Residents across the South Coast and Southern Highlands have joined a statewide protest against proposed planning policy changes that they claim ignore environmental and health concerns associated with mining.
The NSW government has proposed an amendment to the State Environmental Planning Policy 2007 (SEPP), aiming to give greater consideration to significant mineral resources in assessing mining applications.
But residents worried about responsible mining have slammed the proposal, claiming it prioritises the financial benefits of mining ahead of the potential impacts on land owners, the environment and community health.
Rivers SOS has raised concerns about the proposal's impact on the region's drinking water, particularly the special sites, located next to water storage areas.
Rivers SOS southern coalfield representative Caroline Graham believes the changes could put the special areas at risk and has called for the Sydney Catchment Authority to be given legislative power to protect the catchment.
"This could have a massive impact on the environment," she said.
"I've never seen any [policy] that is more blatantly imbalanced."
"Rivers SOS aren't against mining and coal seam gas, we just don't want it on prime agricultural land and near water resources; we realise we can't stop coalmining overnight but those special areas really should be sacrosanct."
Ms Graham, a Camden resident, is convinced the proposed changes are a result of "enormous pressure" from coal companies and the downturn in mining.
Southern Highlands Coal Action Group convener Peter Martin agrees, believing the recent refusal to extend Rio Tinto's Warkworth mine in Bulga, near Singleton, had prompted a "knee-jerk" reaction from the government.
He said the proposed changes would have a "potentially catastrophic" impact on the Southern Highlands.
"As an example, POSCO's proposed underground mine could be approved ... despite the likely destruction of the underground aquifer in the licence area ... as predicted by our recently completed groundwater study," he said.
He believes economic benefits should be just one of many factors used to evaluate a mining project and a proper "triple bottom line" assessment, looking at resources, the environment and health concerns, should be made.
Submissions for the SEPP change closed on August 12.
Resources Minister Chris Hartcher said the proposal did not harm the rights of farmers or landholders.
"The NSW government has worked hard to deliver a balanced land use policy that acknowledges the importance of growth in the state's mineral resource industries and the need to ensure that our agricultural land and valuable water resources are protected," he said.
"It is crucial for jobs and investment in rural and regional NSW that our mining industry is able to progress, whilst ensuring the protection of our valuable agricultural land and water resources," Mr Hartcher said.