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Is the environmental watchdog running out of patience with Cadia, or just whistling in the wind?

August 29, 2022

An aerial shot of the dust on April 19, 2022. Supplied.

By Peter Holmes


If the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has plans to escalate action against Cadia Valley Operations for any future air quality breaches, it is playing its cards very close to its chest.


The EPA fined Cadia $15,000 last week for “failing to maintain appropriate levels of dust mitigation on its Northern and Southern Tailings Storage Facilities”.



EPA Regulatory Operations director Cate Woods said in a statement that Cadia Valley Operations had applied a cover of hydromulch to control the dust.



“An investigation into resident complaints on 19 April found the dust had blown from the company’s Northern Tailings Storage Facility,” she said.


Before 2018 wet tailings had been deposited at the North and South tailings facilities, but this had ceased after a dam wall separating the two facilities suffered what the EPA called a “catastrophic failure”.




“This has since led to the tailings in the facilities drying out, resulting in dust lift events that caused concern for residents living south and south-east of the site,” the EPA stated.


Woods said the EPA “has received numerous notifications by residents of dust lift events visible from their homes”.



The EPA statement made it clear that the environmental regulator and Cadia has been down this road before.





“And it wasn’t the first time,” the statement read, possibly suggesting a mild level of irritation.

“Ms Woods said the failure to maintain the dust suppressant on the tailings storage facilities was a serious matter and had resulted in ongoing dust lifts from the Cadia mine site.”


Cadia Valley Operations at night. Supplied.

The EPA told The Orange News Examiner that Cadia had been fined six times for a range of offences since 2000. The fines total $56,500. During the vast majority of the mine's life so far Cadia was rarely censured, but the dam wall failure changed everything.

The heaviest cash fine the EPA can hit Cadia with is $15,000. And this is what it did. But Cadia is owned by Newcrest, a mining giant with a market value of $15.7 billion (as of September 1, 2022). Fifteen thousand dollars is chump change, a rounding error on the balance sheet.





The EPA is at the mercy of NSW government legislation, and the only way for penalties to be increased would be via new legislation.


“Although the EPA has taken other action related to these events, a need for deterrence is required,” Woods said in the statement.


And then came a quote from Woods that suggested the EPA would not be content to continue just doling out $15,000 fines ad infinitum: “Cadia Valley Operations must do better to manage their impacts on the surrounding community if they want to avoid an escalation in regulatory action by the EPA.”

It’s tough talk, but where will it lead?



The EPA told The Orange News Examiner: “There are a number of regulatory approaches available to the EPA. Each allegation is considered on a case by case basis to allow the EPA to take action based on the circumstances of an alleged offence.”

Before making a regulatory decision to issue a penalty notice or commence a prosecution in the courts the EPA conducts an investigation.



“Courts can impose larger penalties for more serious incidents that are taken directly to court,” the EPA said.



The EPA did not respond directly to a question asking at what point, if required, it would likely move beyond $15,000 fines.


“The EPA takes instances of non-compliance seriously and assesses each allegation in line with the EPA’s Regulatory Policy and Regulatory Strategy,” it said.


Gemma Green from the Cadia Sustainability Community Network said that while the group was grateful the EPA had again fined Cadia the maximum amount possible, she questioned whether legislation needed to be changed to allow the imposition of greater sanctions.


Supplied.

“From a corporate entity standpoint, with regards to polluting the environment and landscapes, what should be changed within the act, or what is the penalty that will impact them to create change?

“Cap their production for six months? I’m not saying that is the right thing to do, but how do you create change? [Is it] when it hurts the executive layer and the shareholders?”




Green, a grazier, has written to the EPA “asking if they'd consider coming to the community and walking us through the process so we have a greater understanding”.


On April 19 the community group got a plane up to track the white dust blowing from the tailings dams. Green said to the east it travelled nearly 50km.



Since April 19 - when Green said the dust liftoff was accompanied by the sulphuric smell of rotten egg gas - there had only been one further, more minor, incident. But Green worries about what is coming.

“With all the rain we’ve had, if we get two or three weeks of dry, the top of the tailings dams crack, and there are furrows down the cracks, that's where we get the dust uplift from the under layers of the tailings dam,” she said.





“There’s going to be a wet spring, they’ll be applying more [hydromulch] and there will be wind and rains and storms. If it happens again in the next six months, what might that trigger [from the EPA]? Or not.”


She described Cadia’s fix for the slump of the dam wall in 2018 as a “band aid solution, with the end being the repair of the dam wall, which could be another two years”.



In a statement, Cadia general manager Aaron Brannigan acknowledged that “dust lift from Cadia’s storage facilities has been an ongoing concern for some residents while Cadia is conducting repairs to the Northern Tailings storage facility wall”.

He said that since “the event in April Cadia has doubled its dust mitigation program, including the introduction of an additional low ground pressure (tracked) tow vehicle and Hydromulch trailer trials to boost the rate of application for Hydromulch on both its tailings storage facilities.




“Cadia continues to research and implement ways to improve dust mitigation practices, including application of Hydromulch (seeded growth medium) and distribution of a dust suppressant via a tracked vehicle (Panther), and aerial distribution.“



He added that the mine was “proactively managing potential high wind events with real-time weather forecasting linked to a trigger action response plan”, which included notifications to the community.


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