Coal mines and rivers: a toxic mix

From Emerald in Queensland, to the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, coal mines are having a huge impact on the quantity and quality of our river systems. An independent study of the impact of coal mines on Queensland's Fitzroy River found that the discharge quality limits and operating conditions for mines in the Bowen Basin do not adequately protect the downstream values of the environment, impacting ecosystems and town drinking water supplies.

The study on the cumulative impact of mining on the health of the Fitzroy River was commissioned on the 16th October 2008 by the then Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation the Hon. Andrew McNamara. It was released in March, 2009.

The impetus for this study resulted from a flood event in central Queensland in January and February 2008. The Ensham Coal Mine, 40km east of Emerald, was severely affected by flooding that trapped a dragline and resulted in an estimated 150,000 megalitres (ML) of floodwater being collected in the mine. The Queensland EPA authorised the mine to discharge flood waters entrapped in this mine to the Nogoa River, which ultimately flows into the Fitzroy River.

In August, water quality results for Bedford Weir downstream of Ensham Coal Mine, indicated that salinity was increasing in the waterways downstream of the Ensham discharge, and that drinking water supplies were being adversely affected. The sodium levels were found to be a health concern and residents in the townships of Blackwater and Tieri raised concerns about the smell and taste of the water. There were also concerns from the public that the ecosystem health of the river system, including wildlife, were dangerously impacted by the elevated salinity. 

Queensland Health was forced to issue a health alert to the community about the potential health affects of this increased salinity. The alert warned residents with certain health conditions and mothers with babies on formula to use bottled water. The degradation of the water quality was also considered to have increased the effects of a viral gastroenteritis outbreak in the region in late August.

But for all of these concerns, Ensham mine was allowed to continue discharging water into the river system until the 9th September.

Report Recommendations

The report made a number of urgent recommendations regarding the need to improve the management of waste water in mining activities; reduce the potential for cumulative impacts; and improve the availability of water quality data, which was found to be "extremely limited" and "insufficient to quantify" the impacts of coal mines. 

Yet despite the serious recommendations of the report, which was conducted by the EPA itself, the report has to date been ignored by the Queensland EPA. As they stress on their front page of the document: 

This is a draft document that has not been considered by government agencies and does not represent government policy.

How many more of these events will it take before the Queensland Government takes the findings of its own inquiries seriously?


The dedicated website of the Queensland EPA, including links to the studies

An article by Queensland Country Life by Melissa Martin