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<p>Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/</p>

Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/

Charles Roche from the Mineral Policy Institute and Dr Gavin Mudd from Monash University testing the pH of water in Hanrahans Creek near the Redbank copper mine in the Northern Territory.

Too Many Cooks in the Mining Kitchen

Australia’s rich resources are credited with buffering the nation from the Global Financial Crisis. But as the boom continues, a fractured network of regulators seems ill-equipped to properly check its impact.


In the tropical northern Australian wet season from December until about March, mining companies are on alert. Water holdings swell, rainwater mixing with used-water storages that must be released in accordance with the environmental guidelines.

Sometimes companies are forced to pump water from pit to pit, making sure it doesn’t break containment and seep out into the surrounding environment. For some operations that can mean weeks of vigilant monitoring and constant pumping from one pit to the next – anything to stop an unauthorised release of the contaminated waste water.

But sometimes the system fails, the wet season is too unrelenting and the waters rise too high, breaking out of their holding wells and disused pits, and flowing freely into water catchments used by local farmers, graziers and towns.

Mining, so often lauded as the solution to Australia’s economic woes, is big business. Across the country, mining operations big and small not only beef up the country’s financial bottom line they draw on natural resources, create waste rock and water, and make a significant contribution to carbon emissions. A 2010 report by the Federal Government’s department of climate change said growth in carbon emissions to 2020 “is dominated by emissions associated with the extraction and processing of energy resources driven by strong export demand.”

<p>Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/</p>

Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/

A drain from the waste rock dump at the Redbank copper mine in the Northern Territory. The blue on the rocks is copper sulfate crystals left after storm runoff.

As mining becomes a bigger slice of Australian industry, more and more exploration occurs each year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics quarterly reports on mining activity estimate that in the September quarter of 2011, expenditure on exploration rose 6.2 per cent on the previous quarter, totalling more than $919 million. Overall, the report found the amount being spent on exploration had risen 45.4 per cent on the estimate from the September quarter in 2010. Most of this exploration has happened in the two boom states, Queensland and Western Australia.

How the system is regulated is a patchwork of state and federal rules imposed by myriad authorities. The federal government weighs in on treaty issues, world environmental obligations and threats to endangered species. What is does not do is regulate the entire system.

But with such rapid growth, communities and environmental groups have begun to ask more questions about the strength of the current regulatory framework. A key concern, raised over and over again to The Global Mail, is whether government has allowed the politics of the mining boom, and the rhetoric of jobs and national economic needs to overshadow key environmental issues such as water contamination and climate change. They argue not enough is being done to ensure we are not sacrificing the quality of our arable land, air and water for the benefit of an industry that has created, in their disputed view, a mythology that ties Australia’s economic success to its continued expansion and development.

Community advocates, former government regulators and academics in the field all have raised questions about a lack of crucial oversight and what they dub a state of “regulatory capture” where public servants tick boxes without critical analysis — that has lead to environmental problems across a range of mining ventures and a number of states. The recent hearings of the Queensland floods inquiry show there can be flexibility in how regulations are determined and enforced by those monitoring mining sites.

Mining companies, conscious of the sensitivity of the issues around new mine approval and environmental regulation take pains to comply with the standards governments impose.  They work hard to ensure they are ticking all the boxes: companies pay regeneration bonds, employ environmental managers, create land and water management plans and produce reports and strategies that are publicly available outlining environmental impact response efforts.

The Minerals Council of Australia — the peak advocacy body for Australian mining – thinks the industry is the “most highly regulated” in the country and in August of last year said the current system was inefficient — too much duplication, too onerous a financial burden. The environmental management of mining operations, it said, needed to be streamlined.

The big picture: as the rest of the world has stalled, Australia by comparison has flourished, with low debt levels, strong employment figures and a housing market that hasn’t experienced anywhere near the foreclosures of the United States. Nor have we experienced the social unrest the Irish, Greek and Italian debt crises have produced — crises which have plunged the Eurozone into debilitating uncertainty. Our economy has chugged along, buoyed by the strong demand for mining exports and the healthy position of the government balance sheet heading into the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

Needless to say, we’ve not escaped unscathed: consumer confidence is shaken, inflation has grown, there have been some wobbles in the housing market, and an almost complete free-fall in manufacturing. The Australian tourism industry is faltering and the culprit, the high Aussie dollar, is hurting retailers, as the exchange rate drives online shopping.

“There’s a real question about whether there is a capacity in regulatory authorities to stay on top of all of the reporting data…”

Against all of this, the mining boom has become the stuff of fiscal legend, with big dirt lining up to claim credit for the resilience of the Australian economy. Miner’s wants — now framed by the rhetoric of national service — have become the nation’s desires. As with previous booms in agriculture and manufacturing, it has become politically dangerous to be seen to be compromising the boom — or restricting mining’s ability to keep the money coming in.

In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising to find that the environmental downside of the boom has largely gone missing in the debate. For the most part, those who question the expansion are pegged as a handful of greenies, their objections framed as radicalism. And yet, examples of environmental compromise while complying with government regulation continue to emerge.

Many incidents involve water management, and the way mining companies store and dispose of wastewater. But there have been problems with metals pollution, and concerns have been raised about the best way to dispose of tailings, a by-product of mining.

In the summer of 2011, as Queensland was awash with the worst flooding in a hundred years, a number of mines were forced to seek emergency permits to allow them to release water that they could no longer contain.

At the Queensland Floods Commission hearings, mine representatives gave evidence that their systems simply could not cope with the sheer volume of water moving through. Michael Roche, the chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, told the commission that changes to the environmental management plan in the Fitzroy river region following overflows in the 2009 wet season had left many mines concerned about their capacity to comply.

As the 2010 season got underway, Roche said the system came under pressure almost immediately.

“Some company chief executives were telling me that … they were worried about the dam levels being at their limits and with the predictions of further cyclones they just didn’t have any options about where to put more water,” he told the commission.

Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management’s assistant director-general for regional service delivery Michael Birchley told the flood inquiry that the department had balanced the environmental impact of water releases against the economic ramifications for mines if the water was not released.

“I will admit it is challenging for an officer to undertake those sort of evaluations. The sort of matters that we potentially may look at are things such as the impact of the operation of a particular enterprise,” he told the inquiry.

“We would also look in terms of matters such as equity probably at impacts downstream for other people dependent, on the users of the environment.”

Birchley told the inquiry that there was no uniform guideline that determined whether or not mines under pressure from rising flood-water would be granted legal cover to release untreated water into the surrounding river system. Rather, discretion is applied on a case-by-case basis through a permit approval process.

<p>Photo By Phoebe Barton/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/</p>

Photo By Phoebe Barton/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/

The distinctive bright blue of high concentrations of copper sulfate in Hanrahans Creek, near the Redbank Mine in the Northern Territory.

He also confirmed under questioning that water quality up and downstream from mining operations is monitored by the mining companies themselves, not the department.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Peter Callaghan, SC, asked: “How do you ensure you are getting all the information… is there what I would call an audit process, random testing or anything like that?”

“It is essentially part of the ongoing, operational role of the regional officers to be monitoring the return of information from companies,” Birchley replied.

Callaghan “So that is just left to the discretion, if you like, of individual officers at different locations?”

Birchley: “The operational processes that we have in the region, yes.”

Karl Spaleck, general manager of the Century Mine northwest of Mount Isa told the inquiry there was no consistency in how mining operations are required to deal with water flows. After overflows at the mine that led to the company being criminally prosecuted in 2008, Century upgraded water infrastructure to better cope with unpredictable wet seasons, and during the floods the company was able to avoid being forced to release much excess water into the system.

“At the end of the day we need to make sure that we did not cause any environmental harm to the areas where we are mining, so it’s better to be prepared beforehand [rather] than trying to resolve these matters… at the eleventh hour,” he told the inquiry.

Asked if he believed other miners took the same approach as Century, Spaleck said the department’s rules for the granting of transitional environmental plans — essentially a permit that allows variations, and used throughout the floods to allow mining sites to release excess water — were changeable and “can make it difficult to understand.”

Spaleck said in Queensland environmental approvals that set out minimum standards do not have specific flood conditions.

Still, Andrew Connor, general manager of mine operations for Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management says meeting their environmental conditions, no matter what the circumstances is the responsibility of every mining company.

“It is the responsibility of mines to ensure they can meet their environmental conditions during a full range of weather events,” he told The Global Mail.

Communities and environmental groups have begun to ask more questions about the strength of the current regulatory framework.

Certainly, December 2010 was one of the wettest on record, leading into a wet January, but the mining industry had encountered water management problems before. The Fitzroy Model — designed to tighten the restrictions on how much water could be released and when — was brought in by the Queensland government as a response to the concerns of those who lived in the catchment over leaks and spills, and growing salinity in the system following earlier flooding problems.

The Lady Annie copper mine is 120 km north west of Mount Isa. In 2009, it lost control of its water storages, which overflowed into river catchments, causing large scale damage to local water supplies. The company which operated the mine, CopperCo Limited, recently pleaded guilty to one count of causing serious environmental damage over the spill, prosecuted under the Queensland Environmental Protection Act. The incident is also the subject of a civil legal dispute, with the Coolreagh Pastoral Company as the plaintiff. Prominent class action law firm Slater and Gordon is representing Coolreagh, and documents filed with the Brisbane Supreme Court show the mine’s administrators intend to fight the action.

Grazier Marcus Curr, who runs Yelvertoft Station outside Mount Isa, is the man behind the legal action. Since the spill, Curr has been a vocal opponent of the current regulatory regime, telling The Townsville Bulletin in 2010 that there were not enough inspectors monitoring mining operations.

Curr would not speak to The Global Mail because of the civil proceedings.

Not long after the spill, CopperCo went into administration, and in March 2009, receivers Deloitte said the flooding had “exceeded the design capacity of the storm water ponds [at the mine], which were designed to retain a one in one hundred year ‘two month wet season runoff’ event before overflow”.

Lady Annie was not the only mine to see their water management system fail in the Fitzroy region in the heavy rains of February 2009. At least 10 mines discharged matter including heavy metals into rivers and creeks that flow into the Lake Eyre Basin. Another mining company was subject to a civil action from pastoralists affected by the spill, but the case was dropped last year.

The problem of course, with planning for a one-in-a-hundred-year event is that weather patterns are unpredictable, and in Queensland alone there have been successive years of exceptional rainfall in 2009 and 2010, leaving many operations exposed.

In the Northern Territory in 2011 the Ranger Uranium Mine shut down for five months because of the perilously high water levels in the tailing storage dam – where waste water is stored. Heavier-than-usual rainfall could have tipped the contaminated water over the top, tumbling down into world-heritage-listed surrounds of Kakadu national park, 8 km east of Jabiru and 260 km east of Darwin.

Monash University’s Gavin Mudd, a civil engineer who has studied the mining industry for more than 15 years, says Ranger’s shut down is a good example of how the system is not working well enough.

“They did their sums and realised that they were not going to have enough room and so the only way to reduce flow… was to shut the whole plant down, saying it would last for three months – it lasted for five,” he said.

“It’s not too hard to go through history and see that you can have cyclones come through in April and May [so Ranger] came within centimetres. Is that the sort of chance we should be taking?”

<p>Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/</p>

Photo By Jessie Boylan/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/

At Hanrahans Creek near the Redbank Mine in the Northern Territory, the water is blue due to high levels of copper sulfate.

The problem at Ranger occurred because of an unusually long wet season; coupled with a longer-term issue around how the mine managed its wastewater. The company argues that the shutdown was simply a voluntary safety measure and it now plans to expand water treatment facilities on site, giving Energy Resources of Australia – the Rio Tinto subsidiary which operates Ranger – more flexibility in future wet seasons.

Mudd is perplexed. He asks why the authorities monitoring Ranger haven’t already made this a requirement for the mines continued operation.  Ranger is monitored by the Northern Territory Government, an indigenous land authority, and a specially created federal agency, the office of the Supervising Scientist, that operates out of the federal Department of Sustainability and Environment, created to oversee the sensitive mining project in the late 1970s.

“The regulators have never actually put their foot down and forced the mine to address the problem... and so I think there’s still a regulatory failure there,” he said.

“If a mine is forced to shut itself for five months because they’ve backed themselves into a corner and that’s the only option they’ve got, it really raises some serious questions about how it’s run and the way that it’s regulated,” Mudd said.

ERA spokeswoman Shannon McRae sees it differently. She says the shutdown was simply a voluntary safety measure. “Ranger was able to manage what eventuated as one of the heaviest wet season rainfall periods ever recorded in the Northern Territory.”

The mine, which opened in 1981 has had more than 200 leaks, spills and licence breaches in the 30 years it has operated, but each year the supervising scientist’s office has found no lasting impacts on the environment.

Majority-owned by international mining giant Rio Tinto – employer of more than 77,000 people in over 40 countries – Ranger is one of the world’s largest uranium mining operations. ERA estimates that it provides roughly 8 per cent of the world’s “mined uranium production” which is then exported to Europe, Asia and America.

In the company’s 2010 annual report Energy Resources of Australia says almost 3,800 tonnes of uranium were mined, and the surrounding environment “remains protected”. The company cites a 2009 report by the supervising scientist that says spikes in salinity registered at Ranger in that year had no lasting environmental impact, as an example of their environmental track record.

In his 2010 annual report, supervising scientist Alan Hughes said water management “remained critical at the mine”, and detailed wide-ranging monitoring of water systems to ensure no long term damage to the surrounding environment.

But Hughes told The Global Mail Ranger is a heavily regulated mining site, that did all the right things when faced with the water problems of the 2010/11 wet season.

“It was the third-largest wet season on record… that makes it a little bit more extreme… there was never any threat to the environment and ERA voluntarily took the actions that they took. What happened here was really quite appropriate in the way it was managed,” he said.

At least 10 mines discharged matter including heavy metals into rivers and creeks that flow into the Lake Eyre Basin.

Energy Resources of Australia is currently expanding water treatment facilities to help minimise the impact of heavy wet seasons, and spent $9.4 million on a stockpile seepage project to divert runoff and seepage water flows in 2010.

“ERA is planning the construction of a brine concentrator facility which will treat and reduce the inventory of process water at Ranger mine. This facility, with a total capital cost of $220 million, is scheduled to be operational in 2013 and is capable of treating 1.83 gigalitres of water each year. In addition to this, ERA has bolstered its pond water treatment and increased storage capacity,” McRae said.

Gavin Mudd isn’t feeling assured.

He argues mining projects across Australia have benefitted from a state of “regulatory capture” where the bodies that approve and monitor mining projects – largely at a state level through environmental protection agencies and departments of primary industries or mining – are too quick to accept evidence provided by the companies and don’t carry out enough independent research, either through lack of funding or will.

“Companies will often say ‘oh, it’s fine, trust us – it’s not going to be a problem’ and the regulators [accept that] without demanding good data and evidence to underpin that claim from the company.

“They accept too much industry comment without critical assessment and thinking and so I think in a lot of ways they fail to act as an independent regulator,” he said.

“There’s not enough independent monitoring done, whether that’s done by government or the companies … mining is an acute impact where it occurs. There’s no sugar coating that, there’s no avoiding that – whether you’re digging a large open cut or diverting a river or building new mountains and leaving great holes – there’s an big impact in the immediate area.”

Jim Leggate, a former Queensland government mining regulator who began his career working as an environmental officer on sand, coal, and uranium mining projects in the 1970s, has spent the past 20 years pushing for tighter restriction and better regulation of mining operations across Australia. He agrees that regulators have become facilitators.

“The regulation of mining in Australia has failed and failed spectacularly. Over the last hundred years Australian mining has always produced more environmental impact then it said it would,” Leggate said.

“We’re faced with such an alarming expansion of mining at the moment that we must look back in order to see where we’re going. And if you look back… there’s no way we should trust the promises of gas and coal mining people when they talk about the impact of their operation,” he said.

In Queensland, mining companies are required to lodge a bond with the government to pay for any clean up required when the mine is shut down.  The system provides discounts for companies that are financially secure and have a good environmental track record.

<p>Photo By Phoebe Barton/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/</p>

Photo By Phoebe Barton/MPI http://mininglegacies.org/

Iron residue left after acid mine drainage and storm runoff on the site of the long-abandoned Baal Gammon copper mine in Northern Queensland.

In 2010 more than $1.8 billion was held in bond by the Queensland government, with the cost of clean up estimated at double that. In a letter to Leggate sent in late 2010, an adviser to the Queensland climate change and sustainability minister said the government was also in the process of auditing the rehabilitation of mining sites as part of a four-year review of the system.

But Leggate said the government shouldn’t be footing any of the clean up bill, and mining companies should be responsible for returning to good health, the areas they have mined. Like Gavin Mudd, he believes mining companies are given too much leeway from governments, which don’t carry out enough independent environmental compliance work.

“Regulators have become facilitators and they are not putting in place the checks and balances that the free market system requires. I have been alarmed over the last two years as mining has been front and center in public affairs in Australia… that the environmental detriment is being ignored,” Leggate said.

Melanie Stutsel, the Minerals Council of Australia’s environmental policy director, says there’s no truth in suggestions that mining operations get an easy ride because of the economic benefits that flow from the industry into government coffers.

“In our view the regulatory arrangements for the industry are both comprehensive and complex.  They do provide adequate protection for the significant environmental risks that are associated with mining. They cover everything you would expect,” she says.

But where problems do occur, Stutsel suggests, is with the level of resourcing for the government departments tasked with enforcing the regulatory framework.

“I think there’s a real question about whether there is a capacity in regulatory authorities to stay on top of all of the reporting data that they receive and whether they are effectively utilising all that really rich data they have.

“It’s a very different department within government that does the regulation of the industry and that receives the revenue from the industry and they have very different mandates. [But] the environmental departments have been historically very under resourced. It’s one thing to make regulation, but if you don’t have the proper resources to enforce the regulation you already have you’re just stretching what’s under resourced even further. If you spread it too thin you end up with poor outcomes across the board,” she says.

Stutsel says the industry is keen to stay ahead of any legislated regulatory framework, to ensure that community concerns about the impacts of mining operations are properly addressed. And she dismisses suggestions that self-reporting on environmental standards compromises the integrity of the data.

One of the biggest problems faced by those who advocate tighter regulation and better monitoring and rehabilitation of mining sites is that there’s not a lot of information about how disused and rehabilitated mines interact with the environment.

If a mining company goes bust, responsibility for the clean up at the mining site is then the domain of the relevant state or territory government.

The mining boom has become the stuff of fiscal legend … lining up to claim credit for the resilience of the Australian economy

Corinne Unger, a Queensland-based abandoned-mines academic, says most Australian jurisdictions don’t require companies to provide bonds that would cover the full cost of mine rehabilitation, contributing to a poor track record on mine rehabilitation and leading to abandoned mines in some instances.

“Having 100 per cent coverage for financial assurance of active mines is a key to insuring against abandoned mine creation, yet in Australia most jurisdictions allow for less than 100 per cent,” she says.

Unger says studies show the worst is Western Australia, where rehabilitation bonds average 25 per cent, but that only Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania have formal programs dealing with abandoned mines.

“Because most states don't have formal abandoned mine programs there are limited connections made between the legacies and the prevention mechanisms. Few jurisdictions if any, have tallied up the total mine legacy liability to recognise the magnitude of it,” she says.

And many jurisdictions have been slow to put in regulatory controls that map what will happen on closure for new projects. In 2011 Western Australia was the first state to introduce guidelines to address the issue of planning for closure from the beginning of a mining project, a step Unger says is an important one.

Sites such as the Northern Territory’s Rum Jungle uranium mine, which have continued to cause environmental damage after closure, are from a bygone era — before any regulatory control. Rum Jungle, still being cleaned up today, closed in the early 1970s.

That’s led people such as Alan Hughes to argue that although the system now is working, it is the legacies of the past which are causing an environmental headache. Hughes believes the Australian mining industry has come a long way in the past 20 years, cleaning up its act significantly.

“I think where we’re at is we’ve seen quite a few mining legacies that are pretty ugly things really and it’s because there was a time when people didn’t really think about that or care about that and the regulatory systems weren’t in place to deal with those sort of issues.

“Over the last 20 years or so there’s been a change in what is acceptable behaviour and it’s tightened every year essentially. So these days, people are very cognisant of what a site needs to look like after closure. People are not allowed to go out now and dig stuff up and make a hell of a mess.”

He said the regulatory framework in place now would ensure mining projects into the future do a lot more to safeguard the environment.

“We’re in an interim period now where there are a lot of legacies that people throw up and say ‘isn’t this terrible’, but we need to look at the regulation as it stands now,” Hughes says.

One aspect that is raised again and again is that self-reporting is a major part of the regulatory framework for Australian mining operations, and governments rely on data gathered and collated by the miners themselves in most instances.

Melanie Stutsel says mines are policed by the regulations and the rules of publicly listed companies, meaning they hold themselves to a strict standard and report accurately all required data.

And Andrew Connor says the current system works – treading a fine line between protection and development.

“Queensland's environmental protection legislation seeks to protect environmental values while allowing for development that improves quality of life now and into the future,” he says.

“A key part of [the legislation’s] philosophy involves the continuous monitoring of the state of the environment and reviewing the effectiveness of environmental strategies over time to ensure continuous improvement. The department effectively balances environmental protection with the broader Queensland public interest, including economic and social considerations.”

Still, there is criticism from those who keep close tabs on the industry, like Daniel Franks, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility of Mining.  He says not enough attention is being paid to issues like landfill and the rehabilitation of tailing waste – a by-product of mining operations like coal, copper and uranium, consisting of waste rock, water and silt.

“The grade that deposits are mined at is in decline and therefore the amount of waste per unit of resource that is processed becomes higher, so tailings are becoming a bigger issue,” he says.

Franks said that although technology has evolved to provide better ways to manage the waste, companies aren’t keeping up.  He believes more should be done to encourage the industry to take up that technology, possibly through government regulation.

“There are technologies out there that could significantly reduce the impact of tailings… but the uptake of them has been quite slow and with greater uptake and investment in those technologies in the sector you would see a huge improvement,” he says.

At the same time, Australia’s carbon emissions continue to rise – up seven percent between June 2001 and June 2011.  A report by the federal department of climate change and energy efficiency, ‘Australia’s Projected Emissions 2010’, concludes much of the increase can be attributed to the mining boom, largely due to the volume of C02 released into the atmosphere from mining projects.

“Growth to 2020 is dominated by emissions associated with the extraction and processing of energy resources driven by strong export demand. Fugitive emissions from coal mines and oil and gas projects, as well as direct fuel combustion emissions from [liquid natural gas] projects, account for almost half of the growth in Australia’s total emissions from 2010 to 2020,” the report says.

Fugitive emissions – the carbon released through the mining process that is freed as rocks are broken up and earth overturned – are just one aspect of carbon emissions from mining operations. Mining is a significant contributor to Australia’s emissions totals, and poses one of the greatest challenges to reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

The emissions from coal exports – the coal sold and then used overseas – alone, which already total more than the emissions produced in Australia that will be subject to the carbon trading scheme, are predicted to rise significantly as coal mining expands.

Climate Code Red co-author David Spratt estimated late last year that the continued growth of Australian mining operations would contribute more than 10 per cent of the maximum total of global emissions allowable over the next 40 years for the earth to stay within a temperature range that would not cause predicted catastrophic damage.

Despite the sorts of problems outlined here traditional mining operations gain little attention for their environmental challenges. There is one area of Australian mining that has garnered increasing attention for its perceived risks to the environment. That is the coal-seam gas industry.

The momentum around exploration in this area has turned, with vocal, organised protesters such as the Lock the Gate campaigners, gaining influence and support with less-traditional advocates such as Sydney radio star Alan Jones.

Lock the Gate’s Jacinta Green has many of the same complaints about CSG mining as Mudd and Leggate have of the industry as a whole. She said there’s too much emphasis on the economy.

“The industry has done such a good job of convincing people it is critical to the economy but the mining industry employs less than two per cent. If you’ve got an area that’s dependent on agriculture or tourism or a winery what happens once the mining goes away? Coal-seam gas doesn’t last that long – what happens when it goes away?”

Green says the CSG debate has captured the attention of communities because it is a form of mining that has been allowed to begin exploration in areas not accustomed to that kind of industry, like the inner-Sydney suburb of St Peters – where Dart Energy was hoping to have active production up and running this year, despite strong community opposition – and en masse in agricultural areas.

“What we’re seeing is coal-seam gas is so widespread … and has been done under the guise that it’s minimal impact so it does no harm, and increasingly we’re seeing that it’s not,” she says.

In January CSG operator Santos told the New South Wales government that more than approximately 10,000 litres of CSG water had been released without authorisation into the Pilliga State Forest, impacting 1.2 hectares of forest.

Green, who visited the Pilliga late last year, said the damage to the area is obvious, but it took media and community attention for Santos – who took over operation of the wells after the spill – to come forward and admit there had been a leak.

“At the moment the companies are self regulating… It’s only when activists and farmers and residents have enough pull to get media out does anyone say ‘oh, there’s something wrong here’, so self reporting is a joke,” she says.

Events such as the Queensland floods and the shut down of the Ranger mine show that unpredictable weather can destroy even the best-laid plans. Unreported or uncontrolled water releases, such as June 2011 in the Pilliga, or the February 2009 Fitzroy river spills from Lady Annie and neighbouring mines, show that although regulation has come a long way from the days of Rum Jungle, there’s more to do.

Gavin Mudd says it’s impossible to judge what the future impact will be from new and current projects, but that under the current regulatory framework there will almost certainly be permanent damage to the environment.

4 comments on this story
by Harry

Regulators are not only captured, but have little latitude for independent assessments (if by some miracle they wanted to take control of the regulatory process) because of the way the system is set up.

During the approval process the computer models are produced by the mining company, and seldom do the regulators have the resources to challenge these models or the dodgy assumptions on which they are based. The result is under-designed water management systems.

During operations most of the monitoring is done by the company, so many incidents are not reported, and when they are, prosecutions cannot by based on self-monitoring data.

Finally, most inspectors have come from the mining industry, and are more sympathetic to the practical problems faced by the miners than they are in protecting the environment.

February 6, 2012 @ 7:48am
Show previous 1 comments
by Kelly

Are those calling for greater regulation setting realistic, reasonable standards? Everything we do has some impact. There was 'permanent damage to the environment' when my house was built. The debate needs to centre on what level of impact is acceptable (and I'd suggest 10,000 litres of CSG water 'impacting' 1.2 ha of state forest is well and truly below that threshold) and how best to work with companies to achieve that outcome, not serve as an arena for out-and-out anti-mining sentiment.

February 6, 2012 @ 4:03pm
by Chris

This is a very interesting and inciteful article.
I think more of these articles need to come to the surface, so that the general public are aware of the impacts of the mining boom, on the environment and the communities surrounding these mining sites.

March 5, 2012 @ 2:52pm
by Bernie

Really interesting article. Taking the Browse LNG project near Broome as an example, the flaws in Woodside's (the projects operators) environmental and social impact reports have been laid bare recently by a number of peer reviewed studies financed by the Broome community, the state and federal govts, environmental NGOs, and universities. And the project hasn't even begun yet. Even more concerning is that they are choosing a site in a cyclone prone area.

It's strange that people see environmental benefits and social benefits as seperate. Having clean air to breathe and water to drink are social benefits, as well as economic benefits. The economy suffers if people's health suffers.

April 18, 2012 @ 11:30am
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