THE most controversial coal and coal seam gas mining projects could still go ahead despite a negative assessment of their impact on the water table under plans which have escalated the dispute over land use.

The most recent version of the NSW government’s ”aquifer interference policy” was presented to farmers, irrigators and mining and environment groups yesterday by the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard.

The policy is being developed to alleviate fears about the impacts of coal and coal seam gas mining on aquifers and provide certainty to mining companies.

But the document, obtained by the Herald, confirms ”state significant” mining projects on some of the state’s most sensitive land will be exempt from having to abide by the policy.

The policy indicates this is because mining projects in areas designated by the government as ”strategic lands” due to their high agricultural or environmental value will pass through a strict ”gateway” process and be subject to advice based on the policy from the Water Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson.

However, government officials confirmed to stakeholders at the meeting that Ms Hodgkinson’s advice will not be binding on the decision of the independent Planning and Assessment Commission, which assesses applications for state significant mining development.

The president of the NSW Farmers Association, Fiona Simson, said that because the bulk of mining and coal seam projects were deemed state significant, those the farmers most wished to be subject to the policy would be exempt.

”We have enormous concerns that the advice from the minister is not going to be binding in this process,” she said.

The chief executive of the NSW Irrigators’ Council, Andrew Gregson, said irrigators had specifically requested that the minister’s advice regarding the aquifer interference policy be binding.

”In the end we’ve got a good set of rules which don’t apply to anyone,” he said.

”It’s the remit of the water minister to protect and conserve water resources, and to cede that to an independent panel whose guidelines are fundamentally different is absurd.”

Mr Hazzard declined to comment on the discussions but said it was ”interesting that neither the farmers nor the irrigators raised any issue with me today. As this process is built on goodwill and confidentiality it’s not particularly helpful to achieving an outcome”.

The opposition environment spokesman, Luke Foley, said the policy was a ”major breach” of the Coalition’s election promise to subject all mining proposals to the aquifer interference policy. ”The experts from the NSW Office of Water will be excluded from assessing the groundwater effects of large scale CSG projects,” he said.

The chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, Stephen Galilee, said it had participated in the discussions in good faith. ”On that basis we don’t believe it is appropriate to conduct these discussions with the government and other stakeholders through the media.”

The dispute is the latest involving long-running negotiations between the state government and stakeholders.

In March Mr Hazzard released the government’s draft strategic land use policy.

It said proposals for coal and coal seam gas mining in areas identified as strategic lands must pass through a ”gateway” process including scrutiny of environmental factors by an expert panel before a development application can be lodged.

However, the farmers’ association accused the government of breaking an election promise by not ”ring fencing” areas from mining activity, particularly coal seam gas exploration.

Criticism also came from the coal and coal seam gas lobbies, and environment groups.