The ailing state of the coal industry means taxpayers may end up being lumped with the bill for the rehabilitation of some mines, while safety and other standards are also at risk, says Martin Rush, mayor of Muswellbrook.
Muswellbrook Shire Council has been battling BHP Billiton to make good on its current obligations and Mr Rush said he is worried the Baird government will not insist the mining giant and others big companies deliver on their obligations.
"There is a growing fear in the community that cost cutting will result in the avoidance of industrial standards together with health, safety, and environmental standards," Mr Rush said.
According to the council, BHP has failed to revegetate the giant mounds of displaced earth that loom over the town. In addition, the company was obliged to introduce so-called micro-relief so that the mounds appear more natural rather than giant slabs.
"You wouldn't expect to see big planar slopes that will look unnatural forever," Mr Rush said.
BHP sacked the firm supposed to redesign the landscape and "has sacked most of their environmental team", he said. "They just walked away from their conditions of consent."
In a letter sent to the Department of Planning, the council also complained that the eastern side of the mine "has been rehabilitated with exotic pastures" – African grass that are environmental weeds.
In response, Scott Brooks, a lead compliance officer with Planning, proposed BHP host a joint site inspection early next month.
Mr Rush, though, likened the request to asking the victim of a crime to meet the criminal for consultation, and said the state had failed to audit the mine properly for years.
"We'll be talking about this in 12 months and [BHP] won't have done a stitch of it," he said.
A BHP spokeswoman declined to say how many environmental staff had been let go at the mine but said it "maintains a strong level of environmental expertise".
She also rejected claims the mine was not compliant with obligations, adding that 37 per cent of its rehabilitation work was affected by drought from 2004-09.
"Mount Arthur met its consent requirement by submitting a draft rehabilitation strategy last year," a spokeswoman for Planning said.
Mr Rush, though, disputed the claims relate to new works and said the revegetation areas should have been "100 per cent woody" years ago: "You've had seven years since [the drought]."
The mayor said other big miners appeared to be wavering on their rehabilitation requirements. He said that Anglo American, for instance, proposed its Drayton South mine because an "extension" project would have meant they could delay rehabilitation works at its existing Drayton mine.
One senior government official shared similar concerns, noting the Drayton mine was coming to the end of its life in 2016 and the proposed Drayton South mine – rejected by the Planning Assessment Commission in November – was located at least three kilometres away.
"If Drayton South had got up, Drayton's consent conditions would have been expunged," Mr Rush said. "Part of [Anglo's] sales pitch was that it would have assisted rehabilitation."
A spokeswoman for Anglo said the company had been carrying out on-going rehabilitation work at Drayton and the two projects had separate plans.
"Drayton has its own mine closure plan which is accepted by the Department of Planning and Environment and includes rehabilitation costs of approximately $55 million," she said.
Anglo, meanwhile, is continuing to review the commission's decision and has not ruled out resubmitting a proposal.