WHITEHAVEN Coal has received approval from the NSW Planning Assessment Commission for its Maules Creek project and intends to go into production “as soon as possible”, the company announced. On the same day, the miner revealed plans to indefinitely suspend its operations at another Gunnedah Basin project, Sunnyside, citing lower coal prices as a major factor behind the move.
Whitehaven managing director Tony Haggarty said he welcomed the Commission’s decision but noted that the project still needed approval from the federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water Population and Communities.
“The Maules Creek project is one of the best coal development projects in the world, with a large reserve of high-quality coal, a low stripping ratio of 6.4:1, relatively low capital development costs and very competitive operating costs,” he said.
“Notwithstanding the stringent environmental conditions which have been placed on the project and the difficult coal market at present, this is a world-class project, and Whitehaven will be seeking to bring it into production as soon as possible.”
The NSW Government has set out stipulations covering issues including the transportation of coal, noise, air quality, blasting, water management and rehabilitation. These factors were being dealt with in the company’s management plan, according to a Whitehaven statement.
The NSW Minerals Council welcomed the approval and hailed the move as a step towards beneficial mining in the state, pointing out that the project would add 600 jobs during construction and about 470 positions during ongoing operations, injecting significant capital into the region.
“This is a good example of responsible mining development, grounded in reliable scientific evidence, extensive community and stakeholder consultation, and thorough expert assessments of environmental impacts,” Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said.
At full capacity, Maules Creek is expected to produce more than 10 million tonnes of coal per year. It is considered to be one of only a few remaining tier 1 undeveloped coal assets
in Australia, with an estimated 362mt of recoverable reserves. Production costs are low – an estimated $62.50 per tonne free on board, excluding royalties – and the site is only 16km
from the main railway line servicing the coal terminals at the Port of Newcastle. On the same day as it announced the Maules Creek go-ahead, Whitehaven stated that it would place its Sunnyside mine on care and maintenance.
“While Whitehaven is a relatively low-cost operator, we are not immune from the continuing falls in global coal prices,” Mr Haggarty said.
“Our objective is always to keep our operations running safely, sustainably and profitably. While the majority of our operations are performing acceptably in the current climate, in the case of Sunnyside it has become apparent that at current coal prices production it is not viable.”
Sunnyside was scheduled to operate under its existing mine plan until the end of 2013 and was approved to run until September 2015. Monitoring and the mine’s rehabilitation program would remain active, and Whitehaven would continue to meet its environmental and statutory obligations in relation to the site, the company stated.
The 400,000t run-of-mine coal contributed by Sunnyside each year would be offset by increased production at Werris Creek mine, also in NSW, which would be increased from the current planned rate of 2 million tonnes per annum to the approved rate of 2.5mtpa. Whitehaven stated that a larger excavator and trucks at Werris Creek would boost overburden capacity.
Sunnyside produced relatively high-ash coal, which had become less attractive in the current coal market. However, Whitehaven would recommence production at the mine if  the price improved sufficiently, Mr Haggarty said.