OPPONENTS of the proposed mineral sands mine at Glenaladale say a decision by state Resources Minister Jaclyn Symes to protect parts of the Mitchell River flat from exploration "doesn't go far enough".
Monday's surprise announcement means almost 4000 hectares of prime agricultural land in Mitchell River floodplain near Glenaladale will be exempted from mining and mineral exploration.
The area is irrigated horticultural country widely considered to be the food bowl of the east, producing a range of vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, peas, capsicum and sweet corn.
While the news was cautiously welcomed as a way of preventing any potential expansion of the proposed Fingerboards mineral sands mine at Glenaladale, farmers and protestors believe it will not protect the region's water supplies and clean environment.
Farmer Kane Bush, who runs an organic vegetable farm 500 metres from the proposed mine site, said the new exemptions would do little to protect surrounding farms from dust and water pollution, or ensure water security for the agricultural industry.
"This summer was already hard enough for growers. I'm a fourth generation farmer and I've never experienced the pressure on the water systems like this - with the water expectations of the mine, it will only get worse," he said.
Mr Bush, who is one of about nine farmers in the region who have banded together to oppose the Fingerboards mine, said some farms could be at risk of folding due to the extra competition for water the mine would bring.
"This new exemption definitely doesn't go far enough and it doesn't seem like anyone is listening to the farmers," he said.
"Certainly nobody from the government has been out to see us or hear what we have to say."
Minefree Glenaladale spokesperson Debbie Carruthers said it was disappointing the exempted area did not include the location of the proposed Fingerboards mine, with water supplies that nearby farmers relied on still not protected.
"Sadly, apart from dust pollution, there is still a huge risk to water supplies with Fingerboards planning to take about three gigalitres of water for the mine - that's 2.2 gigalitres from the Mitchell River and 0.8 of a gigalitre from the bore field - at a time when water is already in high demand because of the drought," she said.
Ms Carruthers said farmers had already reported difficulties pumping water out of the Mitchell River due to low water levels, and had been forced to rely on highly salinated bore water from the Latrobe aquifer already under pressure.
In her announcement of the new legislation, Minister Symes said the exemption provided surety for farmers in the region, with the exempted area - stretching from Glenaladale to Hillside - highly valued for its produce, and farm gate production estimated at over $100 million per year, providing up to 2000 permanent and seasonal jobs.
She said geological studies showed low potential for minerals development in the floodplain area, which made mining in the area less likely to be commercially viable compared to the highly-productive horticulture businesses in that area.
"The decision to exempt the area from minerals exploration and mining licensing provides certainty to the highly productive Mitchell River floodplain horticultural businesses and the many people working in the industry across Gippsland," she said.
The proposed Kalbar Fingerboards mineral sands project is currently under consideration via an Environment Effects Statement.
Regulatory decisions on exploration licence applications in the broadacre grazing areas away from the floodplain are on hold while the EES and public exhibition process assess the compatibility of sand mining in this landscape.
Ms Carruthers said Minefree Glenaladale would apply for one of the two grants of up to $40,000 each the state government has offered to support not-for-profit community organisations engage legal services assisting the preparation of a submission to the EES process.
Ms Symes is insisting the exemption provides surety for farmers.
She said it would provide certainty for farming businesses and workers in areas where "there is unlikely to be a commercial mineral resource".
"Through the Mineral Resources Strategy we are supporting the development of an industry that can coexist with other regional industries and create additional jobs for local communities," she said.
More information about the assessment of the Fingerboards mineral sands project is available at planning.vic.gov.au. The project proponent, Kalbar Resources, supports the exemption for the floodplain.