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REDUCING THE MINE WASTE POLLUTION TO WOLLANGAMBE RIVER
Wollangambe's State of Health Report 2014
In August 2014 Dr Ian Wright from Western Sydney University presented the Wollangambe River's State of Health report to a packed meeting of society members at Wentworth Falls School of Arts. Water sampling results at different sites over many months showed that the levels of zinc and nickel, the water temperature, salinity and the pH changed significantly from above to below the mine discharge point and the aquatic life in the water also decreased significantly.
Dr Wright recommended much stronger restrictions on the mine discharge be placed in Clarence's Environmental Pollution Licence. Blue Mountains Conservation Society and the Colong Foundation for Wilderness funded the laboratory tests to investigate the water quality.
EPA five-year licence review
In 2014 the EPA announced the five year review of Clarence Colliery's Environment Protection Licence (EPL). This licence limits the pollutants in and the volume of the mine waste discharge from Clarence Colliery. This aerial photo of Clarence Colliery shows where it operates in relation to the natural environment.
The Society sent the EPA a comprehensive submission on how to improve the licence in late 2014. [http://www.bluemountains.org.au/wollangambe-epl726.shtml] There were a lot of other submissions to this review because of the strong community interest in protecting the world heritage area and its waters.
Mine waste collapse puts the licence improvements on hold
While the EPA was working on finalising the licence review, many tonnes of coal fines stored just above the world heritage area flowed out of Clarence's mine site around 2 July 2015. Unfortunately for the river, EPA investigations on the mine waste collapse and the year-long EPA-directed clean-up of the river, diverted EPA staff from completing the licence review. There were 42 EPA inspections, of the drainage line above the Wollangambe River and the part of the river had to be re-cleaned.
Stakeholder discussions on the revised EPL resumed in second half of 2016, however, the revised licence was not released until March 2017.
Damning new findings on the poor water quality in the Wollangambe
In early 2017, Dr Wright published his latest research into the pollution levels in the Wollangambe River above and below the Clarence colliery's discharge point. His research found a huge difference in the water quality and aquatic life above and below the discharge point. The pollution extended for at least 22 kms which is into the heart of the world heritage area.
Dr Wright told ABC News regarding his research that the Wollangambe "….could be one of the most polluting coal mines in the world". He said that "One of the reasons we make that statement is because it's so clean here. It's looking at the stain of pollution on a very clean background. "Most coal mining across the world happens in areas that are quite disturbed.
At last! Some good news for the Gambe in 2017
In March 2017 the EPA strengthened the pollution limits in the EPL for Clarence Colliery's mine waste discharge. From June 2017 there will be stronger limits on the 13 toxic metals being discharged and nickel has been added. The discharge limits have been set using the ANZECC/ ARMCANZ (2000) water quality guidelines as a benchmark. The Office of Environment and Heritage recommended this in their recent report for the EPA on the condition of the Wollongambe.
Importantly, the EPL now explicitly recognises the environmental significance of the Wollangambe River and how inappropriate a discharge of this nature into the river is. In particular, the licence recognises
Progressive salinity reduction announced
Later in March the EPA has announced it would add a pollution reduction program requiring the salinity levels to be reduced to below 100 EC (EPA Media release 17 March 2017) This target level of salinity is very good news for the river.
However, the details are yet to come, particularly, the date at which the mine will have to achieve the target salinity concentration. The timing is critical to the recovery of the Wollangambe River from the continuing toxic saline discharge from a mine which has been operating for eighteen years. The river also suffered the additional pollution form the toxic waste collapse in July 2015. The society has written to the EPA asking them to ensure this reduction in salinity is achieved as quickly as possible.
Salinity levels need to be set at the natural background level of this near pristine river. This would require a reverse osmosis plant to remove the salt before discharge. While this is not addressed, the licence holder continues to enjoy its longstanding financial benefit of discharging without have to reduce salinity to the appropriate level.
Other pollution still to be addressed
The licence also takes no action on thermal pollution either to limit or even to monitor its occurrence. Recent research by Dr Wright and others found that the mine waste discharges increased surface water temperature by 3.9 degrees which would not ANZECC (2000) if they were applied.2 Thermal pollution is regulated elsewhere in NSW, for instance, Vales Point power station's cooling water discharge to Lake Macquarie. It needs to be added to Clarence's EPL
As at the time of the court hearing in May 2017, no further revisions to the EPL had been publicly released.