Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Truth and environmental law enforcement

Springvale mine water pollution can’t be not neutral or beneficial to the Coxs River

On Monday, May 9th, a Land and Environment Court hearing considered whether discharges from the Springvale Mine have a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality of the Coxs River.

The court proceedings should boil down to whether a discharge of 19ML/day of mine water into the Coxs River is less than or equal to a previous virtual 0ML/day discharge of mine water into the Coxs River from Licence Discharge Point 9.

To be more exact, the 2014 EIS for the Springvale extension estimated that the water transferred from LDP 9 to the Wallerawang power plant represented 86% of all water leaving the mine in 2013 and this was predicted to increase to 89% with the now approved mine expansion.

So what happened? The Wallerawang power plant closed down before the Springvale mine extension was approved but the EPA, WaterNSW and Department of Planning and Environment did not then require Centennial Coal to relocate its mine water transfer arrangement to the Mt Piper power plant.

Case law and legal argument hid the absurdly simple mathematic question above because only legal argument could be considered at the hearing.

Then what happened?

The state regulatory agencies agreed that the discharge of 19ML/day of mine water could instead go to the Coxs River seeing that the power plant had closed. Critically, these agencies also agreed that this very large new discharge to the river had a neutral or beneficial effect on water quality of the  Coxs River, with a some water treatment that would increase through time. The Planning Assessment Commission thought about these submissions, and agreed with the regulators and Centennial Coal, and issued approval in September 2015.

Centennial Coal’s position at Mondays hearing, as far as I understand it, was that it does
not matter that 19 is not less than or equal to 0, rather all the government agencies and the Planning and Assessment Commission said that it did. So the merit or maths of the matter doesn’t count, only that these agencies and the Commission considered the matter carefully, reached a “state of satisfaction” and after “active intellectual engagement” concluded that 19 is less than or equal to 0.

Yep, that happened…! (Remember these guys are in charge.)

The presiding justice might have to agree with Centennial Coal, but the maths and the merits fail the pub test.

Centennial Coal is hedging its bets and has lodged an application with the Department of Planning and Environment to remove the mine waste from the river and send it to the Mt Piper Power Plant. We can only hope sanity will prevail.


Media misinformation on Clarence mine coal fines spill …

Meanwhile the media continues to have difficulty describing the spill of coal fines into the Wollangambe River that occurred on July 2nd , 2015.

The spill of coal fines was due to a massive collapse of a waste heap.

The media continues to wrongly attribute this serious spill of coal fines to a dam failure or the overflow of a containment structure. Wrong.

Coal reject waste heaps don’t have dam walls, so these heaps can just collapse if they become too wet, and one did at Clarence Colliery during a period of dry weather. When the heap collapsed, the material formerly contained by heap 3 flowed downslope and into the nearby wild Wollangambe River.

Hundreds of tonnes of coal fines escaped into the World Heritage Area via the Wollangambe river when a large section of the face of the waste heap 3 collapsed (see opposite - a large heap collapse).

The large waste heaps at Centennial Coal’s Clarence Colliery are called reject emplacement areas. These heaps, as can be seen above, stand about 30 metres above the surrounding Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The containment structures for these waste heaps are inadequate small earth bunds that stand a few metres in height at the toe of these heaps. So these waste heaps remain environmental disasters waiting to happen.

The rehabilitation of Clarence Mine’s heaps (of which there are five) is almost non-existent - again see above the black horrible moster heap, that's just heap number 3 of 5.

There is little point in the Land and Environment Court issuing fines that are small relative to the profits of a colliery. Like coronial inquiries, L& E Court need to make directions that improve the environmental management of the industry.

When this Tier 1 prosecution, a criminal proceeding, is determined the presiding justice should issue directions that require waste heaps at collieries to have dam walls. These waste heaps can extend over tens of hectares and need containment. They should be continuously monitored and rehabilitated to prevent repetition of the July 2nd 2015 environmental disaster.

The bottom line

The legal proceedings regarding the Springvale and Clarence mines indicate that environmental protection is declining as coal industry cuts costly environmental management to remain economically viable. This situation will get worse, so ironically regulators will need all help they can get from the community, the media and the courts to uphold existing performance standards as energy industry transitions to a greener economy.