Drayton South coalmine extension wins early nod, angering horse stud industry

Threatened ground: Horses at the Coolmore Stud in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Tanya d’HervilleA controversial Hunter Valley coalmine extension has secured preliminary approval from the Baird government in a move described by horse breeders as the “beginning of the end” for their industry.

The Planning Department has recommended that a scaled-back plan to extend the life of the Drayton South open-cut coalmine operated by mining giant Anglo American can be approved by the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) with conditions.

The mine, which would expand closer to the famous Coolmore and Woodland horse studs, would be able to extract about 75 million more tonnes of coking coal. The open pit, though, would have to remain behind a natural ridgeline and leave a buffer zone along nearby Saddlers Creek, resulting in about 100 million tonnes of coal resource being left untapped.

The department’s “preliminary recommendation is that the revised mine plan is far enough from the nearby horse studs that it can be approved subject to strict conditions especially around dust and noise”, a spokesman said.

The PAC is due to hold a public hearing on September 10. Commissioners will be required to take into account the Baird government’s proposed amendment to the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that will result in economic factors losing their primacy over social and environmental ones.

However, the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association said that two previous versions of the mine plan had been rejected by the PAC and the third iteration should also be dismissed.

“This mine remains less than one kilometre from the operations of the Darley and Coolmore horse studs,” the association said in a statement. “Concerns regarding impacts on water, blasting, noise, dust, equine and human health, destruction to lands and threatened species, visual amenity and the reputation of one of the world’s leading thoroughbred breeding industries remain.”

Cameron Collins, association president, said the mine expansion would devastate the breeding industry and put thousands of jobs at risk.

“Despite a rejection last year, Anglo American is allowed to submit any number of applications regardless of their consequences to strategic agricultural lands, industries and our environment while ordinary landholders are stripped of their appeal rights,” Dr Collins said.

Major projects directed by the Planning Minister to a PAC review for public hearings do not have merits appeal rights although they can be challenged on judicial grounds.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes does not normally comment on projects being assessed by the PAC, a spokesman said.

Fairfax Media sought comment from Anglo American. The company welcomed the department’s preliminary recommendation that the mine extension would be approved, according to a report in the Singleton Argus.

The recommendation “agrees with Anglo American’s detailed and peer reviewed assessments which found the project will have no adverse effects on the health of horses” on the nearby studs, the paper quoted Rick Fairhurst, the company’s project director for the mine, as saying.

The department said the mine would require capital investment of about $131 million, generate annual spending of about $213 million and permit the retention of 500 jobs at the mine for another 15 years.

Darley is owned by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Sheikh of Dubai, while Coolmore is Swiss-owned.

“[E]ven if the owners of these operations did decide to leave the area, there is no reason why the properties could not continue to be used to breed thoroughbred horses in the future, albeit in all likelihood by operations without the international reputation of Coolmore  and Darley,” the department said in its preliminary recommendation.

Redoute’s Choice, Fastnet Rock and Exceed are among champion horses produced or sired at the two studs.