Undermining impacts: the social costs of the Vickery extension

1 September 2020
An extension on the Whitehaven coal mine has been approved on the basis of social benefits, however, social impact experts Gemma Viney and Dr Alison Ziller find these claims deeply flawed.

By Gemma Viney, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney; Alison Ziller, Department of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University

The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) has recently approved the Vickery Extension Project, a development which will result in a 250% increase in production from Whitehaven’s coal mine, and which faced a majority opposition in both spoken and written submissions to the IPC.1 The development was approved in part due to the reported social ‘benefits’ afforded to the local community, despite evidence provided by experts explicitly outlining the likely negative impacts that would result should the project extension be approved. Below are the findings of research and expertise from two SEI members, Dr Alison Ziller and PhD candidate Gemma Viney, regarding the existing and prospective social impacts of the newly approved development.

Will the project really create meaningful employment?

It is always concerning when the social benefits of a proposed resource extraction project are said to be jobs. This is partly because the need for employment in an area hides a host of social issues that the extraction process will bring with it – masculinisation of the town, loss of other forms of livelihood, social conflict and division, and the continuation of the gap for Aboriginal people despite the extraction activity on their traditional lands.

But in this case, the concern is with the jobs claim itself. This is because the basis for the projection of the number of jobs to be delivered, particularly operational jobs, is unclear. It’s an estimate and we are asked to rely on the applicant for this estimate.

The fact that automation is now proceeding in this industry and in mines owned by the applicant means that the projection of 450 operational jobs is, to say the least, doubtful. In the absence of these jobs, the case for a social benefit for the local community evaporates.

Whitehaven says that this project will deliver 450 operational jobs. A number of reliable public agencies, such as the ABS, advise that employment in mining is declining. One of the reasons for this is automation of the industry. Whitehaven advised the Department earlier this year that ‘it has no plans to introduce an automated mining fleet into the project’.2 However, Whitehaven also advised its shareholders in its most recent annual report that it had already introduced 6 automated haulage trucks at Maules Creek and it was ‘likely’ to do so at the approved Vickery mine with an estimated operational saving across the life of the mine of $4t.3

This is not only a lot of money, but a lot of jobs. It is not reasonable to suppose that Whitehaven was misleading its shareholders. It is also not reasonable to suppose that automated haulage would be introduced to the approved project but not to the extension. The fact that automation is now proceeding in this industry and in mines owned by the applicant means that the projection of 450 operational jobs is, to say the least, doubtful.

In the absence of these jobs, the case for a social benefit for the local community evaporates. The question then becomes, what are the costs against which Whitehaven were weighing their alleged benefits.

What will be the impact of the Voluntary Land Acquisition and Mitigation Policy?

Thus far, Whitehaven Coal have already acquired at least 90 family farms, and own more than 61,050 hectares over freehold title.4 Many of these were acquired under the Voluntary Land Acquisition and Mitigation Policy (VLAMP), which is premised on allowing mining projects to exceed air and noise pollution criteria by providing a ‘voluntary acquisition’ alternative to affected landowners. Large scale land acquisition was not addressed in the IPC Statement of Reasons, however, the implications with regard to social impacts for both outgoing landowners and the community left behind are extensive.

In the first instance, research into the impacts of the VLAMP on the Boggabri community found none of the seven former landowners interviewed had chosen to remain in the region after their land was acquired by mining interests, and only two had maintained any social or professional contact.

All participants had previously shopped locally and used local health and education facilities as required. This was raised in contrast to concerns about the prospective workforce who would hypothetically replace these outgoing Boggabri families and longstanding community members, and who by virtue of being transient in nature have no requirement for long term investment in and engagement with local infrastructure.

Another key issue identified by participants was the impacts to the cultural atmosphere of Boggabri, and the extent to which the presence of mining and policies such as the VLAMP not only disrupt the way of life within a community, but actively fracture community bonds. All seven participants identified a shift in the culture of Boggabri, and when returning to the region interviewees described feeling alienated as the town had lost its ‘rural community’ feel. This was also raised as a concern for those left behind, in an unrecognisable social and cultural setting which is increasingly unstable.5

It is also important to highlight the extent to which participants almost universally described personal losses, both economically and in health and wellbeing as a result of their experiences with the Voluntary Land Acquisition process. Six of seven respondents described the process and the policy itself as difficult, at times distressing and ultimately unjust. Social Impact literature,6 and NSW DPIE guidelines7 recognise access to decision making systems as a key social impact that ought to be considered in the assessment of any prospective development. The responses from interviewees in this study describe an overwhelming sense of lost agency, and an explicit interpretation of the government’s decision making thus far as a clear prioritisation of mining interests and profit over individuals and communities impacted by this industry.

The hallmark of this project is distributional inequity, that is, a lack of social benefits for the local community. The IPC has approved the Vickery extension project on the premise of these ‘benefits’ which will likely never reach those who stand to be the most impacted by its development if they eventuate at all. Furthermore, the approval of this project under current policies of land acquisition and management will only exacerbate said impacts and allow the cycles of disempowerment and mistreatment of community and landowners to continue.

1. Bell, P 2018, ‘Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine extension approved by Independent Planning Commission, with conditions’, ABC New England, August 12.
2. DPIE Vickery Extension Project Assessment Report, May 2020 p 111
3. In September 2019
4. Lock the Gate 2018, ‘Briefing Paper on the Impacts of Land Acquisition By Mining in the Namoi Region analysis of the Namoi region’.
5. see. Askland, H 2018, ‘A dying village: Mining and the experiential condition of displacement’, The Extractive Industries and Society, vol. 5, pp. 230-236. and Askland, H & Bunn, M 2018, ‘Lived experiences of environmental change: Solastalgia, power and place’, Emotion, Space and Society, vol. 27, pp. 16-22.)
6. Vanclay, F 2003, ‘International Principles for Social Impact Assessment’, Impact Assessment & Project Appraisal, vol 21, no. 1, pp. 5-11.
7. NSW Department of Planning and Environment 2017, Social impact assessment guideline For State significant mining, petroleum production and extractive industry development, NSWDPE, NSW.

Gemma Viney is a Research Assistant on the FASS 2018 Strategic Research Program Project developing the field of Multi Species Justice and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Government and International relations. Gemma was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. She has a Bachelors degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and a First-class Honours Degree in the Department of Government and International Relations. She is the Research Lead on Anti-Mining Community Movements at the Sydney Environment Institute.

Alison Ziller is a lecturer on social impact assessment in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University. Alison is also a consultant social planner specialising in social impact assessment (SIA). Alison wrote The new social impact assessment handbook (Australia Street Company, 2012) and is the author of several publications relating to the role of public sector agencies in commissioning and reviewing SIAs, and has extensive experience reviewing SIAs for councils and state government departments. She recently prepared two SIAs for the NSW Environmental Defenders Office working with members of the Sydney Environment Institute and has assisted other community groups and non-profit agencies address SIA issues for a number of years.

Header image: explosive works on open pit via Shutterstock, ID: 449501521.