Coal mine anxiety for Nicole Kidman's Sutton Forest property

Coal mine anxiety for Nicole Kidman's Sutton Forest property
Jonathan ChancellorDecember 8, 2020

Actor Nicole Kidman’s $6.5 million Sutton Forest country retreat will soon have a coal exploration test bore on its front perimeter – and another out the back – after the Cockatoo Coal company secured permission for 120 drill holes for its vast Southern Highlands exploration project.

Kidman is among the 424 land owners in the approved 115-square-kilometre exploration area who were recently advised as to where the holes will be drilled. Some now fear that the potential mining  will not only destroy the peace of the area but also contaminate underground water reserves.

In 2008 Nicole Kidman and her country music star husband, Keith Urban, snapped up Bunya Hill, a 45-hectare cattle stud with a magnificent 1878 Georgian mansion, thinking they would be allowed at enjoy the home in peace.

With wide sandstone verandas, pressed-metal ceilings, a carved cedar staircase and 10 marble fireplaces, it has the proportions and details that made it worthy to be leased as a vice-regal rural retreat for Lord Augustus Loftus, a governor of NSW in the colonial 1880s.

Now it has been caught up in a coal mining battle, with 2,500 locals recently telling the South Korean ambassador, Dr Woosang Kim, that there will be considerable and vocal opposition to any mining by the venture partners leading South Korean steel manufacturer POSCO and its Australian partner, Cockatoo Coal. The coal seam that POSCO and Cockatoo plan to extract lies below a vital aquifer, an important water resource for residents.

Exploration authorisations in NSW do not permit mining, but exploration is the method for gathering information about the size, quality and location of the coal seam as a prelude to whether it can be economically extracted.

Drilling of the exploration holes for the project will require an area of 25 metres by 25 metres.  Holes will be drilled in cleared areas wherever possible, and land will be fully rehabilitated on completion, according to the company website.

The miners have faced strong community opposition since in mid-2010, when the Southern Highlands Coal Action Group was formed. The community group, now called “Shoo Cockatoo” has held a series of public meetings in the Southern Highlands and has also sought the support of local politicians, including Goulburn MP Pru Goward and Wingecarribee Shire Council.

Southern Highlands Coal Action Group co-ordinator Tim Frost has been advising landowners to lock the mining company representatives out and says he is not aware of any agreeing to access so far.

SHCAG had a meeting with new Resources and Energy Minister Chris Hartcher on the Coalition Government's new Strategic Regional Land Use policy in Sydney earlier this month, which was organised by Goward.

But the coal action group weren't the only visitors to Hartcher's office, with POSCO also visiting the Macquarie Street offices.

The community’s concerns also revolve around future mining, including subsidence damage, dust and noise from surface facilities, changes to the character of the area and property values. 

Landowners fear that property values may have fallen 30% given buyer hestitation at buying while doubt remains over the prospect of mining.

The company believes there is a perception among its opponents that delaying the exploration program will stop any future mining proposal.

But the drill timeline has been recently brought forward after the timely receipt of all necessary approvals from the NSW Government and the engagement of a local drilling contractor to undertake the work, project manager Mike Cunnion said recently.




The first phase of what’s known as the Hume Coal Resource is drilling at 30 sites in the Belanglo State Forest, with the program expected to take up to 16 weeks to complete.

Drilling will extend over a three-year period depending on the timing of land owner access agreements and availability of drilling rigs.

The 120 boreholes to be drilled into the Wongawilli Seam will be subject to geotechnical evaluation, and selected holes will remain as ongoing water-monitoring bores by the installation of a piezometer.

The exploration area is located in the municipality of Wingecarribee, which is referred to as the Southern Highlands and covers 2,700 square kilometres in the southern section of the Sydney Basin.

Given the generally mild climate and rich soils, the region has a traditional agricultural base, however in recent years the population has grown dramatically due to proximity and goods transport access to Sydney as well as a rural lifestyle environment.

Tourist attractions combined with growth in the wine industry, the region’s historic towns and cottage industry have caused a dramatic rise in weekend and holiday trade. The region also has a longstanding and significant manufacturing industry, including cement manufacture, brickworks, metal fabrication, mining equipment manufacture, quarrying and coal mining.

The predominant land use is agriculture, and the minimum lot size within the majority of the authorisation site is 40 hectares.

Many properties are significantly larger and represent viable commercial farms.

A proportion of the farmland consists of hobby farms, rural lifestyle and equestrian properties.

About 30% of the land in private ownership has an alternative address for rates notices.

Most of these landholders are from Sydney, with a smaller proportion from other states.

Cockatoo Coal’s website notes granting of an exploration licence does not automatically entitle the holder of the licence to enter private property. Access can only occur once an access agreement has been established. The process of negotiation of an access agreement is provided in the Mining Act.

The process requires the company to notify a landholder in writing of its intention to obtain an agreement that would allow access. The notification process must include details of the exploration works proposed and an area over which access is sought.

Land owners also have the right to negotiate the inclusion of property management issues, such as preferred access paths within paddocks, avoidance of paddocks with crops or when sensitive breeding activities are occurring, locations of any new tracks to assist in ongoing farm management, access to water and the like.

Land owners also have the right to negotiate specific issues such as preferred hours of entry, revegetation works including type of pasture to be used, and the type and location of any new gates or fencing that may be needed.

The exploration authorisation potentially allows exploration activities in an area west of Moss Vale and incorporates parts of the Belanglo State Forest. Authorisation for exploration in the Hume Project area was first granted in 1967, and various exploration programs have been undertaken since then.

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of Australia's most respected property journalists, having been at the top of the game since the early 1980s. Jonathan co-founded the property industry website Property Observer and has written for national and international publications.

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