Coalmine discharge fouls Georges River

Sydney Morning Herald
4th August, 2010

CONTAMINATED water from a coalmine is flowing into the Georges River, south of Sydney, at levels that are toxic to aquatic life, an independent water quality report has shown.

A plume of saline water stretched along the river for 15 kilometres from the discharge point of an underground mine operated by Endeavour Coal, a subsidiary of BHP Billiton’s Illawarra Coal.

Discharges from West Cliff colliery near Appin are ”causing serious water pollution that is very likely to be damaging in-stream ecosystems,” says the report, which was completed on a voluntary basis by researchers from the University of Western Sydney.

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But the environmental protection licence for the mine’s wastewater discharge does not limit the amount of saline water that can be flushed into the river.

”I can’t believe that we have put out something called an environment protection licence without any provision to protect the environment,” one of the authors, Dr Ian Wright, a freshwater ecologist at UWS, said. ”Salt at these levels is huge in the context of a river … If you sprayed it on your tomatoes they would wilt.”

The NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water said it was evaluating salt discharge levels that had already been measured by BHP Billiton at the site.

”There is currently no limit for salinity,” a spokesman for the department said. ”However, salinity discharges to Brennans Creek are currently regulated by a staged pollution reduction program under the current environment protection licence.”

”The outcomes of this … program will be used to determine salinity discharge requirements to be included on the licence.”

The company was being asked to develop a plan to limit pollution and report back by June next year, he said.

A BHP Billiton spokeswoman said: ”Illawarra Coal has been working with [the department] since 2004 to address the level of influence from its operations and implemented a range of initiatives that have improved water quality in the West Cliff Mine’s Brennans Creek dam.

”The company remains committed to continuing those improvement initiatives.”

When tested last month, the water discharged from the mine was five times more saline than the safe level recommended by the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council, a standard used by governments to determine water quality for aquatic life. It was nearly 10 times more saline than water in surrounding creeks.

The researchers tested upstream and downstream from the discharge pipe and also the water flowing directly from it.

They concluded that the environmental protection licence ”provides little effective protection to the Georges River” and said it was likely to damage the river’s ecosystems, meaning small invertebrates, fish and related denizens of the local food chain.

The colliery forms part of the company’s proposal to extend a series of coalmines around the township of Appin, so as to be able to extract $2 billion worth of coal a year for 30 years.

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