THE state's water watchdog has alleged Whitehaven Coal is taking more water than it's legally entitled to at its Maules Creek mine, after an investigation that lasted more than a year.
In June 2018, the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) began looking into the matter, after receiving a report claiming the mine was capturing surface water run-off without the appropriate licences, exceeding its harvestable rights.
Whitehaven said it was surprised by the preliminary findings and would review them in detail.
"The water management regime in NSW is complex but does set out exemptions in relation to the capture of rainfall that are relied upon by mine operators right around NSW, not just at Maules Creek," a company spokesperson said.
"The use of sediment-laden water captured within a disturbed mining area is a commonly-accepted industry practice, and acknowledged by government departments and consent authorities as having the practical benefit of ensuring sediment-laden water on disturbed areas of a mine is not released into the downstream environment."
Lock the Gate spokeswoman and Maules Creek farmer Sally Hunter was "gobsmacked" to learn the mine could have been capturing vast quantities of water for years without holding the relevant water licences.
"It seems that mining companies are intercepting large volumes of surface water entirely outside the water planning system," she said.
"That is water that should go to recharging our aquifers and running into our creeks and rivers. It's an outrageous double standard."
NRAR has issued Whitehaven with a draft direction requiring installation of meters at key locations within the mine, and is investigating whether criminal or civil proceedings will be necessary.