MINING giant Glencore's attempts to scour tens of thousands in legal costs out of Muswellbrook Shire Council over a rates war has been slammed in the Land and Environment Court.
Justice Tim Moore labelled the attempt "disingenuous at best, and at worst, intellectually dishonest". The dispute over 'buffer land' surrounding Mangoola coal mine, about 18 kilometres west of Muswellbrook, began in 2018, when Glencore sought to have two parcels of land re-categorised for rates purposes, from mining to farmland.
The change would lead to savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars. After an initial loss in the Land and Environment Court, Glencore had a part win on appeal, with the smaller parcels of land confirmed 'mining', but not the larger parcel of land.
Glencore then asked the Land and Environment Court to make the council pay all of its legal costs in that part of proceedings relating to the larger parcel of land, as well as for the costs of the costs hearing itself
Justice Moore rejected the claim, and went on to criticise the mining giant's case for being "deficient", "wasting time", as well as being "at best disingenuous".
Glencore argued that because it had made a series of offers to the council to settle out of court, which were refused, the 12-day hearing which then took place - a combined hearing on both tracts of land worth upwards of $24 million - was the council's responsibility.
The costs of the hearing, including the cost of an associated site visit, should be attributed to the council because it had rejected the company's offers, it argued.
However, in response, the council described the 'letters of offers' as threats, with each letter offering nothing new to the last.
The first letter simply demanded that the council re-categorise the land by a certain date, offering no compromise.
The second letter repeated the demands, the council argued, contained no compromise, and 'threatened" that if it went to court, it would only then agree to settle if the council paid any legal costs leading up to that point.
The fourth and final letter demanded that council pay Mangoola's legal costs "completely unsubstantiated" to the tune of $15,000 plus GST, and noted that "Mangoola would agree to waive a claim for interest in respect of rates to be refunded" where, the council said, there was no entitlement to a refund.
Glencore applied for the council to pay 90 per cent of the total costs, on what Justice Moore described as a "broad and sweeping assertion'.
If time and energy was wasted on a site visit, as Glencore claimed, it was on them for failing to provide, "almost until the end of the hearing" accurate maps of the land in question, Justice Moore said.
He went on to say that Glencore's objections to evidence from the council's expert on mine management issues, Michael White, were also "a waste of time". "And, given the nature of the almost (but not complete) agreement between Mr White and the Company's own mining expert ... the time taken in that endeavour .. was wasted (as was any time taken by the legal representatives of the Council in preparing to respond to that objection)," Justice Moore said.
Glencore had objected to the council's expert witness saying the 25-year veteran of the industry had done consulting work for the region's horse studs and that he and his wife lived just five kilometres from Mangoola and had lodged "a large number" of complaints about the mine.
At the time, Justice Moore noted the concerns but said they did not "warrant ... rejection" of his evidence.
The company's argument about its letters of offer, and the weight they should be given, was misplaced, and in any case the documents were "deficient", he said.
The rates war loss has been a blow to the council which had hoped the case would set a precedent.
Then Muswellbrook Shire mayor, Martin Rush, had said that if it won the case, the council would review mining buffer lands throughout the shire to ensure mining companies were paying the right rates.
Mining land and the surrounding buffers and environmental offsets bought by coal companies take up a considerable amount of land in both the Muswellbrook and Singleton council areas.
With a part-win only, it is unclear as to whether the council will still pursue that course of action.
Incumbent Muswellbrook mayor Steve Reynolds could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.