Flooded mines a concern

Questions are being raised about authorised and unauthorised discharges from flooded mines in Queensland.

The December and January floods in central and southern Queensland affected at least 40 of the state’s coal mines, causing millions of tonnes of coal production to be halted.  Australia produces over 50% of the world’s coking coal, most of that in the flooded Bowen Basin.

Early estimates reported from analysts were that $1.4 billion of coal-generated revenue was at risk. Including agriculture, the floods were estimated (early in January) to threaten up to $9 billion of Australia’s GDP from exports.  World spot coking coal prices have risen dramatically in response, with potential flow through effects on world steel prices and supply.

However, mine flooding concerns extend well beyond the economic consequences. Water being pumped from flooded mines into adjacent waterways are typically saline, and may be contaminated with heavy metals and organic pollutants. Potential impacts on both downstream ecosystems and human consumers are currently being assessed by the Queensland Government.

Following similar floods in January 2008, coal mines around Emerald (Bowen Basin) released huge amounts of water into the into the Fitzroy River system which supplies the downstream city of Rockhampton.  Independent reviews since that event have led to revisions to water management regulations.  Mines must now apply for Transitional Environmental Programs (TEPs) from the Queensland EPA, allowing them to pump contaminated water into creeks, preferably when the creeks are flowing well.

Nevertheless, around 16 – 20 mines made unauthorized water releases during the worst of the recent crisis when receiving waters were in flood.  The Queensland Government claims that “… the risk of environmental harm (from these releases) is very low due to the nature of the breaches and the very high flows in the receiving waters.”  Furthermore, that the government is “… investigating all of these (unauthorized discharges) and will take enforcement action where necessary.”  Also, that “…on-going monitoring has not indicated water quality concerns at this time.”

Delays in applications and their processing have meant that TEPs published recently on the web apparently will allow mines to pump their saline water into low flowing creeks, where dilution factors are minimal.  This is a matter of concern for mining companies as well as the receiving waterways

Queensland Resources Council CEO Michael Roche has claimed that the delays in approvals mean that some companies have missed the good flows in receiving waters that would have diluted the water they need to pump out.

An interesting observation from the 2008 mine floods review, led by noted water quality specialist Professor Barry Hart, was that, “The available management options are all severely constrained by the current Fitzroy Water Resource Plan (and operational rules), which has virtually all the water in Fairbairn Dam allocated to consumptive uses and no contingency allocation owned by the State.”  Presumably the implication here being that the government is unable to provide a diluting flow from its upstream storage to allow for safe discharges of mine flood waters.

Professor Hart, went on to recommend that these and other anomalies should be addressed during the 10-yearly review of this plan currently underway.

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