Large silver mine approved for NSW despite residents’ fears

The Independent Planning Commission has approved a silver, zinc and lead mine in the Central West despite fears from nearby residents the project would harm their health and leave their village a ghost town.

The Bowdens Silver mine in Lue, about 30 kilometres outside Mudgee, is set to produce about 3.4 million ounces of silver a year, as well as 6900 tonnes of zinc and 5100 tonnes of lead. It is the largest undeveloped silver deposit in Australia.

The village of Lue sits opposite the proposed mine site.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Approving the project, the commission noted the demand for mineral resources in general, specifically silver, “and the considerable uses and applications of the metals in modern technology”.

But some residents, farmers and business owners in the Mudgee area are worried lead dust will contaminate the soil and water, and that the mine will affect the water supply for users downstream.

The commission said the project was in the public interest and neither NSW Health nor the Environmental Protection Agency had raised any health concerns that could not be managed.

Conditions of consent include a voluntary blood-testing scheme for residents to monitor lead levels, and real-time air quality monitoring.

Beef farmer and Lue Action Group member Susannah White, whose family has farmed in the area for 100 years, said she was very disappointed but not surprised by the decision.

“That you could even consider a project going ahead that asks people to get a routine blood test in 2023 just seems absurd,” she said.

“It feels like all of the warnings and concerns raised by numerous independent experts have been ignored.”

White said the Lue Action Group would consider what other steps they could take to oppose the mine.

“With so much detail left to post-approval management plans … it has left the community with a lot more questions than answers.”

Lara Altimira, with partner Matt Brown and daughter Esther Brown, 4, live in Lue village, two kilometres from the mine site.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Lue resident and mother-of-one Lara Altimira, who lives two kilometres from the mine, said she and partner Matt Brown faced a difficult decision about whether to stay or go.

“It’s not where I want to bring up a child,” she said. “I still don’t think it’s going to be a healthy place to live … For me, there’s no safe level of lead.

“My instant thing will be to move, which is easy to say, but to do that is very hard. It’s different for me than Matt. He grew up in the area. His father gave him that land to farm.”

Bowdens managing director Anthony McClure said the project was technically reliable and environmentally responsible.

“This decision recognises the significant long-term economic and social benefits the project will deliver for our shareholders, the state of NSW and also the local communities.”

Both the state and federal governments are eager to position Australia as a key supplier of critical minerals, which the world needs for technology, including renewable energy.

Last Friday, the commission approved the McPhillamys gold mine near Blayney, about two hours south of Lue.

White was concerned the two decisions set an unacceptable standard when it came to the state’s planning process for new metals mining projects.

“If Bowdens and McPhillamys are going to be the opening batsmen for this next wave of critical minerals mining, it really feels like the standard of approval has been lowered and that’s really concerning given the nature of mines, the technical processes and the danger involved with a lot of the chemicals and byproducts.

“If you are going to do this, you have to do it properly. We feel like guinea pigs, really.”

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said the project would provide hundreds of jobs and about $60 million in royalties.

“Projects like the Bowdens Silver project are critically important to supply metals of the future for a range of industries including health, telecommunications, energy, advanced manufacturing, defence, and transport,” he said.

“We have an abundance of these metals and minerals here in NSW, and a range of further mining projects in the planning pipeline.”

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