Up to 45 jobs may be cut from Wollongong Coal after workers refused to defer part of their wages until the company wins approval for a new longwall section to be mined at Russell Vale.
At a meeting on Friday morning, workers rejected a proposal that they give back a recent 4.5 per cent pay rise, and accept the deferral of some of their pay until the modification to mine Longwall 6 is approved.
But that approval is far from certain, with two NSW government agencies lodging their concerns about the modification.
An answer on whether it will be approved is not expected for some months.
One worker at the packed Russell Vale community hall meeting said more than 80 per cent of miners there voted to reject the proposal.
"We've been going backwards for three years - there comes a point where you have to dig your heels in," he said.
After sticking with the company through tough times, and going six weeks without pay last year - they received backpay after cashflow improved - they were not prepared to defer payments again. The amount to be deferred depended on the shifts miners worked and the penalty rates they received.
The worker, who would not be named, said several men intended to resign immediately.
"A lot of fellas who are going are young and have a mortgage and three kids," he said.
"A lot of them were running around today calling about jobs in Narrabri, Dubbo and places interstate."
Miners at the Wongawilli site will meet on Monday to consider proposals to cut costs while its cashflow problems continue.
CFMEU district vice-president Bob Timbs said more jobs could go, depending on the outcome of Monday's meeting.
"It's an unfortunate outcome whenever there is the possibility of forced redundancies," he said.
Production at Wongawilli has stalled since a longwall machine was buried in a roof fall in March. With the price of coal sinking, the expense to extract the aged machine is not worthwhile.
At Russell Vale, the Office of Environment and Heritage raised concerns about the potential damage to creeks and swamps above the mine, which could be cracked and damaged by subsidence.
Its submission said the "potential for surface to seam fracturing and aquifer drainage has not been adequately assessed".
OEH and the Environment Protection Authority again opposed the company's tactics in making small "piecemeal" applications for modifications, rather than going through the proper approval process for a mine expansion.
"This is the third longwall for which the proponent has sought mining as a variation of the Preliminary Works Approval," the OEH submission said.
"The piecemeal approach to planning and approvals ... fails to consider the cumulative impacts of this activity."
The EPA said the modification should only be granted if the company provided a commitment that "no further modifications will be sought prior to the determination of the underground expansion project".
Plan aims to keep as many workers as possible
Wollongong Coal says it will focus on developing underground roadways needed for future growth while waiting for approvals, in an effort to keep "as many workers in employment as possible".
Chief operating officer David Stone said the market price of coal was the "main driver" of the company's review of its operations.
"Wollongong Coal and its principal shareholder are staunchly committed to developing and operating their underground operations, despite these unprecedented economic times which see current global coking coal market prices at historical lows," he said.
Mr Stone said the miner would develop roadways to allow resumption of longwall operations at Russell Vale. It would also try to speed up the Wongawilli South underground project.
"If possible we would like to be able to accommodate workers from our Wongawilli operation to Russell Vale," he said.
"We have worked closely with the workers' representatives at a local and district level and presented several options to negate the need for any forced redundancies.
"Following the closure of the [voluntary redundancy scheme] we will determine an appropriate and sustainable course of action with an intention of keeping any forced reductions to an absolute minimum."
He said until the completion and approval of the new Wongawilli South Project, the remnant mining that had been occurring in the Old Nebo workings was not viable for either longwall or partial extraction with continuous miners.
"The current intent is to leave the old longwall equipment in Nebo in situ at this time with a recovery process developed but on hold until market conditions change," he said.
"We intend developing the old workings for future continuous miner full extraction once the correct cost structure can be obtained."