Weren’t you Consulted? Dargues Gold Mine, Modification 4

Modification 4, the latest stage in the development creep at Dargues, is to be exhibited for public comment from December 3 to December 19, 2018. The mining company and Department of Planning bedfellows intend that you will have just two Christmastime weeks to absorb their latest narcosis-inducing brochure and make a submission on yet another expansion of their licences. The Modification will be displayed for comment here. As always, your silence will be taken as consent. So, despite the apparent futility of participating in the public-consultation farce, I encourage everyone to have their say at this and every future stage of the mine’s development. It is imperative that the mine’s social licence (or lack thereof) be continuously demonstrated, especially in light of the company’s underhanded approach to public consultation, and the Department of Planning’s ongoing mockery of democratic process. While a photocopy of the buttocks is arguably the most appropriate and deserved response at this stage, just be sure to state (yet again) that you object – if object you do.

At the time of writing, the contents of the Modification are yet to be released. As far as I am concerned, any expansion to the mine, its privileges or licenses is undeserved at this time. This is doubly true for a mine whose existing approvals are flawed from environmental, economic and legal standpoints (see Peter Cormick’s submission on the Preliminary Documentation for Modification 3 for a rather binary “contract break” on the behalf of Department of Environment in the approval of that modification). Not to mention that the entire process has been completely illegitimate from a democratic standpoint. Therefore, unless Modification 4 seeks a rescinding of its current approval and a lengthy apology to all concerned, it should be viewed with the eyes of a hawk gliding over the stripped-back topsoil of its home.

While the contents of Mod 4 are yet to scurry along the tiny gauntlet between public comment and the safe roof of the Department of Planning, the manner of its imminent arrival is deserving of criticism in itself…

The mining company responsible for the Dargues Gold Mine – PYBAR / Diversified Minerals / Big Island Mining / Dargues Gold Mine Ltd, whatever they choose to call themselves for any given purpose – is about to seek its 4th expansion of privileges. On what basis, one might ask, does the company apply for yet another set of licensing favours from the Department of Planning? Is it the mine’s decade-long negative social licence? The explicit and formal rejection of the original mining application, and every subsequent expansion, by the overwhelming majority of affected community members and the broader public? Perhaps it’s the mine’s economic track record, having yet produced nothing. Having hired a smattering of willing contractors and a handful of local employees, but having cost the taxpayer uncounted millions in public service hours, from the participation of the Eurobodalla Shire in opposing the mine in 2011-12, to the Department of Planning’s endless administrations in the “due process” of giving the inevitable green lights, to the requisite commentary by every government agency from the EPA to the NSW Dams and Safety Commission to the Federal Department of Environment and every bureaucratic mechanism in between.

The company’s sense of entitlement is no mystery. In normal adult life, one must earn trust, prove one’s presence to be of worth, and allay concerns by way of practical demonstration before being granted further privileges. At Dargues, the mining company is simply granted whatever it requests under the banner of generating employment (however temporary), and that rarely defined but endlessly worshipped totem of “economic growth” (at any present or future cost). The company behaves as it does – earning nothing, demonstrating nothing except evasiveness before the public, and asking for more –  because the Department of Planning, and Federal Department of Environment and other planning authorities, including their ex-mining fraternities, encourage it. Since the original application, these institutions have not yet failed to comply with the wishes of Dargues mine owners. All have drunk the Kool-Aid of “jobs and growth”, and grant permission to anything that promises the same.

The mining company is required to consult with the Community Consultative Committee  (CCC) prior to applying to the Department for modification to the project. It’s in the official guidelines, page 12, under Responsibilities of the Proponent: “The proponent should consult with the committee before it lodges any applications with the Department…”. Note the word “consult”, as in, to pursue a mutually agreeable outcome before proceeding. This requirement is not satisfied by the company merely notifying the committee of its intentions, days before lodging a pre-existing and already-complete application, and declaring itself “open to questions and feedback”.

Having just resigned from the committee, I can attest that the company made no mention of Modification 4 despite being routinely asked about its plans in meetings. The Dargues CCC was only informed of the existence of of Mod 4 by email on November 20, 2018. This was ten days prior to its intended date of submission to the Department of Planning (November 30, 2018). These Modifications involve extensive planning, hiring of contractors and the commissioning of a new Environmental Impact Statement (the latest euphemism for which is “Statement of Environmental Effects”). The preparation of such an application, from inception to submission, takes months. At no stage until now was the CCC informed of this process having been initiated.

The committee was not consulted in the formation of Mod 4, its objectives or its desirability or otherwise for the people of the region. As it stands, the mining company has given the committee just 7 days (from the time of notification on November 20, to Nov 27) to provide written feedback on a “background information” document relating to Mod 4. This approach is to designed to exclude the Committee from the planning process by sleight of hand, characterised by:

(a) The brevity of the feedback period (one week) for volunteer community representatives to review and respond in detail to a plan that has already been in development for many months.

(b) Not providing the committee with a copy or draft of the modification itself, which will be unavailable for discussion within a committee meeting until after it has already been submitted to the Department of Planning.

(c) The deadline for feedback from the committee (November 27) is just 3 days before the intended date of submission to the Dept of Planning (November 30). The company has allocated just three days to implement (or more likely, “note and ignore”) suggestions from the CCC before submitting Modification 4 for its all but assured Departmental stamp of approval.

The Dargues Project Manager, in his email to the Committee, described this process as “preliminary consultation” with public representatives. In truth, it is neither “preliminary”, nor “consultation”, with the entire application having been all but finalised by the time that email was sent, and no discernible intention to revise the modification in anything but token ways based on the will of the Committee. Let alone any consideration of shelving the application should committee members conclude that Modification 4 (with whatever favours it seeks, great or small) is not in the best interests of their communities.

It’s not just the CCC the company intends to evade, but the scrutiny of the public at large. The public exhibition and public submission period is set for just 2 weeks, from December 3 to December 19. This deadline is set despite the Department of Planning being on holiday until February 3. There is no reason for the submission period to be so curtailed except to limit the number of submissions.

This follows a regular pattern of behaviour by the proponent(s), who have sought to minimise, by exclusion, the challenges to their narrative and the damage done to their image each round of public submissions. Not because public submissions are in danger of actually affecting the outcome, but because it reveals the project’s ongoing lack of social license. That is the single thing they are unable to acquire by institutional privilege, legal loopholes, sleight of hand, mercantile science, or past intimidation tactics attested to by certain members of the public at the 2016 meeting of the Planning Assessment Commission over Modification 3.

And despite the helplessness that companies like Diversified Minerals and their bureaucratic associates would have the public feel, social license is critical. Negative social licence means that the proponent’s time in favour by planning authorities, ministers, and the government of the day, is limited. It may not be this year or this decade, but eventually – if people continue to speak – a public dissidence long ignored will find its way into common consciousness, state and national politics, ministerial appointments and departments, planning policy and philosophy. One day, the political and bureaucratic favour currently enjoyed by companies such as DM will begin to slip away, and the apparatus of government will be made to serve the best interests and will of its people. Even if such a slow revolution remains forever illusive, it is enough that it can be imagined, and that we need not submit our minds to the current state of affairs. So, let us read the application when it is exhibited, say what we really think, and move on with our lives.

Link to Department of Planning: Dargues Gold Mine public page

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