Coal dust causes concern in the playground

13 August, 2012
Sydney Morning Herald

MORE than 23,000 students at about 60 Hunter schools within 500 metres of the region’s coal railway spend their lunchtimes breathing air filled with coal dust from passing trains.

Many also spend their days in classrooms without airconditioners or air filters to protect them from damaging particulates in the dust.

Singleton GP Dr Tuan Au has been investigating a link between open-cut mining operations and rising respiratory illness in his community and has thrown his support behind a campaign to put covers on the trains.

The Maitland-Newcastle Diocese Catholic Schools Office said two primary schools, St James in Muswellbrook and St Joseph’s Denman, had dust-monitoring devices. Precautions were also taken at St Catherine’s Catholic College in Singleton, where staff brought students indoors when it was windy or dusty.

”The Catholic Schools Office and its schools follow the advice of Hunter New England Health, however [they] are open to all initiatives that lead to cleaner air,” an office spokeswoman said.

A NSW Education Department spokesman said it had not been approached by any school raising coal dust as a health issue.

”The department and schools would co-operate with the health or environmental authorities if they saw schools as having a role to play,” he said. ”Any parents with concerns are advised to seek medical advice.”

The chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, Stephen Galilee, said it was important to monitor air quality and establish the facts.

”We’re keeping a close eye on the progress of this work so we can develop the right response and implement better methods of dust suppression,” he said.

Dr Au said the longer children were exposed to pollution, the more lung damage was caused.

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Submission re: Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry Draft Report

Rivers SOS has made a submission to the Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry, regarding its draft report.

The fact that the committee is examining the loss of a priceless asset in a World Heritage area surely calls for focus on the need for conservation of other valuable assets where mine plans are proposed. If a lesson has not been learned in this case, the Inquiry will have been a waste of money and time.

We hope this lack is addressed in the committee’s final report.

The report can be read in full here: Rivers SOS submission

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7 July 2012 Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry Draft Report: Public Meeting

The committee appointed by Minister Robyn Parker in 2011 to run an inquiry into the drying up of the Thirlmere Lakes held a public meeting at Thirlmere School last night, to outline its draft report, released last week and available online:

The committee is now calling for comments on the draft before submitting its final report.

The main spokesperson and committee chair is Dr Steven Riley. Only Riley and two others from the committee of five were present to take questions from the community last night.

Rivers SOS , who have lobbbied for over a year for an inquiry to take place, made our disappointment in the committee’s draft report clear.

Public inquiries involve a significant investment of public resources, therefore the public is entitled to expect an outcome which will guide policy in future. The terms of reference requested the committee to provide recommendations to address “the factors identified as likely to have a direct or indirect effect on lake levels.”

The committee failed to do this, in keeping with its reluctance to allocate blame to mine impacts on the lakes’ groundwater regime. Last night committee members strenuously denied repeated input from community members, including ex-miners and a family who lived on the lakes for generations, who challenged the finding that mining had little part to play, though the drying of the lakes began soon after a series of longwall mines went within 700m of the lakes.

Members of Rivers SOS asked the committee to add some policy advice to their recommendations. We noted that their recommendations are for further research, and for remediation possibilities. But this fails to guide government policy regarding mine impacts, when assessing mining applications.

The extent of mine impacts on the water loss, versus the drought, may be 10%, 20% or 40% – an exact figure can’t be arrived at due to incomplete knowledge. But the draft report does on rare occasions touch on what the community and other scientists believe, i.e. that mining has contributed to the problem.

This calls for a recommendation for protection in future for sensitive and valuable sites, e.g. by suggesting adequate buffer zones or concurring with the risk management suggestions put forward in the 2008 South Coalfield Inquiry Report, concerning reverse onus of proof etc.

The fact that the committee is examining the loss of a priceless asset in a World Heritage area surely calls for focus on the need for conservation of other valuable assets where mine plans are proposed. If a lesson has not been learned in this case, the Inquiry will have been a waste of money and time.

We hope this lack is addressed in the committee’s final report.

We can provide contacts with many of those who spoke at the meeting, and with other scientists who have researched the issue, and further links to reports on the lakes.

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Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry public meeting

The Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry Committee will present their draft Report at a public meeting on Friday July 6 at the Thirlmere Primary School Hall, 6pm- 8pm.
With short notice, no publicity and putting it on a Friday night, we fear very few people will turn up so please circulate widely if you can to all who would be interested.
We have serious concerns about the report and will be voicing these at the meeting.
To view the report and the information considered by the Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry Committee please visit:
Submissions can be made online at the above address or by mail to Thirlmere Lakes Inquiry, PO Box 99, Picton. Submissions close on July 16 2012.

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An “Independent” Committee of Inquiry?

The draft report from the committee of inquiry into the drying up of Thirlmere Lakes was finally released yesterday.

The report fulfilled its role of allowing Minister Robyn Parker to issue yesterday’s media release blaming the drying up of the 15 million year-old, World Heritage listed Lakes mainly on the weather.

In a nutshell the report says that drought is the main, if not the only, reason for the disaster. Where mining is mentioned as a possible contributing factor it is hedged around with caveats and uncertainties.

The drought in the Warragamba catchment (where the Lakes are situated) was officially over in 2008. In spite of much rain ever since, the Lakes are not filling. A truly independent, unpaid, two year study by mining expert Dr Philip Pells concluded that mining 700m from the Lakes had probably de-pressurised and re-routed the groundwater system which previously fed the Lakes. So though Pells does acknowledge that drought played a large part in the disaster, he implicates longwall mining to a much greater degree than the committee of inquiry now does.

Could this be why Dr Pells was unaccountably excluded from the committee of inquiry set up by Minister for Environment Robyn Parker, in spite of his previous detailed published research on the Lakes ?

Xstrata’s studies were relied on in the report…

Throughout the 200 pages of the committee’s report, its independence is emphasised – e.g.”The Committee maintained its independence throughout the study” (p.5), “… the Committee considered that it was independent and acted as such… [there were] no partisan views on what was influencing lake levels” (p.36). And so on.

They protest too much. Two studies on groundwater in the Lakes area, heavily relied on in the report, were commissioned and paid for by Xstrata (the company now owning Tahmoor Colliery and which might be up for remediation expenses if the report had placed much blame on mine impacts).

The provenance of these reports was not mentioned; they were referenced as if they were independent academic studies. Dr Pells discovered the hidden links.

They are both dated 2012, well after the inquiry was set up in 2011. Both reports exonerate mining from the drying out of the Lakes (see attached email from Dr Pells for details).

Guns for hire for the mining industry?

The authors of these two reports, Gilbert and Merrick, appeared in a November 2009 case in the Land and Environment court as expert witnesses on behalf of Peabody mining company. Rivers SOS and the Environment Defenders Office were attempting to stop mine expansion in Sydney’s drinking water catchment. Again, they argued that minimal damage would occur in spite of the wrecking of the Waratah river system from previous mining in this area.

Noel Merrick denied under oath that higher permeability was a result of mining, and said he “did not know” whether mining had caused cracking of overlying rock. Vincent Gilbert was criticised by our barrister Tim Robertson for his “inability to quantify things” – his report had claimed only minimal water loss but had presented no evidence or documentation.

Vincent Gilbert also contributed on behalf of Peabody in a Planning Assessment Commission hearing at Wollongong on this same Metropolitan mine earlier in 2009, where he had attempted to rubbish submissions from other experts over potential damage to swamps etc.

Conflict of interest: a blatant example

Likewise, when groundwater scientist Dr Wendy Mclean was appointed to this committee of inquiry as one of four scientists, she was described in the Minister’s media release as working for an unnamed international consultancy. No wonder the name was concealed – in fact she works for Parsons Brinkerhoff, major mining consultants which have most mining companies in Australia as its clients, including Xstrata. Parsons Brinkerhoff has been busy of late writing groundwater studies assuring government authorities that mining will not harm aquifers, when mine plans are being assessed in places like Gloucester, Wyong, Broke and the Southern Highlands.

At the committee’s public hearing in Tahmoor I raised this problem of conflict of interest. She told me in the tea break that she has taken leave without pay in order to have input into this important inquiry – no doubt a good career move as the report pretty well absolves mining impacts from the disappearance of the Lakes. And of course she is still an employee of Parsons B. whether on leave or not.

Rivers SOS will put out a more detailed media release later, when our committee as a whole has had time to digest the report. I am sending this email out now as a personal response, due to a need for a rapid response to the Minister’s statements in yesterday’s media.

Caroline Graham

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Thirlmere Lakes: the Council Forum that Wasn’t

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.

Caroline Graham
Vice Presiden

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Rivers SOS Submission on Draft Aquifer Interference Policy

This is the submission from Rivers SOS to the NSW Government’s consultation process about the effects of industry and mining on the aquifers that supply NSW with water.

The river systems and water resources of NSW are our concern. Without water, prime agricultural land is useless. In the most arid continent, water supplies must be carefully
conserved. We fear that money power and short term vision prevents the conservation of water.

Since our inception we have called for a 1 km safety zone to protect 3rd order rivers and above from mine damage. Continue reading

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Huge rally in Sydney against coal seam gas

There was a huge rally recently in Sydney, against the effects of coal seam gas. It was a historic occasion, with many disaparate groups in attendance. The Country Women’s Association was there, as well as many farmers, environmental groups of all types, and of course Rivers SOS.

Rivers SOS member Denis Wilson took some photos, which can be seen here and here.

There was a lot of media coverage, a sample of which is below:

Sydney Morning Herald
ABC Radio’s PM
The Australian


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April meeting in Cawdor

There was standing room only at Cawdor Primary School near Camden as over 70 people including representatives from Rivers SOS’s member groups from around NSW gathered for sharing of information and for discussion with six MPs also in attendance, plus Wollondilly Councillors and Deputy Mayor.

Rivers SOS groups are concerned over the expansion of coal mining and CSG extraction, to the detriment of river systems, aquifers and prime agricultural land. We were happy to have this dialogue with senior politicians and decision-makers.

Groups represented were from the Hunter, Merriwa, Blue Mountains, Southern Highlands, Gloucester, Wedderburn, Georges River, Sutherland, Illawarra, Oakdale, Putty Valley, Stanwell Park, Sydney, Douglas Park, Helensburgh, Picton, Razorback,Thirlmere, Campbelltown, Robertson, Penrith and Wollondilly. Drew Hutton, Lock the Gate leader, and Keith Muir of the Colong Foundation were among prominent speakers.

Speaking on a panel of MPs from the three major parties were Chris Hartcher (Lib), NSW Minister for Resources and Energy; Luke Foley (ALP), Shadow Minister for Environment, Energy and Water; and Jeremy Buckingham (MLC), mining spokesman for the NSW Greens.

Other MPs in attendance were Chris Patterson, Liberal MLA for Camden; Russell Matheson, Federal Liberal member for Macarthur; Andrew McDonald, ALP Shadow Minister for Health, Labor MLA for Macquarie Fields, and Jai Rowell, Liberal MLA for Wollondilly. ALP guru and elder statesman Rodney Cavalier was also present.

Minister Hartcher outlined reforms made by his government to the mining approvals process, and was congratulated for removing the requirement for mining companies to buy exploration licences for fees running into hundreds of millions. However the government’s Strategic Regional Land Use and Aquifer Interference draft policies were criticised for failure to give promised protection to vital agricultural land and water resources. The government was also criticised for failure to give adequate support to alternative energy sources.

Luke Foley admitted that the ALP need to revise the lack of balance in the pro-mining policies it held while in government. Jeremy Buckingham outlined Greens policies, insisting on proper research being carried out before approvals are granted. The Greens had proposed a moratorium on expansion until this is done, a motion which was defeated in parliament.

After lunch, a panel of speakers concerned with coal mining and CSG extraction in Sydney’s drinking water catchment Special Areas included Cr. Larry Whipper, Deputy Mayor of Wingecarribee Council and member of the Sydney Catchment Authority Board; Dr Ann Young, expert on the upland swamps of the Woronora Plateau; and Dr Peter Turner, founder of the Save Our Water Catchment Areas campaign.

Group representatives signed a letter to Minister Katrina Hodgkinson, cc to the Premier and Minister Robyn Parker, protesting at the removal of environmental and community positions from the boards of the EPA and the SCA, and asking for a meeting with a Rivers SOS delegation about this and other matters.

Channel 2’s camera crew and local media were present, and a long segment on the event was included on the ABC’s national news that evening.

On Sunday morning a large group was shown over the Thirlmere Lakes, suspected to have been badly depleted through longwall mining nearby.

Rivers SOS will hold our 13th regional meeting in August, venue to be decided.


Speakers lineup: Chair, Julie Sheppard -Secretary Rivers SOS; Luke Foley, Chris Hartcher and Jeremy Buckingham (seated on far right: Larry Whipper , Deputy Mayor of Wingecarribee Council and member of SCA Board ,and Peter Martin of the Southern Highlands Coal Action Group)

Lunch break: Drew Hutton, spokesman for Lock the Gate Alliance, with Denis Wilson of Australian Water Campaigners. Dr Peter Turner of Save our Water Catchment Areas in background.

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Protection of Swamps – article in Illawarra Mercury

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