The massive Shenhua Watermark coal mine has been put on hold pending further advice, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced today.
Mr Hunt said he had stopped progress on approval for the Chinese government-owned mine while he seeks advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development (IESC).
Mr Hunt said in his request for advice dated yesterday that the statutory deadline for a final decision was March 13, 2015.
"It is unlikely, however, this decision will be extended (as appropriate) in order to seek and consider further advice from the IESC," Mr Hunt said in his request.
He said it had been some time since advice was sought from the IESC in April 2013, and extra investigations and studies had been undertaken by Shenhua since that time.
"Futher, the NSW government has commissioned independent reviews of the groundwater model," Mr Hunt said.
"I am seeking clarification on how these studies address previous IESC concerns."
He has sought IESC advice about how the changes effect the IESC's advice on groundwater modelling predictions and their conclusions on the impact on ecosystems.
He has also asked if the IESC is "satisfied the proposed surface water and groundwater monitoring programs are robust and any potential impacts on water resources and water-related assets (including the Upper Namoi alluvium and permian) will be detected?".
Mr Hunt also requested advice about whether "appropriate management responses" would be applied if triggers were exceeded.
The Environment Minister is the final stop for approval for Shenhua Watermark's coal mine near Breeza following Planning Assessment Commission and NSW government approval earlier this year.
The request for more advice is likely to hold a final decision on the mine over until after the NSW election on March 28.
The $1.2 billion mine has proven to be a hot issue ahead of the election, particularly in the Tamworth electorate.
A street march has been held in Gunnedah this month, and a heated Meet the Candidates meeting was held in Breeza this week.
Member for Tamworth and Nationals candidate for the seat Kevin Anderson tweeted today: "The clock is stopped on Shenhua. Water is my concern and still is."
NSW Farmers president Fiona Simson tweeted: "Great move @GregHuntMP to refer #Shenhua mine to #IESC for further advice. Thx @Barnaby_Joyce for support!"