Background: Many local people including the Mayor and Councillors of Wollondilly Shire have been mourning the drying up of the five Thirlmere Lakes, which continued to dry even after the drought broke in 2008. By 2010, many were convinced that longwall coal mining nearby was having an impact, as well as the drought. Professor Philip Pells, a mining expert who has worked on mining related projects in the area since the 1990s, was interested enough to undertake his own research into the problem. Pells published an extensive report in 2011, which concluded that mining did indeed have some role, in altering the groundwater regime. (The lakes are entirely groundwater fed).
He presented his findings to Wollondilly Council, and Council then resolved to invite Pells to present again to an open public forum, to inform all the very interested locals. It was after this that the NSW Government set up the Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry headed by Dr Steven Riley. (Pells was unaccountably left off the Inquiry committee in spite of being the only scientist to have researched the problem thoroughly. But an employee of the mining industry consultancy, Parsons Brinkerhoff, was included on the committee, a conflict of interest as PB has done work for Xstrata who own the coal mine in question).
Wollondilly Council now decided to invite Riley to speak on the findings of his committee at the same public forum, alongside Pells. Riley assured Council that the draft of his report would be finalised by 22nd May, and so the forum took place as planned. Each expert was supposedly given half an hour to present their findings and Q and A was scheduled for a further half hour.
The Forum that Wasn’t …
Riley spoke first, waving a plastic covered copy of his finished draft report and informing the 100-strong audience that it was 50,000 words and 271 pages long, and had been peer reviewed by a number of scientists of “international standing” all of whom had responded, to quote Riley, with “you beaut.” However, he told us, we could not have access to the report just yet though it may be online in a week or two.
He then proceeded to speak for an hour, mainly on rainfall statistics and refill – in spite of prompts from the Council facilitator to finish up. Then, having gone half an hour over the allotted time, he informed us that unfortunately he was being asked “to shut up” and so would not be able to tell us anything of his report’s conclusions or recommendations.
Some in the audience were deeply frustrated.
It was also noted that the mining issue had not rated so much as a mention in the hour.
Pells then gave a truncated version of his own findings, including modelling which suggested that mining impacts have contributed to the loss of water in the lakes, though he agreed with Riley that the drought had a big effect.
Some locals suspect that the Inquiry is going to absolve mining from any blame and Riley’s strange presentation seemed like confirmation. Dr Peter Turner, a research chemist, managed to collar him afterwards and in their brief encounter Riley said that he does not agree with Pells’s modelling and does not believe that mining has altered the groundwater flow. His arguments were apparently not convincing. But the rest of us, who had turned up on a cold night to hear his findings, did not even have the benefit of these small clues into his position.
Perhaps he feels under no obligation to inform the public, but in this case the public were not amused.
The question remains: why the reticence at the Council forum? Since the draft is finished and printed, why was Riley unable to inform the gathering about its findings in spite of this being his understanding with Council ? If he absolves mining, surely his case can be argued succinctly ? (The audience was polite throughout in spite of disappointment and some bewilderment).
We await his draft report with concern. Riley told us that once it is released there must be a further three weeks of “community consultation and review” before a final report is published at the end of June.