Salt in the wound: Hunter River mining battle

Concern for the Hunter River is growing as locals and environmentalists fear continued expansion of coal mines located upstream will “kill” the estuary.

Damaging the water source will debilitate the region’s strong farming sector and hamper further growth of the local tourism industry.

Hunter Environment Lobby president Jan Davis’ warnings were backed by NSW Greens senator Lee Rhiannon and long-time residents John Weight and Graham Roberts.

Four years ago Wright told the Maitland Mercury he feared the river’s demise.

Yesterday Wright stood by his comments, criticising the mines for ruining the river.

“They’re ruining our Hunter Valley up there; you look at it, it’s like a moonscape up there, it’s become all about the dollar and no one cares about the river anymore,” Wright said from his family’s Morpeth farm which backs directly onto the banks of the Hunter River.

“When I was a kid you could go for a swim and have a mouthful of water and it’d be OK because there was nothing wrong with it.”

Wright has called for tighter ecological regulations on how the mining industry disposes of its water.

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Calls that come just days after Australian Mining reported Xstrata has applied to expand its Mangoola coal mine, ramping up production by almost 30 per cent to 13.5 million tonnes of coal a year.

The expansion, if approved will create an estimated 150 new jobs for the region.

But it comes with a caveat.

Originally called Anvil Hill, Mangoola was approved by the NSW state government in 2008 under the proviso it did “not discharge any saline water from the site’’.

Xstrata is now requesting approval to pump saline water into the Hunter River.

The company said the request is primarily a “contingency” plan and discharging the saline water into the river would not be an everyday event.

Instead, it would only occur ‘‘in extreme or prolonged high rainfall periods’’ and would ‘‘provide assurance’’ against ‘‘unplanned discharges or overtopping’’ of water from voids or dams.

An environmental assessment is yet to go on display for public comment.

Davis said the river’s health was deteriorating year on year and that the water was contaminated with chemicals and high levels of salt which coal mines feed into the system.

She cautioned that the river faced a fate of no return and all hope of rehabilitation would be lost if the coal mines in the region continued to expand.

Currently there are about 30 proposals for operation expansion in the pipeline.

The river has already experienced a change in salinity which Davis said is evident through the region’s agricultural pursuits, with many crops now unable to be grown because of the increased salinity.

“There is so many turf farms near the river because the salinity doesn’t hurt them, but it makes lucerne and vegetable crops sick.”

Last year Greens senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon called for a regional water study to be conducted and an inquiry into the impact coal mining is having on the river to be held.

Rhiannon’s calls did not garner support in the Senate.

NSW environment minister and member for Maitland Robyn Parker said the effect of mining and power operations on water quality in the Hunter River was strictly regulated by the Hunter River Salinity Trading Scheme (HRSTS).

Parker said the HRSTS has consistently met its salinity water targets over its 10 years of operation.

“The scheme is operated by the EPA with technical support provided by the Office of Water and State Water which monitor the salinity levels in the river from a number of gauging stations both within the river itself and at mine sites,” Parker said.

“The scheme ensures that water quality is maintained by setting out procedures that only allow saline water discharges from industry in high flow and flood flow conditions when the salt levels can meet the upper, middle and lower river salinity targets for the river. These targets are set at 600EC [a standard measure of salinity] above Denman and 900 EC below Denman and Singleton.

“To ensure best practice of the scheme it is overseen by an independent advisory committee that also provides advice to the EPA on its ongoing operation. This committee includes representatives from industry, government and others with environmental interests.”

Davis argued that coal mines use large volumes of water to wash the coal and if mining operations in the area increase, demand for water will increase and thus pose a threat to the river.

The water that washes the coal is subsequently recycled and released into the river at government-specified high flow times which kills vital organisms that keep the river alive, Davis stated.

“The pollution doesn’t just flow into the sea and disappear, it causes problems on its way and it doesn’t all flow out,” she said.

hunter-valley-steel-works.jpgBHP is one miner that has been working towards rehabilitating the river,  its Hunter River Remediation project which forecast for completion this year was reported to already be 90 per cent complete in June last year.

The company has been removing and treating contaminated materials left behind after the closure of its Mayfield site in Newcastle.

Concerned Sandy Hollow resident Graham Roberts sees both sides of the argument and concedes it is going to be extremely difficult to find middle ground between agriculture and the mining sector.

“It’s a hard one, the mining is short term, in comparison to agriculture,” he said.

“A mine may have a lifespan of fifty years, agriculture has to be sustained longer then that.”

Roberts’ property is located over the hills from Xstrata's Mangoola coal mine, when asked about the mine’s proposed expansion Roberts was wary.

“At the moment mines seem to be all powerful, there needs to be very stringent conditions.”

“The valley at the moment looks like a moonscape.”

“I’m all for jobs and sustained development but not at any cost.”

In his forty years living in the Hunter Valley Roberts has noticed environmental changes in the area including increased amounts of dust and acidity in the air.

He attributes this to the Wybong coal mine and the power stations.

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