Coal threat to World Heritage areas continues with Lithgow mine collapse

Intro

The coal industry’s toxic and destructive legacy has been highlighted yet again in recent days, with a mine collapse contaminating a river above a World Heritage area in New South Wales, and a coal giant underhandedly attempting to steamroll traditional owners in Queensland for a project looking more economically and politically insane by the day. Toxic mineral waste from Centennial Coal’s Clarence Colliery in the Blue Mountains collapsed a wall of a containment cell on Thursday, contaminating a section of the Wollangambe River that was already at risk from mine waste water. Centennial is a “serial offender” with a history of negative impacts on the local community, that would rather sack environmental consultants warning of its damage than clean up its act. The situation is being mirrored in Queensland in a much larger way, with Indian coal conglomerate Adani using ex political staffers to push through its vast Carmichael mine despite it threatening another World Heritage Icon, The Great Barrier Reef, and there being “zero chance” of it being ecologically or economically “sustainable” as the Labor State Government claims.

Key Points

  • Coal comes with severe environmental and health risks, and the sooner it is phased out the better. Centennial Coal is a “serial offender”, with 65 breaches of license conditions since 2000. Even before the mine collapse it was pumping 13.8 million litres of wastewater from the mine into the river each day, with an EPA report finding concentrations of zinc, nickel, sulfur, sulfate and calcium at levels up to hundreds of times above national water quality guidelines. Despite such threats to the local environment and the health of the local community, the company would rather sack environmental consultants than listen to warnings about its impacts, and the NSW Planning and Assessment Commission is also apparently willing to turn a blind eye, giving the company conditional approval to extend the mine.
  • Government support for destructive coal projects at all costs is coming at great cost. Whether it’s threatening World Heritage areas in Queensland or NSW, damaging community health in Lithgow or Morwell, or putting taxpayers on the hook for billions in subsidies and external costs nationwide – State and Federal Governments are continuing to irrationally support coal companies against all environmental, health, and economic evidence – sometimes from their own experts – that they shouldn’t.
  • Coal leaves a toxic legacy in its wake, and coal companies cannot be trusted to clean up after themselves. The future for coal is bleak, and as we are seeing with Peabody Energy and other US coal firms: there is no soft landing ahead for coal companies. With coal company share prices crashing from around US$80 to less than US$2, companies like Peabody have lost their employee pensions, their market capitalisation, and their ability to cover the cost to live up to their responsibilities to rehabilitate their mine sites. At a time when Adani could buy up a massive, existing Australian coal assets from Peabody and huge shareholder benefit compared to building a new mine, the logic behind gambling on another vast coal mine is baffling. Government support for vast new mines is doubly baffling given it appears Peabody will not be able to pay to remediate its existing projects, potentially leaving the Queensland people with a vast coal headache in the future.

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Key quotes

  • “We cannot continue to pretend that coal mining can coexist with drinking water catchments and it’s time for Mike Baird to show leadership and impose a ban on longwall mining in our fragile catchment areas. It is clear that the coal industry simply treats our environment as their tip and sees fines from the EPA as no more than the cost of doing business.” Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham.
  • “This collapse at the Clarence Colliery will make the Wollangambe River turn black along entire reach and spread coal fines through the Wollangambe Canyons. These canyons are loved by many. It is a real tragedy, equivalent to a giant oil spill. The lax environmental performance of Centennial Coal is to blame. The disaster comes at a time when the EPA was negotiating a major pollution control improvement program to remove 25ML/day of toxic mine effluent that has discharged into this river, and restore it to a pristine state. It is hard to fathom why such a major disaster is coincident with these reform measures, and during fine weather. Whatever the cause, this proves disaster that Centennial Coal just can’t be trusted!” Colong Foundation for Wilderness’s Keith Muir.
  • “This is a serious environmental incident with tonnes of coal fines material estimated to have left the site and entered the surrounding environment. The environmental impacts of this incident are the focus of our actions at the moment, with two EPA officers and scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) on site and undertaking various sampling. The Wollangambe River is our greatest concern and determining the impacts to the river is a priority”  NSW EPA EPA South Director, Gary Whytcross.
  • “The key potential water related impacts of the [Angus Place Mine Extension] are those expected to occur to Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone [THPSS]. Key potential impacts to THPSS include: subsidence impacts such as bedrock fracturing; changes to the hydrological (surface flows from upstream tributaries and inundation) and hydrogeological (groundwater drawdown and baseflow) regimes; peat desiccation, erosion (scour) and slumping; decline of vegetation communities and swamp extent, including EPBC Act threatened species. It is highly likely that impacts to THPSS and dependent threatened species will be severe and potentially irreparable. Further, there is no scientific literature currently available to demonstrate the effectiveness of potential mitigation or remediation measures.” IESC report on potential impacts of the mine extension, August 2014.

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