Anti-mining groups say industry lobbying appears to have shaped a policy on when noise and dust would force a coal mine to buy properties from affected landowners.
Documents obtained by the Lock the Gate Alliance under Government Information (GIPA) laws show that the sudden rush for a revised policy in October 2014 was prompted by the impending visit to Sydney of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and getting the massive Shenhua Watermark project on the Liverpool plains approved.
The alliance says this appears to have trumped concerns about the health of people living near mines.
Several emails, among 780 pages released by various government departments, also show that the new voluntary land acquisition policy was changed again by the resources and planning departments after it had been approved by a cabinet subcommittee.
The changes were apparently made at the behest of lobbying by the NSW Minerals Council and industry. They made it even harder for landowners to meet the criteria for a buyout and had an immediate effect on how many farmers would be able to seek resumption of their properties on the Liverpool plains. Some 12,000 hectares would now not need to be acquired by Shenhua.
Fairfax Media revealed on Saturday that the NSW Environmental Protection Authority had fought a losing battle in late 2014 with the Department of Trade and Industry's resources division for tougher standards on dust pollution so that more farmers and people in rural towns could sell their properties to the mining company.
Dust pollution from coal mines has become a major health issue in the Hunter. Those concerns are likely to spread to the Liverpool plains, where the huge Shenhua Watermark mine has been approved alongside other mines, such as Werris Creek.
Generally mines are required to buy out landowners who are directly affected by a mine development. But others can find their quality of life profoundly changed by dust and noise, particularly when there are multiple mines in areas, such as the Hunter.
In October 2014, Kylie Hargreaves, the deputy secretary of the resources division in the department of Industry, wrote to her team that a new acquisitions policy was urgent.
"With the news this morning about China considering tariffs on imports of coal types, I suspect it is even more important we have a speedy position/solution regarding the undesired outcome (by all sides) of the current recommendation for large scale compulsory acquisition of black soils agricultural land.
"I'll be needing to brief ministers on implications of the policy more broadly and on the potential impact on the China relationship which will no doubt be the topic of discussion when the President visits on November 22 – so I would be most grateful for an update on what options we will be presenting for the Shenhua case," she said.
In August 2014, the independent Planning Assessment Commission recommended that 25 properties should be offered the opportunity of being acquired by Shenhua because of the likely effects from dust.
During the first week of November 2014, as the acquisition policy was being finalised, the mining companies engaged in an intense lobbying effort in Macquarie Street.
Public records of ministerial diaries reveal Shenhua Australia met with the Minister for Trade and Investment Troy Grant – Ms Hargreaves' boss – on November 3, 2014. They also met with the Minister for Natural Resources and Western NSW on the same day.
The policy was formally approved on November 5, by the land use standing sub-committee of cabinet.
On November 7, the NSW Minerals Council and 13 mining companies, including Watermark, met the Premier Mike Baird and the Resources Minister Anthony Roberts to discuss "government policies relating to the mining industry".
Around the time of this meeting there was another flurry of activity within the resources and planning departments, which resulted in the two-day-old draft of the policy being withdrawn from the Planning Assessment Commission and a new one being substituted. It was this policy that was put on public exhibition.
There was a small but very important change: instead of overall dust impacts being considered (the cumulative impact of all mines in the area), it required the impact to come only from that new mine project (the incremental impact).
In its final determination on January 28. the Planning Assessment Commission noted: "Some properties that were initially included have now been removed following the implementation of the new policy".
The number qualifying for acquisition was reduced to 11.
As emails within the resources division noted, the effect of the new policy was to save Shenhua the expense of buying back 12,000 hectares of black soil plains. It also reduced the political headache for the government, which was grappling with a campaign by broadcaster Alan Jones over the loss of valuable farming land. But the losers were farmers close to the mine who will no longer have the option of selling out.
The change of policy has appalled the Lock the Gate Alliance.
"If the Minerals Council used its influence over the NSW government to change this policy so that people are stranded living with air pollution that damages their health, then the policy must be scrapped and amends made to the people suffering its effects," campaign co-ordinator Georgina Woods said.
"No one wants to see large areas of our best farmland bought up and left neglected in the hands of coal companies. The NSW government has to reverse its priorities: set pollution standards that protect people's health and wellbeing and make the coal companies adhere to them."
A spokesman for the department of Trade and Industry said the voluntary land acquisition policy had been drawn up in response to the PAC recommending that a formal policy be developed on air quality, noise and blasting be developed.
August 2014: the Planning Assessment Commission recommends 25 properties be resumed around Shenhua mine due to dust and noise.
October 10, 2014: Resources division deputy secretary, Kylie Hargreaves tells her team they need to fast-track a new mining land acquisition policy in the interests of China-Australia relations.
Late October 2014: Resources division argues with EPA over dust standards, prevails.
November 3: Meeting between Shenhua and Trade and Investment MInister Troy Grant.
November 5: Land use subcommittee of cabinet approves the acquisition policy. PAC sent a draft, which is later withdrawn.
November 7: Meeting between NSW Minerals Council and Premier, Resources MInister.
November 17: Acquisition policy "updated", with effect of further weakening the test for acquisition due to dust pollution.
November 18: Updated policy put on exhibition.
November 19: Premier Xi Jinping visits NSW. Updated policy sent to the PAC.
November 20: Resources division emails NSW Minerals Council's David Frith to tell him the PAC has now been sent the new version.
January 28, 2016: PAC approves Shenhua mine. Only 11 properties must be bought back.