use was measured and reported in mining and extractive industries was a “key area of focus” for the regulator.
Lock the Gate Alliance criticized the state’s failure to prosecute mining companies for crimes such as water theft.
The alliance claims that since at least 2017, Idemitsu has been stealing the water for its mine, located about 120 km northwest of Tamworth.
It was “totally unacceptable” not to sue the company for water theft “during the height of the worst drought in living memory,” alliance coordinator Nic Clyde said.
Boggabri farmer Sally Hunter, whose family was hit hard during the drought, said the decision not to prosecute was totally unacceptable.
“While we and many other farmers have been forced to run down or even sell supplies due to a lack of water, and the price of water is skyrocketing, Idemitsu is siphoning hundreds of millions of liters illegally from this basin,” she said. in a statement.
The “slap on the wrist” response only encouraged mining companies to commit serious environmental crimes without the risk of severe penalties, she said.
“It seems these companies can just do what they want with no repercussions, even in devastating times like the last drought.”
In a statement, Idemitsu said it remains committed to sustainable environmental practices and compliance and that the Boggabri coal mine “operates under strict approvals and management plans” approved by the state and federal governments.
“We recognize the importance of our environment and have monitoring programs in place to ensure we are delivering on our commitment to preserve the region’s water, biodiversity and environmental outcomes,” the company told AAP.
The regulator’s investigation comes two years after Whitehaven Coal Ltd – which had a joint venture with Idemitsu – was prosecuted for a similar offense and ordered to pay $200,000 in Land and Environment Court.
At the time, local farmers said the $200,000 fine amounted to a “slap on the wrist.”