Picture Credit: Paul Nevin
As storm systems continue to affect large parts of the Australian east coast, environmental organisation Friends of the Earth in Queensland claims that dangerous toxins are being released from mines into the flood waters.
The environmental campaigners say that huge amount of heavy metals, including copper, uranium, zinc, aluminium, lead, arsenic, cobalt and nickel will cause significant pollution for many years as they become stored in sediment and pile up behind weirs in catchments as mine sites suffer under the heavy rainfall sweeping the state.
They also add that Queensland’s environmental regulator, the Department of Resource Management (DERM), is powerless to stop the impact on the state’s sensitive ecology.
Particularly under threat, the group says, are waterways and lands, including national parks, migratory bird wetlands and remnant bushland. After years of drought and now flooding, the mix of heavy metals will devastate species recovery.
Friends of the Earth spokesperson Drew Hutton said this marked the third year in recent times that major flooding has caused serious pollution events. In 2008, the Ensham coal mine in central Queensland was flooded and heavy metals were released into the Fitzroy catchment. In 2009, the Lady Annie copper mine in north Queensland released large amounts of heavy metals when its tailings dam was breached.
Concerns have also been raised over the flooding of coal seam gas areas. If holding ponds containing large amounts of salty water are over-topped, when the salt hits the high clay content black soil plains of the Darling Downs, it could destroy the ability of these fields to produce again.
“The mining industry’s claim that dilution solves all these problems is fanciful,” Hutton said. “The dilution effect will offer some diminution of the damage but the heavy metals released from mines will lodge behind any obstructions in the river system and stay in the sediments, ready to be mobilised and the salt from coal seam gas operations will ruin good farmland.”
Hutton noted that mining companies are barred by law from causing high levels of pollution but noted “all the State government can do is approve these releases and hope for the best.”
Friends of the Earth has called on government ministers to develop legislation to protect the environment and downstream communities from released toxins and ensure tailing dams and holding ponds are ready for future flooding when the rebuild begins but they don’t hold out much hope for this being given the priority they feel it deserves.