A major coal mining operation has been fined $150,000 for damaging sandstone rock formations in New South Wales, some of which are estimated to be millions of years old.
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment (DPIE) fined Centennial Coal’s Mount Airly operation after an investigation found the mine cracked and damaged sandstone formations.
“Following an investigation by our compliance officers, we have determined the breaches are unacceptable,” a DPIE spokesperson said.
The independent investigation found 15 surface cracks in the Mugii Murum-Ban State Conservation Area, the biggest of which was 250 meters long.
Centennial Coal has conceded that more surface cracks may not be uncovered in the state conservation area.
The company will also be required to continually monitor and remediate any future cracks identified over the life of the mine, the DPIE spokesperson said.
“This is a legally binding agreement which will speed up remediation work and payments,” they said.
Remediation work will include filling some of the cracks using techniques designed to withstand impacts from weather.
Warning signs at the edge of the park and near cracks will also be installed, and the company has worked with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to install fencing near cracks to help with visitor safety.
The company must organize independent reviews every six months to see if there are any further cracks in the conservation area. These reviews will occur for the life of the mine, and if any are found, the company must implement remediation works.
The site’s many unusual rocks have been described as the “three hundred sisters”, echoing the more famous “three sisters” at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
President of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, Madi Maclean, said it was pleasing that the mine “had been held to account,” but the fine amount was “disappointing”.
“It’ll have little impact on the mining company,” Maclean said.
“There were extensive cracks. It’s a beautiful reserve, Mugii Murum-Ban; seeing this damage and the sinkholes is a shame. We don’t want to see anymore.”
The stone towers are unique to the area; some are estimated to be between 6m and 10m years old.
Repairing the damage “is very hard”, said Mary Thirlwall, a resident involved in Landcare who had helped raise the alarm. “You can’t jack up a mountain, you know, or fill in the cracks that easy.”
Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.
Centennial has been approved to mine in the Mount Airly region up to 2037. The next stage within the Mugii Murum-Ban area would be to extract coal under the adjacent Genowlan mesa. This even larger rocky landscape could be more vulnerable to cliff collapses if there is similar fracturing at Mount Airly, according to Thirlwall.
The nearby Gardens of Stone, a larger area of remarkable, pagoda-like structures, were granted similar state conservation status last November. It, too, has had coal mining underneath.
“Airly and Genowlan are just iconic mesas,” she said. “It’s just a very special area.”
Centennial itself did not dispute the cracks caused by its longwall mining to remove coal panels in the 1.8m-tonne-a-year operation.
It also accepted the fractures far exceeded the consent condition that requires surface subsidence to be limited to 125mm.
The payment will be used to undertake work in the conservation area, including pest monitoring and management and installing new surveillance cameras.