An “Independent” Committee of Inquiry?

The draft report from the committee of inquiry into the drying up of Thirlmere Lakes was finally released yesterday.

The report fulfilled its role of allowing Minister Robyn Parker to issue yesterday’s media release blaming the drying up of the 15 million year-old, World Heritage listed Lakes mainly on the weather.

In a nutshell the report says that drought is the main, if not the only, reason for the disaster. Where mining is mentioned as a possible contributing factor it is hedged around with caveats and uncertainties.

The drought in the Warragamba catchment (where the Lakes are situated) was officially over in 2008. In spite of much rain ever since, the Lakes are not filling. A truly independent, unpaid, two year study by mining expert Dr Philip Pells concluded that mining 700m from the Lakes had probably de-pressurised and re-routed the groundwater system which previously fed the Lakes. So though Pells does acknowledge that drought played a large part in the disaster, he implicates longwall mining to a much greater degree than the committee of inquiry now does.

Could this be why Dr Pells was unaccountably excluded from the committee of inquiry set up by Minister for Environment Robyn Parker, in spite of his previous detailed published research on the Lakes ?

Xstrata’s studies were relied on in the report…

Throughout the 200 pages of the committee’s report, its independence is emphasised – e.g.”The Committee maintained its independence throughout the study” (p.5), “… the Committee considered that it was independent and acted as such… [there were] no partisan views on what was influencing lake levels” (p.36). And so on.

They protest too much. Two studies on groundwater in the Lakes area, heavily relied on in the report, were commissioned and paid for by Xstrata (the company now owning Tahmoor Colliery and which might be up for remediation expenses if the report had placed much blame on mine impacts).

The provenance of these reports was not mentioned; they were referenced as if they were independent academic studies. Dr Pells discovered the hidden links.

They are both dated 2012, well after the inquiry was set up in 2011. Both reports exonerate mining from the drying out of the Lakes (see attached email from Dr Pells for details).

Guns for hire for the mining industry?

The authors of these two reports, Gilbert and Merrick, appeared in a November 2009 case in the Land and Environment court as expert witnesses on behalf of Peabody mining company. Rivers SOS and the Environment Defenders Office were attempting to stop mine expansion in Sydney’s drinking water catchment. Again, they argued that minimal damage would occur in spite of the wrecking of the Waratah river system from previous mining in this area.

Noel Merrick denied under oath that higher permeability was a result of mining, and said he “did not know” whether mining had caused cracking of overlying rock. Vincent Gilbert was criticised by our barrister Tim Robertson for his “inability to quantify things” – his report had claimed only minimal water loss but had presented no evidence or documentation.

Vincent Gilbert also contributed on behalf of Peabody in a Planning Assessment Commission hearing at Wollongong on this same Metropolitan mine earlier in 2009, where he had attempted to rubbish submissions from other experts over potential damage to swamps etc.

Conflict of interest: a blatant example

Likewise, when groundwater scientist Dr Wendy Mclean was appointed to this committee of inquiry as one of four scientists, she was described in the Minister’s media release as working for an unnamed international consultancy. No wonder the name was concealed – in fact she works for Parsons Brinkerhoff, major mining consultants which have most mining companies in Australia as its clients, including Xstrata. Parsons Brinkerhoff has been busy of late writing groundwater studies assuring government authorities that mining will not harm aquifers, when mine plans are being assessed in places like Gloucester, Wyong, Broke and the Southern Highlands.

At the committee’s public hearing in Tahmoor I raised this problem of conflict of interest. She told me in the tea break that she has taken leave without pay in order to have input into this important inquiry – no doubt a good career move as the report pretty well absolves mining impacts from the disappearance of the Lakes. And of course she is still an employee of Parsons B. whether on leave or not.

Rivers SOS will put out a more detailed media release later, when our committee as a whole has had time to digest the report. I am sending this email out now as a personal response, due to a need for a rapid response to the Minister’s statements in yesterday’s media.

Caroline Graham

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4 Responses to An “Independent” Committee of Inquiry?

  1. Pingback: Thirlmere Committee in doubt: govt must respond – Greens Serious questions have been raised by local environmentalists and experts about the independence of the Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry Committee and the veracity of its draft report, see here: http://riv

  2. Pingback: Thirlmere Committee in doubt: govt must respond – Greens | Cate Faehrmann

  3. Helen B says:

    Why is the Key Threatening Process – alteration to habitat following longwall mining – never referred to? This was determined by the independent NSW Scientific Committee after several years of checking the facts as stated in the nomination written by a whistle-blower scientist.

    There is also a report that has been lodged with Dept, as per requirements of a NPWS scientific license, describing the ceasing of sideways movement of water in the landscape after longwall mining…as has happened adjacent to the Newnes Plateau hanging swamps – which are drained and dead from longwalling. Although you won’t find any of the (industry) paid consultants/researchers saying this, despite the KTP determining this on the basis of those swamps.

    The department is happy to turn away, and “work with the mining industry” which will continue paying consultants and researchers big money to “monitor” the drying – while finding “no correlation”.

    It is obscene.

  4. Gregoey O'Driscoll says:

    I studied land management when I left school, and one thing I learnt was that an EIS or any other environmental study will conclude what the author wants if there is not enough scientific material in the work to say otherwise. These so called independent scientists know that only too well and will publish and say what they were hired for. Environmentalists have know chance to get there view across, even when it is supported by scientific evidence, becuase the Liberal government stacks these committees with people who will tell them what they want to hear.

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