Miners could face millions of dollars in higher rates and land after a court ruled that land surrounding a NSW coal mine cannot be classified as farmland.

Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush said the judgement could cost the miner millions of dollar in his region alone.Credit:Wolter Peeters
The judgment included a visit by the judge last October to determine whether Glencore was really using the then drought-hit land for farming. During one of the days at the site, he was greeted by a herd of cattle coming over the hill as if on cue.
“It was like something out of a Western,” Muswellbrook Shire mayor Martin Rush said. “It was bizarre”.
At stake was more than a million dollars “for our rate base forever” and millions more in annual land tax, Mr Rush said.
“We’re not providing comment on the NSW Land and Environment Court decision,” a Glencore spokesman said, declining to say whether the miner would appeal.
Stephen Galilee, head of the NSW Minerals Council, said the rating and tax status of land was “a complex issue and we will review the decision as it pertains to the wider industry”.
Mr Rush said an early prompt to challenging Glencore’s rating status came when a staffer queried how the miner could count areas on land set aside for ecological offsets as being for agriculture. Such offsets and those for Indigenous culture made up about a third of the two properties.
“‘What are they farming up there? Black snakes?’, the chief financial officer asked me,” Mr Rush said. “How could they possibly be farming?”
The Muswellbrook mayor expects Glencore to appeal the decision because it had implications not only for the company in his shire but potentially all miners that enjoyed unreasonable tax and rate relief across NSW and the rest of Australia.
“[That’s why] the litigation was acrimoniously fought by Glencore and its lawyers,” Mr Rush said.
In Glencore’s case, it was the company’s Colinta farming subsidiary that would likely face closer scrutiny in Muswellbrook and beyond.
“We suspect it may have significant land tax impacts in addition to rates,” Mr Rush said. “The decisions will also trigger a review of buffer land and how it’s managed across the shire.”
Mining and land set aside as environmental or dust and noise buffers account for about half the rateable land in Muswellbrook. Neighbouring shires, such as the Upper Hunter, faced the problem that they had few mines but lots of land set aside for offsets, increasing the rate load on remaining farmers.
A spokesman for Singleton shire said it was inappropriate to comment on the court’s judgment before the council had had time to read it.
The treatment of land rating was done every three years, and in Singleton’s case there was very little land set aside for biological offsets.
“They’re literally digging it all up,” the spokesman said.
Justice Moore’s visit last year came as the region was in the depths of a severe drought, with few cattle even on the parts of Glencore’s land that had facilities for farming.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.