Proposed amendments to guidelines for the assessment of key mining projects in New South Wales strongly favour economic priorities over environmental concerns, in a move which many say is a response to the scuppering of a Rio Tinto project in the Hunter Valley by concerned local residents.

The draft planning policy issued by state resources minister Chris Hartcher makes the economic impact of prospective mining projects the “principal consideration” during assessment.

The policy, which will be available for public consultation until August 12, includes provisions requiring that the authority responsible for assessment and consent give consideration to the “significance of the resource,” as well as its potential benefits for the local economy.

While the draft policy also includes minimum standards for noise, air pollution, vibration and water impact which are non-discretionary in nature, it also states that approval may be conferred for a project even if these standards are not satisfied.

Jeff Smith, the executive director of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, told Fairfax that the new draft planning policy is a “pretty obvious response to Bulga,” which saw  local residents of the Hunter Valley area scupper Rio Tinto’s efforts to expand its Mount Thorley Wakworth open-cut coalmine.

Bulga residents won their three-year battle with Rio in April at the Land and Environment Court, by overturning a decision to approve the coalmine expansion.

Mr. Smith said the policy will give the upper hand to the mining industry in the assessment of new projects.

“It tilts the balance away from the current approach of balancing economic, social and environmental factors to one that privileges economic interests.”

John Krey, vice-president of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association which was responsible for launching the court action against Rio Tinto, was scathing in his assessment of the draft policy, referring to it as “a joke” and accusing the NSW government of succumbing to pressure from mining interests.

“The mining industry has been lobbying the state government ever since the Land and Environment Court decision,” Mr. Krey said.

“They say they want certainty in the process. But their ‘certainty’ means they just want to get the approvals they need for every project, as they have been doing for the last 20 years.”

Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environmental Centre, is even more damning in his assessment of the draft policy, calling it “one of the most irresponsible proposals I have ever seen” and a “crazy overreaction by a government beholden to a rapacious mining industry.”

According to Mr. Angel the draft policy poses a major threat to the local environment by rendering protection of biodiversity “optional, whatever its rareness or economic value.”