Another part of the Tarkine ... Nicole Anderson’s pic of Tarkine Falls
Savage River Mine
After spending two weeks on research into mining problems experienced today I clicked on Google to ask, “What is a small scale mine?” The mines proposed in the Tarkine at present are alleged by the Government to be of no great size and will be closed in a matter of a decade … it is opined. What about the ones that would follow is a question of more than integrity. Interestingly, Wikipedia gave a cogent answer about small mines in general ...
Open-pit mines are typically enlarged until either the mineral resourcemineral resource is exhausted, or an increasing ratio of overburden to ore makes further mining uneconomic. When this occurs, the exhausted mines are sometimes converted to landfills for disposal of solid wastes. However, some form of water control is usually required to keep the mine pit from becoming a lake, if the mine is situated in a climate of considerable precipitation (such as the Tarkine) or if any layers of the pit forming the mine border productive aquifers.
I wonder …and doubt … if anyone from the Government has thought to look up simple questions such as the above. My three part series - reproduced below - asks some of these questions.
In his three-part series, Dr Buck Emberg presents a balanced examination of both the need for mining and the environmental consequences of extracting minerals. He explains that mining has been a human activity since before the Stone Age and will remain so in the future. He contends that mining is here to stay, and we must learn to live with mines and mining companies must learn to be better corporate citizens. The articles do not present an either/or approach to mining. Nor do they take sides. At the end of the series, the reader will have a clearer view of the worldwide dilemma facing both humanity and the mining industry.
Part 1: What Mining Executives Do Not Tell Us
A friend is an expert in mine development via the use of computer technology. He spent several years working for a company which developed software designed to make the extraction of ore as efficient as possible. His software collected data by geologists and turned it into a three dimensional image concerning the most probable formation of the ore body, allowing the mining engineers to more exactly plan the best access to the ore. I do not fathom how he does his electronic wizardry but understand he is highly treasured by mining executives. Trevor informs us that ore extraction is in its infancy where technology is concerned, but from the viewpoint of a social historian, I do know that mining is as old as mankind and has an effect on everything we do.
Antiquarian research has revealed my relatives were mining copper in Sweden, probably Falun, in the middle 1600s. From there they moved to Hoganess in Sweden and its coal deposits. Eventually they emigrated to America in the middle 1800s and the coalmines of Pennsylvania; then onto the rich iron mines of Minnesota. In retrospect, it seems obvious that as mines became less productive, they emigrated to better opportunities. Family myth states they did not have enough income to survive in Pennsylvania and illegally sneaked out one night on a muffled horse cart because Grandpa Emberg owed the ‘company store’ more than he could ever hope to repay. This ‘night time migration’ was not an unusual occurrence. Thousands of workers followed the mines and when the ore bodies were exhausted, emigrated to new workings, new jobs, new dangers and frequently new countries.
With this historical information, comes the inevitable question, ‘Will there always be mines?’ Today, company executives enticingly say. ‘Yes, mining is forever’. For example, English/Welsh miners were lured to the Victorian gold fields in the early 1850s. The Chinese and others followed in their thousands. Then the gold gave out as all ore bodies do. The ultimate collapse of all mines is a given: all mines, by definition, will fail. Today, ancient myth continues but with a slightly different twist: mining is now given a political spin by its Captains and is termed ‘sustainable’. This is not gross exaggeration, it is mischevious and devious. It is also simply not true. Yes, mining is forever. No, mining is not sustainable. A paradox? Not really.
Also extrapolated from my research, was that my wife Joan’s Norwegian kin were possibly miners in the Bergen/Oslo area and when the mines were exhausted, became involved in the shipping trade during the 18th century. Her forebears then moved to Bremen and Hamburg. Origins research will discover, not surprisingly, a high number of all migrants were actively involved in mining. Since people first walked the earth, mining has been an intimate and crucial aspect of human existence and will not change in quantity.
No jobs in the world are as numerous as those in agriculture. Not far behind are those held in the mining industry. For example, from the USA Census Statistics and US Geological Surveys of 2010, we know that in the US alone, 656,000 people are employed in mining. In South Africa, 500,000; in China a staggering 5,600,000 people are employed in mining. These three nations hire almost seven million workers! The number of mines in the USA alone is almost 15,000. It is preposterous to conclude that somehow, humankind can exist without mining. We cannot.
The reader is reminded this is not a scientific treatise; it is an essay. Reasonable extrapolations of data have been made. For instance, the Stone Age lasted approximately 3.5 million years and was followed by a period of metalworking for approximately two to three thousand years. Exact dates are scientifically impossible to determine. Depending on the sophistication of an area, mines were ‘mushroom-like’ because they quickly appeared as human needs became increasingly complex and, ultimately, industrial. Mines exist and existed in all regions, empires and cultures and in all historical periods.
When visiting a Cornish mine in England some years ago the short and powerful looking guide proudly told us that his people used to mine tin and silver, ‘Out there’, he said as he pointed to the ocean, ‘one mile under the sea.’ Today, estimates of the total number of miners in the world, whether hard rock, soft rock, or open pit is impossible to estimate.
By way of further example, Australian aborigines mined ochre and other rock materials at least 40,000 years ago. Evidence indicates mining occurred 100,000 plus years ago in Africa. Welsh men, relatively ‘new-comers’ to mining, were digging for ferrous metals over 4,000 years ago. The mining towns of CwmYstwyth (the very centre of Wales) and Llanymynech (on the banks of the lovely river Vrnwyy) leap to my mind! (having had to memorise the towns because of a Welsh professor). The digging tools first employed were probably broken rocks and bones for the Aboriginals, whereas, for Welsh miners, deer and elk antlers were used.
In addition, remnants of flint mines have recently been discovered 900 miles north of Adelaide, South Australia. It is estimated that these mines are 31-41,000 years old. Their artifacts may still be found in abundance in deep underground adits and stopes.
Mining, per se, is neither good nor bad; it is amoral. PEOPLE make mining moral or immoral and/or both. AND, mines, miners and mining companies will NOT disappear; nor should they. This industry will become larger, more complex, more technological and more powerful in future generations. The possibility of even mining the planets or meteors is no longer fantasy. Like all human endeavours, this industry should be used for the benefit of all nations.
Part 2: World-wide Mining Predicaments
These articles use the tool of ‘extrapolation’. For instance, a person who has lived for eighty years, who is educated and worked in a variety of jobs will have amassed a large body of experiences and opinions. Such a person will inevitably draw from his/her experience and knowledge to extrapolate conclusions. From these conclusions, decisions can be made. However, these extrapolations may be incorrect depending on 1.the accuracy of information gathered 2.the proper interpretation of the information and 3.the correct use of the data to make decisions and/or policies. Unfortunately, it is possible to amass great bodies of information and then extrapolate (guess), only to follow up with wrongful decisions. This is a plight of humanity.
For instance, the drinking water of many small Northern Tasmanian towns is contaminated with lead, cadmium and other elements. Blame is easily awarded. Do these contaminants come from century-old mining techniques, dire forestry practices or appalling farming techniques? The answer probably relates to all three. There is no empirical reason why Tasmania, with its abundant water resources, should not have some of the finest drinking waters in the world. Sound judgments and good policies for the future must evolve and develop logically. However, governments do not always function logically. Given a barrage of information, a government is likely to arrive at two or more disparate conclusions and, hence, opposing decisions. Political groups involved in the Tasmanian water debacle (and the mining question) are likely to interpret the issues differently and develop divergent policies. Such practices may result in either weakened policies or, more likely, no decision being made at all.
In addition to the questions concerning water and mining, debates about forestry, jobs and a proposed pulp mill have raged in Tasmania. Pulp mill proponents gathered thousands of pages of good and accurate scientific data in order to prove their case that a pulp mill would benefit the community, be an ongoing financial success and, therefore, create jobs. Properly, the proponents consulted hundreds of experts from many nations and disciplines: water, economics, environmental, business. In addition, a number of corporations were questioned. However, difficulties involving the unbiased nature of the information gained momentum within the Tasmanian community. Had the proponents of the mill gathered enough contrary information in order to be sure their paradigms were accurate? The pro-mill people developed a business model that appeared to be perfectly accurate in its simplicity. In its rush to build the project, the company may have been biased in choosing its information sources; hence, errors appeared. Simple logic explains that it is also possible the proponents’ information was correct and the opponents’ information was flawed. Further logic states the opposite: hence an impasse.
The effect of political decisions is usually felt from the top down, resulting in divisions between the warring factions. Information gathered by those opposing the mill was equally valid. Both sides were certain theirs was correct. Unfortunately, gathering data to prove a case is neither good engineering nor sound philosophical practice; neither does it lead to an unbiased conclusion. Such examination will only weaken decision-making. When both proponents and opponents use data to support their ideas, suspicion and disagreement is the result. For the opponents many hundreds of scientists, agrarians, farmers, citizens, water experts, smoke pollution experts, economists and historians developed a model which stated and ‘proved’ quite simply that ‘under no circumstances will we allow a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley’. This is classic ‘blind-siding’.
The present mining debates have the same flaws. Companies, gathering data to prove their business models, operate in a precarious manner. However, those involved in mining conflicts are human and dogged by the same blunders that have been made for centuries. By way of further illustration, wars would no longer take place if we had learned from past mistakes. It is hardly uplifting to realise that Americans have fought forty wars since the 1776 Revolution. Humans do not seem able to learn enough from past errors. Why? Because we are, as early Greeks and philosopher/theologians have taught, simul justus et peccator; which means roughly speaking, ‘at the same instant good and bad’. Does this mean that wars will continue and conflict in mining and organisations will stay measurably equal? Probably.
In the second part of this article, I will briefly use personal experiences and studies to give my observations concerning some problems of mining.
‘Look down there…you can see the shell holes. They almost merge into one. Imagine being there during the attacks.’ We were flying over the World War I battlefield of Verdun, France, with professor-friend Albert. ‘It reminds me of the strip mining fields of my childhood in Illinois. Companies came, stripped the fertile farm soil, took the coal and left. What remains is some of the poorest land in the US. Now the fertile top soil lies buried beneath the overburden.’
It is my turn to remember. I grew up in the mining country of Northern Minnesota. My entire family had left the fading coalmines of Pennsylvania some decades before and, being lured by rumour of a newly discovered iron ore body in the north, migrated to help excavate the largest hole in the world: the Hull Rust-Mahoning Mine. Workers were taught to take great pride in this fact. I remember how the city of South Hibbing was demolished to make way for the growing hole. The mine is now four km long, three km wide, 175 m deep and still growing. Unstable mountains of overburden are still dangerous. Scores of mines have ‘played out’ and many former towns that once knew glory days have melded into the wilderness or been by-passed, leaving many pensioners and poor people behind. Isolating the disadvantaged is a worldwide mining phenomenon. Most former open cut mines have become water-filled ‘lakes’, some still flood while some are not capable of maintaining aquatic life.
The worst mine disaster, in my memory, is the 1966 Aberfan collapse of a collier spoil tip (overburden mountain) in Wales, in which 116 children and 28 adults died. The company and UK Coal Board were blamed for extreme negligence, .
Tasmania also has its holes in the ground, some filled with water. Mines that once flourished have declined, leaving former boom towns like Beaconsfield semi-impoverished or, simply, non-existent like Storys Creek. Environments have been destroyed like the once rain-forested hills around Queenstown and Zeehan that now stand naked and eroded. A short trip behind St Helens reveals hundreds of mounds of overburden left behind by dozens of tin mines which have stripped the area of soil, silted rivers and polluted ground water. Continue to Pioneer and walk the tortured trails, the aftermath of many former mines, and try to find the town. Only traces exist. Travel to Golconda where as many as 5,000 people lived during the boom days of the early 1900’s. Joan and I built our house there some twenty years ago only to discover that we could not walk on our own property because of the many abandoned mineshafts. Now only about ten people live in the locale. At least friend George was able to use the mine shaft next to his house as a personal rubbish tip.
For the most part, miners and mining companies of past centuries simply abandoned the diggings when the ore supply was exhausted, leaving behind a tormented landscape, diminished soils and clogged waterways. A global search will reveal a plundered planet: the Salton Sea, California, Victoria, Australia and all Mediterranean countries. One can add China and South Africa…the list is almost endless. Humankind has not changed its behavior pattern. Can we expect different conduct in the future? Probably not.
Mining, Part 3: Mining Problems and Possible Solutions
The colossal power and collective wealth that is associated with and managed by the mining industry worldwide is beyond assessment. No statistic can begin to evaluate its capital value, nor its social impact upon all nations. Unfortunately, the industry is less than transparent in its dealings. An example concerning an aspect of the metal sector demonstrates this problem. The US Census Bureau reported that in 2009 the world combined mining production reached approximately 69,319,000 metric tonne of minerals. Index Mundi relates that a further 128,000 metric tonne of gravel and silica were removed in 2007 in the US alone. These statistics could be challenged as I suspect the numbers are higher. For instance, the Duluth News Tribune, Minnesota, on 17 January 2013 reported that the USA shipped over 61 million metric tonne of iron ore. It is obvious that none of the above statistics even considers the overburden left behind as ‘mountains of debris’. The overburden from an open pit mine (the world’s preferred mining method) sometimes reaches five times the mass of minerals removed for processing. Overburden is piled near the mine and can become unstable and dangerous. Some overburden mountains are as high as 200m and can be poisonous to ground water and animal life. Bison Hill in Alberta, Canada, which is the geographical centre of the Athabasca Tar Sands industry, is expected to have an overburden height of 320m.
Mines proliferate each year in all nations. No angry community groups, no alternate life style factions and certainly no governments, regardless of their power, are able to inhibit or stop these juggernauts. Perhaps society should not stop this inexorable industrial force that is able to crush all opposition. That is, if growth and wealth are considered to be the most important aspects of progress. This is a matter of priorities for a culture. From a philosophical point of view it may be that growth must continue until there can be no more growth. This phenomenon is analogous to the hungry dragon eating its tail and eventually consuming itself.
Capitalistic societies as a matter of faith have come to believe that growth is limitless and uncapped growth is for the greatest good. This belief has now become accepted economic dogma. China, to its peril, has bought into this concept of limitless growth. This viewpoint may ultimately cause China’s economic demise along with the world financial systems. Capitalism, under the flag of free enterprise, has been the inspiration that has run the engines of progress for the past 250 years. However, like ALL philosophies, the free enterprise system is flawed because of the false ideology that everything grows irresistibly and continuously. This myth continues because growth is believed to be an immutable law.
To be devoted to untrammeled growth is adoration of the finite. Contrary to this belief, EVERYTHING eventually fades away. Insurance companies long ago gave it a name: ‘inherent vice’ or ‘hidden defects in all matter’. Of course, that includes people. Simple logic states that if all finite things end and all things are finite, then everything must end. Therefore, if all reality is finite and growth is finite, a society built upon the philosophy of unending growth must fail. A mine, when its ore body is exhausted, has failed. Simply stated, mining is finite and is a reminder that everything has its own ending.
Another sustainability myth is found in the story of Italian navigator, John Cabot. On an expedition to the New World in 1497, Cabot discovered what appeared to be the ultimate sustainable gift from nature: the Cod or Grand Banks of New Foundland, Canada, which offered unending marine wealth. Though he never kept a diary, Cabot is alleged to have said something like, ‘There are enough fish for eternity in these waters.’ The original biomass of fish is estimated to have been in the tens of millions of tonnes. The record reveals that for years all fishermen needed to do was lower large baskets into the ocean and pull up the baskets when they were full of fish. By 1995 the cod fish industry disappeared along with most cod and other species. The fishing banks lasted for 500 years, but this is not sustainability. As everything is finite, this pillage of the ocean is tantamount to ocean mining.
To believe, as do mining companies, that growth is limitless is to believe erroneously. Yet, this modern myth states that mining IS sustainable. However, mining conglomerates are the least sustainable of all industries. Hitherto, most governments have accepted the false idea of limitless growth. They accordingly have legislated in favour of the mining industry in order to increase state revenues. Therefore, if a government depends on a false idea for its continual growth, the result can only be deeply problematic. Governments risk destroying themselves through their obsession with unending and ever-increasing revenue and the interdependency between government, private corporations and cartels.
These articles have presented two main ideas, 1. ‘The nature of mankind is both good and bad at the same instant and this will not change.’ 2. ‘Growth forever is a false assumption given the finiteness of all things.’ There is also a corollary idea: mining will not go away, nor should mining be stopped, as the very continuation of all cultures depends upon mined products.
The problem with these bold statements is that they are declarative and do not lead to solutions. I do not presume to have answers to the problems surrounding the finite. Not even Aristotle was able to explain this conundrum. However, I will present a list of possible solutions, which may bring about further discussion and debate.
1. In a free market society the following may be the worst ‘solution’ to the problems surrounding growth: a. ‘learn to live with less’ and b. ‘become a militant non-consumer’. Both a. and b. would probably prompt the Chamber of Commerce to disparage the idea because without continuous growth, businesses could not exist successfully and success is integral to their model.
2. The profit motive should be challenged. How many various profits does a mining company or, indeed, ANY company, need to continue trading; or is the demand for growth merely another aspect of the ‘sustainability’ myth?
3. Develop a new and more flexible type of ‘co-operative capitalism’ whereby unions, business and governments do not seek to control means of production but work together for the greater good of the people they collectively represent.
4. This arises from the need for a true tolerance and transparency on the part of government, business and unions. All leaders give lip service to openness and transparency but few are ready practitioners.
5. The current antagonistic and adversarial approach in parliament impedes and frustrates progress and harmony. This is counter-productive to creativity.
6. The more liberal minded in the debate call for more Regulations in order to control the greedy human spirit; the other and more conservative side calls for more Deregulations in order to release what they perceive is mankind’s innate strength. The bare fact is that humankind cannot be left to act as it sees fit; nor do people function well when heavily controlled. As mankind is both good and bad at the same moment, good regulations which take account of human nature must be formulated in a non-adversarial climate.
7. The creativity of people can establish many more solutions to the above problems.
Paradoxically, to obtain further insight into the future, we need to backtrack. Philosophers have devised solutions to peoples’ organizational problems since humankind first stood upright. Jeremy Bentham, John Stewart Mill and others sought to ‘solve’ the human problem in the early 19th century when they said that laws and morals would always be best when legislated for ‘the greatest good for the greatest numbers.’
The present condition of society moves with ever-increasing speed. Opportunity is not dependent upon how long a horse and cart takes to get to market but is now measured in nanoseconds. Speed is the popular concept today. The richest mining executives or the lowliest businessperson, politician, union organizer or consumer is pushed to produce or consume more and more, faster and faster.
The social order of the world faces the mystery of how to balance need for growth and man’s characteristic and predictably capricious nature. This is perhaps the true challenge of the 21st century.
Buck Emberg holds a PhD in Tasmanian History
The Dee River at Mount Morgan is highly acidic. Here the river is badly contaminated with heavy metals, staining the rocks and producing a sludge in the river. (Ian Townsend).
Radio National Background Briefing: Toxic mine water
The Dee River in Queensland is being killed by toxic water from an old gold mine. Mount Morgan is one of thousands of abandoned and unregulated mine sites, many of which are leaking contaminated ‘legacy water’ into river catchments. Ian Townsend investigates.
Ian Townsend: This river in Central Queensland is dying. South-west of Rockhampton, an old gold mine is spilling acid water into the Dee River and now, downstream, the fish are literally gasping.
Neal Johansen: It looks great. Aqua blue-green sort of. Great look to it, looks refreshing if you wanted to go for a swim. Certainly not inviting when you look at the sediment on the bottom, however. My concerns are also for the people downstream and upstream from here and, of course, the aquatic life. We can see some small fish still swimming around here, but I would think given a few more days they will probably expire, I would imagine.
Ian Townsend: Torrential rain three weeks ago caused the abandoned Mount Morgan mine to spill highly acidic water laced with heavy metals.
Neal Johansen: Right now I’m looking at the bottom of the Dee River, and certainly from me, in this spot, I’ve never before seen the white sediment on the bottom, which is probably aluminium hydroxide that has now dropped out because it’s increased to a pH level where it will actually fall out of suspension.
Ian Townsend: Farmer Neal Johansen lives on the river 55 kilometres downstream.
Neal Johansen: And this far downstream I certainly have never seen this before. So that is actually of quite a huge concern I should imagine, yes, 55 kilometres downstream.
Ian Townsend: The river here is an unnatural blue. It’s a hot day, and it looks inviting, but you wouldn’t want to swim here.
Hello, I’m Ian Townsend and welcome to Background Briefing.
We can report that farmers are now finding dead birds on the banks of the Dee River. A further 10 kilometres downstream, Ian Scott has made some disturbing discoveries.
Ian Scott: We saw quite a few dead animals, birds, there’s odd fish, cockatoos, there’s even crows, magpies, peewees.
Ian Townsend: How many do you think there might have been?
Ian Scott: I’ve probably seen about 20. I haven’t been over all of it. We saw a shag or a waterbird floating past, it was sick, obviously been poisoned or something, just very doey. Usually they’re very quick to move and alert, so yes, it wasn’t just hurt or anything, it was obviously sick from something.
Ian Townsend: What does the river look like there at the moment?
Ian Scott: Very bright turquoise green with froth floating around on top.
Ian Townsend: The Dee River is about 100 kilometres long. It’s been polluted from the mine before, but never to this extent. It’s now coloured by the metals in the water, most of it a ribbon of blue-green from dissolved copper. There are photos on the Background Briefing website.
Environmental engineer at Monash University, Dr Gavin Mudd, is an expert on abandoned mines and the waste water they can produce.
Gavin Mudd: That bright blue-green colour, that’s copper, and often that’s a concentration of, say, thousands of micrograms per litre. The white would be, say, aluminium hydroxide, so as the pH goes up, the aluminium, instead of being dissolved in the water as it’s leached out at the mine site, would precipitate out and form aluminium hydroxide or what’s often called gibbsite. And so it forms like a limey material; it’s a very fine sort of precipitate, so a nice sort fine powdery type solid.
Ian Townsend: The aluminium is particularly toxic to freshwater fish. The Dee feeds into the upper reaches of the giant Fitzroy River catchment, which drains the Bowen Basin mining region into Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage listed area.
The Mount Morgan mine has been seeping toxic water for decades, but this is the first time the mine pit has overflowed. When Background Briefing visited, 59 million litres a day of untreated toxic water known as ‘acid mine drainage’ was pouring straight from the pit into the Dee River.
As the Dee meanders to the Don River 100 kilometres downstream, the acid is slowly diluted and the dissolved metals fall into the mud on the riverbed, where they can be washed downstream in the next flood, or onto farmland.
The Don River flows into the Dawson, which flows into the Fitzroy, which flows through Rockhampton, 400 kilometres downstream from Mt Morgan.
Mount Morgan farmer, Neal Johansen, says just because the Dee River is relatively remote doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
Neal Johansen: I don’t think it matters whether its 400, 40 or 4,000 kilometres away. I think that what we have to concentrate on is the fact that there is a river system and this river is probably as important to nature as what it is whether it is going through the middle of Rockhampton or whether it’s draining out into a hole in the middle of the Simpson Desert.
Ian Townsend: The city of Rockhampton might be a winding 400 kilometres by river from Mount Morgan, but it’s only half an hour away by car. Five days after the flood water swept down the Dee River, it reached Rockhampton.
The Fitzroy River is rising, streets are closing, the riverside car parks are underwater.
With the flood has come concern about the quality of the drinking water, which the city draws from the river. John McGrath is showing his daughter the sight of the Fitzroy River racing through the city.
John McGrath: My initial impression was oh my God.
Ian Townsend: Why is that, why ‘oh my god’?
John McGrath: It’s terribly polluted water, and knowing some of the metals that are going into the water…I’m someone who swims every day at the beach in Yeppoon, and even quite minute concentrations of some of these metals, you know, the arsenics and so on of the world aren’t good for your health.
Ian Townsend: Despite assurances that the water is safe to drink, locals are uneasy about what they’ve been hearing about waste water coming down the river, not just from Mount Morgan, but from more than a dozen coal mines upstream. They’ve been buying a lot of bottled water here.
John McGrath: We don’t want to be drinking Rocky water at the moment, no, it’s common sense, you just don’t want to. When you look at the water rushing down here it’s just no, no thank you.
Ian Townsend: A spokesman for Queensland’s Department of Natural Resources and Mines has told Background Briefing that the water from Mount Morgan is so diluted by the time it reaches Rockhampton it has no impact on Rockhampton’s water supply, or the water quality in the Fitzroy River. The local water works also says the drinking water is safe.
Campbell Newman: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to be here in Rockhampton today. Rockhampton is again having a flood event…
Ian Townsend: The message was repeated by the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who gave a press conference in Rockhampton as the flood peaked.
Campbell Newman: Over to you ladies and gentlemen.
Reporter: How concerning is the unauthorised releases from Mount Morgan mine?
Campbell Newman: Look, it is a concern and I just say to you that we are more than happy to provide the information on what has been going on there, the details of that, I’m not going to go into the details today. The mitigating thing is that there is a great deal of dilution because the Dee River is well and truly still running, and that I believe and I’m told is ensuring there is not an overall hazard. But clearly we need to do more, and the Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps and Andrew Powell the Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and myself will talk about this in the coming days. We need more long-term solutions, not just at Mount Morgan but across this state, and you’ll hear more from me again in the coming days about that.
Ian Townsend: But in the days since, the Premier has said nothing more about that long-term solution to the Mount Morgan mine. At the moment it’s all about the short-term problem of trying to stop the pit overflowing. A water treatment works adds lime to three megalitres of pit water a day before releasing it into the river. Four big sprays help the water evaporate. The next plan is to try to divert fresh water runoff away from the pit.
Queensland’s Assistant Mines Minister, Lisa France, is an environmental scientist who grew up in Mount Morgan.
Lisa France: With the capacity of the evaporators, the upgrade to the lime dose treatment plant, clean water diversion off-site, we will certainly be making a really big dint in getting that water level down in the pit. They are the main solutions we have. With the money available to us, that is the water management program that we’ve got in place and it will make a significant difference. I mean, 15 mill a day being able to drop in the pit is significant.
Ian Townsend: That’s a drop of 15 millimetres a day in the water level, providing it doesn’t rain again. The pit’s 43 metres deep.
The Mount Morgan mine opened in the 1880s, but closed a quarter of a century ago. Like a lot of old mines, no one thought too far ahead about cleaning up when the mine closed. Now the big hole that produced all that gold is a lake of acidic water mixed with heavy metals. The sides of the hole and the rocks around it contain sulphides that turn water into acid, which dissolves metals in the rock.
A Chinese company controls a lease over part of the site to recover more gold, but it’s the Queensland government that manages the abandoned pit.
Three weeks ago, after more than 700 millimetres of rain in three days, the pit overflowed for the first time in its history. This is uncharted territory for the farmers downstream, and largely undocumented territory for scientists.
At the University of Queensland’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation is Corinne Unger, an expert in abandoned mines.
Corinne Unger: There isn’t enough science because it’s the science that we need to quantify the contaminant loads and concentrations in the rivers to then determine the impacts on aquatic ecosystems which then affect the terrestrial and riparian ecosystems which impact land uses, farming and so on. That hasn’t been qualified and that’s part of the problem.
Ian Townsend: Corinne Unger wrote a report for the Queensland Government ten years ago, listing options for fixing the Mount Morgan mine. The best option was to treat and drain the pit, fill it in with waste rock, and cap it. That would cost hundreds of millions of dollars though, and no government has taken it up.
The Queensland Government says there are 15,000 abandoned mines across the state, many with what are called ‘legacy water’ problems. After several big wet seasons, some are overflowing, but they’re often remote and go unnoticed.
Corinne Unger: That is the history of abandoned mines. They’re scattered across the state, they’re largely in regional Queensland, and across the rest of Australia they’re largely in regional areas, they’re not where most of the voters are. But are we living in a developed country or a developing country, that’s really what we’ve got a ask ourselves. Do we sacrifice this farmland, this productive land downstream just simply because we throw up our hands and say we can’t afford to clean it up? No, we have to look at solutions.
Ian Townsend: It’s not just abandoned mines spilling waste water. New laws have allowed coal mines in the Bowen Basin to dump some of the water from their pits into the rivers of the Fitzroy catchment during floods. The idea is that any salts or heavy metals are so diluted they’re undetectable.
It all flows downstream, though, out into the Great Barrier Reef and the UNESCO-listed world heritage area near the mouth of the Fitzroy River. UNESCO has been worried the reef’s world heritage listing is at risk from the poor quality of the sea water off the coast, and last year it asked the Federal and Queensland governments what they were doing to protect the reef.
Two weeks ago, the Federal Government replied, outlining water quality protection plans and what’s being done to limit port development and agricultural runoff. There was no mention of the waste water from mining.
Mount Morgan has been leaking waste water for over a century, and it’s the cumulative impact that is of most concern and is least understood.
Michael McCabe: Yes and this is one of the issues we raised last year with UNESCO and we’ll continue to do a bit more study on that.
Ian Townsend: The coordinator of the Capricorn Conservation Council is Michael McCabe.
Michael McCabe: There is very rarely a sufficient look at accumulative impacts and very rarely is there a good understanding of the range of inputs. They say it’s too complex to work out the source. The studies of the Fitzroy, they can’t tell us how much is background, how much is natural, how much is coming from what source.
Ian Townsend: Mount Morgan is at the very top of the Fitzroy catchment, and the source of the pollution in the river there is all too obvious.
It’s midsummer on the Tropic of Capricorn and it’s really hot. I’m being shown around by a local, Ian Herbert.
After the mine closed, a lot of people were left out of work. You can buy a house in Mount Morgan for less than $100,000. It’s an attractive town, with wide streets, big trees, historic hotels and a beautiful main street of old shops. The town and the old mine site are separated by the Dee River. The river should be an oasis in this tropical town, but below the mine, it’s lifeless.
Background Briefing asked to cross the river onto the mine site, but we were told it was too dangerous. We’d arrived only a few days after the torrential rain, the site was still waterlogged, and the small on-site staff were busy repairing roads and cleaning up. The mine pit is still overflowing.
Ian Herbert is also a member of the Capricorn Conservation Group, he’s showing me the mine site from the other side of the river. The town of Mount Morgan sits next to what was literally a mountain of gold, silver and copper. Back in the late 1800s it was one of the richest gold mines in the world.
The gold’s gone now, and what’s left is a hole in the ground surrounded by hills of broken rock. As we heard, that rock contains sulphides, which turn rain into sulphuric acid. The acid absorbs the traces of cadmium, aluminium, iron, zinc, copper and other metals. This cocktail isn’t just overflowing from the mine pit; it’s seeping from the hills of waste rock. You can see the water gushing from the sides of the mine, and there’s a photograph of this on the Background Briefing website.
Ian Herbert: Yes, that’s seepage. When rainwater falls on these exposed mullock heaps it just percolates through all that broken and cracked rock and seeps out through the bottom, and by that time it’s collected a lot of acid mine drainage. It’s dropping into a moderate sized dam below, as you can see, and the seepage interception system is meant to pump that water back into the big hole in Mount Morgan.
Ian Townsend: It’s a lot of water coming out there at the moment, it’s a waterfall, it’s a series of cascades.
Ian Herbert: We’ve had a lot of rain in the last few days.
Ian Townsend: And that’s being constantly pumped back in?
Ian Herbert: That’s correct, yes, all year round. These seepage interception systems have to operate to pump the water back into the hole to stop new contaminated water getting into the Dee River.
Ian Townsend: The water is collected in ponds to be pumped back into the pit, but now that the mine is overflowing, it simply sends more acidic water over the spillway.
I’m here with Ian Herbert and environmental science student from Central Queensland University, Bethlea Bell, who’s studied the river.
Ian Townsend: What are we looking at then, what can we see?
Bethlea Bell: Well, it’s still flowing quite heavily down there. All the reddish areas around the side, that’s the iron that’s dropped out. You can actually see a couple of ducks floating on the water, so that…
Ian Townsend: Dead or alive?
Bethlea Bell: They seem to be alive, don’t they.
Ian Townsend: For how long though?
Bethlea Bell: Well, I don’t think they’d want to live there for very long, there wouldn’t be much in the water that they could eat.
Ian Herbert: We’re looking at the aftermath of only two days after we’ve had a massive flow down the river, so at the moment it’s fairly diluted.
Ian Townsend: And so when we’re looking down here, yeah, the river bank looks pretty dry, but perhaps that’s the result of the drought and the fires before the flood, but it certainly looks green and red and orange, it doesn’t look very healthy, even with a bit of fresh water in it.
Ian Herbert: And if you come back during the dry season it’s even worse because that’s when the pools have stopped flowing from one to the other and they start to concentrate that water.
Ian Townsend: This is right in the middle of town, there are kids around here. Do they swim in this?
Ian Herbert: No. Everyone would just understand that this river…downstream of the mine you just don’t touch that water.
Ian Townsend: The acid has effectively killed the river for 20 kilometres downstream. In the past, aluminium’s been found in the gills of dead fish 80 kilometres downstream.
The worst damage can be seen along a desolate patch of the Dee River that runs between the mine and the town. A big flood had recently swept over here, but already there’s a nasty-looking sludge between the metal-stained rocks.
Bethlea Bell: There is no life in those pools.
Ian Townsend: This is just after a flood. And there’s a slick on top of the water. It looks like it’s coming up from the rocks below. There’s a smell as well. What’s that, sulphur?
Bethlea Bell: It could well be, but there’s sediment everywhere.
Ian Herbert: See that orangey stuff, so yes, that’s just deposited on the rocks.
Ian Townsend: In the dry season, it gets worse. The pools of water become more acidic as the river dries up. Fifty five kilometres downstream from the Mount Morgan mine, farmer Denis George lives right beside the Dee River. He doesn’t use the river water here; no one does. His water comes from bores.
A few days before we visited, the river here broke its banks and swept across this farmland. At one stage Denis George thought his family might have to climb onto the roof, and so he had to get a helicopter to rescue his three-year-old grandson, who was staying with him.
Denis George: It just breaks out above here, and through the front of my farm becomes part of the river and it travels at such a velocity…as I say to people, we got choppered out, and there’s no way in the world you would expect anyone to come in a flood boat and rescue you because they’d be smashed into the timber, it’s just too fast-flowing.
Ian Townsend: Does it concern you that some of that floodwater might have been contaminated?
Denis George: They were releasing at that particular time but it wouldn’t have been a problem, no, because it would have been in such a minute dilution.
Ian Townsend: The levels of metals in the water might be diluted, but it’s the sediment that’s the long-term trouble. As the water becomes less acidic, the metals drop out and mix with the mud.
A study in 2003 found the floodplain soils around here had elevated levels of copper, sulphur and zinc, although tests on lucerne and farm products found no significant contamination.
The study also found cadmium, copper and zinc in river sediments 60 kilometres downstream. Water with heavy metals well above water quality guidelines was found 80 kilometres downstream from the mine after floods. Another study found freshwater mussels with high amounts of copper.
This last flood in the Dee River was one of the biggest in living memory, and the mine pit is still overflowing weeks after the flood has passed.
At Denis George’s house is another local farmer, Neal Johansen, who’s president of the local Wowan Dululu Landcare Group.
Neal Johansen: Whilst we might be just a small rural community, there is now going to be a significant stretch of the Dee River that’s contaminated with the mine water, it always has been but certainly more so now with the uncontrolled release, and that’s not good for the health of a significant stretch of river. I don’t think it matters whether it’s in Wowan and Dululu of if it was down near Brisbane River somewhere, it should be treated exactly the same.
Ian Townsend: Outside you can see still see the flood debris in the paddocks.
Walking down to a river crossing here, we find another sign that’s been knocked over by the flood and buried under debris.
What does the sign say?
Bethlea Bell: ‘No swimming, no drinking’.
Ian Townsend: Just upstream from Denis George’s property there’s a water quality test station, and on this day the water had a pH of 4.2. That’s acidic enough to kill things that live in the river, such as insects, larvae, frogs, tadpoles, some plants and small fish. As we’ve heard, dead birds and fish are now being found further downstream.
The river here is probably as acidic as vinegar, but the main trouble is the metals that are still dissolved in it or have fallen to the bottom. You can see a coating of white sludge on the river bed and the underwater plants. That’s aluminium, which can kill fish. There are some other nasty ones you can’t see; cadmium for instance, which in tiny amounts is a neurotoxin, it affects the brain.
The big question is, where do those metals end up and do they cause a problem even further downstream? Do they accumulate somewhere? It’s not just a question for old mines, but for all new mines being dug in the current mining boom.
Environmental engineer Gavin Mudd:
Gavin Mudd: At some of the individual mines now they’re now processing of the order or digging up of the order of 100 million tonnes, 200 million tonnes of rock or soil a year. Now, at some sites like Mount Lyell in Tasmania or Mount Morgan in Queensland, it took a century for them to dig up that that volume or that mass of rock. In that sense the scale has just gone incredibly high these days. And so in a lot of ways the older mines were smaller than current mines but also they were often quite remote, and so there wasn’t the large populations next to mines like there is, say, in the Hunter Valley that we have now. So in that sense I think the recognition of some of the ongoing problems of a lot of these older mines has been out of sight and out of mind.
Ian Townsend: In Queensland in 2009, toxic water spilled from the Lady Annie copper mine near Mount Isa, contaminating a 52-kilometre stretch of the Saga and Inca creeks. The Queensland government sued the former owner, CooperCo, for breaching the Environmental Act.
A disused copper mine called Redbank in the Northern Territory has been spilling acid and metals into a river that flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Although there are now tough laws and better technologies to rehabilitate mines when they close, Gavin Mudd says in the case of Redbank, those regulations didn’t work.
Gavin Mudd: Well, in theory the way that modern mine regulation is supposed to work is that an environmental assessment is done, approval is given, a rehabilitation bond is put aside, and that way if a company goes bankrupt the rehabilitation bond can be kept by government and then used to rehabilitate the site. Now, in this case there was no rehabilitation bond that was put aside of any sort of substance. The company went bankrupt and so there’s now no one left to sue, and it’s a classic legacy problem. This sort of scenario is played out at many mine sites around Australia, so in that sense it’s not just an isolated little problem. I think we need to also be mindful of the test of time. These things take time to settle down and if the pollution risks are going to last for centuries then we really need to be looking at these sites for centuries to make sure that the pollution is contained and that there are no ongoing impacts to the surrounding ecosystems
Ian Townsend: Legacy water is also a headache for coal mines, and in the Fitzroy basin it’s not so much about acid water and metals, as salt.
In 2008, a big flood swamped the large Ensham open-cut coal mine in the Fitzroy River basin. You might remember those front-page photos of a huge dragline submerged in the mine pit. That water absorbed salts from the mine, and months later when the water was released it contaminated town drinking water downstream.
Since the Ensham flood, the rules for getting rid of legacy water in coal mines have been tightened up. It can only be released under strict conditions and only into a flooded river, so any salts, acids or metals are diluted.
The floods that caused the problem in the first place have become an opportunity to get rid of that water. The saying has been that ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’, but that’s not always true.
Gavin Mudd: When you’re discharging from a mine site, whether that be Mount Morgan or others, you don’t always capture that flood flow perfectly and then get perfectly uniform mixing such that it is extremely mixed and diluted by the time it might get down to Rockhampton and out onto the Great Barrier Reef. We do need to be monitoring such that we’re understand the movement of different waters down a catchment.
Ian Townsend: We heard earlier from the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who was in Rockhampton during the floods reassuring people that the coal mine water coming down the river would have no impact, but also promising that if a problem was found, the government would fix it.
Campbell Newman: The discharges that are occurring right now, as a trial, I stress as a trial, are subject to full comprehensive monitoring from the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, and I’m very confident that you will see that such is the volume of water in the rivers there will be not one discernible impact at all that is measurable, but we will see. And the mayor has a commitment from me, I’ll say it publicly today, that ultimately if there was, and I am totally clear that there will not be, but if there was we will help the council 100% financially in terms of any requirements of water treatment facilities, indeed other council areas as well.
Ian Townsend: As part of the trial of coal mine water releases, the Queensland government has built ‘enhanced monitoring stations’ at several places downstream from the coal mines. Last November, before the flood, the rivers were tested for heavy metals, amongst other things.
In the Isaac River at one site, dissolved manganese was found above drinking water standards. At another site on the Mackenzie River, dissolved uranium and vanadium were found to be high enough to trigger an alarm for freshwater ecosystems. There’s a link to the monitoring reports on the Background Briefing website. No new data has been published yet to say what was found during the recent flood.
Gavin Mudd: Typically, the two dominant issues that are raised with coalmine water are the level of salts; often there will be heavy metals and some of heavy metals, there may not be very high concentrations but they’ll certainly be there in concentrations that may exceed the normal standard you would like to see for protecting freshwater ecosystems, but if it is safe, as industry always claims, as does government, then fine, please give us the data, make sure it’s publicly available so that can be looked at.
Ian Townsend: Four years ago the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection looked at the ‘cumulative impacts on water quality of mining in the Fitzroy River Basin’. It found that there wasn’t enough data to say what the cumulative impacts of mining water discharges were. It also looked only at the coal mines. Mount Morgan, which is an abandoned mine managed mainly by the mines department, wasn’t included.
At the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation is Corinne Unger.
Corinne Unger: It just focused on coalmines and it didn’t even consider the pollution from Mount Morgan, yet it noted that the water quality there was far worse than anywhere else and that it exceeded all of the standards that the other mines are having to comply with.
Ian Townsend: Corinne Unger says that’s one of the reasons why abandoned mines aren’t being properly rehabilitated; they fall into the cracks between government departments.
Corinne Unger: There is no legislation to set the standard for abandoned mines. The regulation around abandoned mines is just in a black hole. It is quite clear what the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection’s role is when it comes to regulating an active mine, but it is very unclear when it comes to an abandoned mine.
Ian Townsend: Queensland’s assistant Mines Minister, Lisa France, says she believes the roles are clear.
Lisa France: I’d actually say it’s quite clear. The way that we’re dealing with it, it’s very obvious to me who’s dealing with it, we don’t have crossover at all. The mine water within Mount Morgan is something that is licensed by the Department of Environment and Heritage. They control the parameters for the receiving waters. I think it’s something that actually does go quite smoothly.
Ian Townsend: The trouble is what to do to fix Mount Morgan permanently. It already has a rehabilitation plan. The problem for governments is the cost—around $200 million.
Lisa France: It’s very easy to have textbook answers of how we could fix problems, but in reality we need that money, and when it comes down to a limited revenue for a government and a government who has said definitely we won’t be putting taxes up, we do need to be very cautious with that money that we do have and spend it wisely, because I obviously would like to have an awful lot of money put into the abandoned mines program. However, other people might want to see hospitals and roads and education
Ian Townsend: There are 15,000 abandoned mines in Queensland and 50,000 across the country. Rehabilitating them is left to the states, and there are no clear guidelines about how to do it.
Background Briefing sought an interview with the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, on a range of issues involving the discharge of water from mine sites.
His department sent us a statement:
Reading: ‘The impacts associated with mine legacy water are the subject of growing concern. This is primarily a responsibility for the state in their broader regulatory responsibility over the mining industry.’
Ian Townsend: The department also points out that it’s currently investigating the discharging of water from as many as 27 mines to make sure they haven’t breached national environment laws.
We’ve put our questions and the Federal Environment Department’s written replies on the Background Briefing website.
Last year, the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry made a point of looking at flooding in mines.
It recommended that:
Reading: ‘The Queensland Government should work collaboratively with the Commonwealth Government and mine operators to ensure co-ordinated and effective monitoring of salts, metals and other contaminants in marine environments that may be affected by mine discharges.’
Ian Townsend: The Federal Environment Department said it should receive expert advice about water runoff from mines from an Independent Expert Scientific Committee that it set up on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development.
The Queensland floods inquiry also wanted the state government to get its act together.
Reading: ‘The Queensland Government should determine which of its agencies should take responsibility for the management of all existing and new abandoned mine sites in Queensland.’
Ian Townsend: Queensland’s Assistant Mines Minister, Lisa France, says the government already has a Resource Cabinet Committee to look at problems in mines.
Lisa France: I can’t see where you could effectively have one organisation representing both mines and environment. I think it does work well the way that it is currently going, and with the added layer of having the Resource Cabinet Committee, that works very well in pulling the Minister for Environment, the Minister for Mines, the Deputy Premier for state development all together to address any issues to do with the existing mines or abandoned mines
Ian Townsend: But the abandoned mines are still falling into a gap between the environment and mining departments, says Corinne Unger, and the environment department should take a more active role.
Corinne Unger: There is a stronger role for the Department of Environment and that was highlighted in the floods commission inquiry where they said no one is setting the standard.
There are tools and guidances that are out there for the active part of the mining sector, but in the abandoned mines area those officers managing those sites can draw on this but there is no clear role for the environment department, so they stand back and say this is not our problem, this is the mines department’s problem.
Ian Townsend: At the moment at Mount Morgan, the mines department manages the site mainly by trying to get the acid pit water to evaporate faster, and by treating three megalitres a day. The pit holds 11,000 megalitres, and rises again whenever it rains.
Corinne Unger: Water treatment can only be a short term process; it can’t go on for ever. It’s just going to cost too much and it puts a lot of stress I think on the individuals managing the site as well as the landholders.
Ian Townsend: So what can be done now or should be done now? Should we be really saying, well, this can’t go on forever, we have to start spending much more money on this and try to claw back some of those problems that are escaping from the mine?
Corinne Unger: Yes, it really requires a decision at the highest level of government, to be honest, to make this commitment, and then acknowledge that this is not going to go away, that water treatment is not going to solve it, it’s simply a stop-gap measure.
Ian Townsend: Downstream from the Mount Morgan mine, the Dee River is now toxic. You can see sick and dying fish, dead birds and an abnormal water colour. Farmers here haven’t used the water from the Dee River for 20 years, but never before has the mine pit actually overflowed. It’s something local residents and politicians have feared for a long time.
Neal Johansen says the problem can no longer be ignored.
Neal Johansen: It appears to us as though it’s been swept under the table for many, many years now. We’ve had 20 years that we haven’t been happy with what’s going on. Get rid of the water in the open cut pit. It could have been done many times over and it’s finally come to a head now. We have heard many politicians come up and say that they were leaving and thank God it didn’t happen on our watch, but now it’s happened on somebody’s watch.
Ian Townsend: Background Briefing’s coordinating producer is Linda McGinness, research by Anna Whitfeld, technical production by Phil McKellar, the executive producer is Chris Bullock, and I’m Ian Townsend.
• Today the Tarkine, tomorrow the Reef?
Sharyn Munro, author of ‘Rich Land, Wasteland’ is coming to Tasmania from 27th March to 7th April to speak about her book and to show the documentary, ‘Bimblebox’, both of them dramatic eye-openers about how out-of-control the extractive industries are in Australia.
Rich Land, Wasteland took two years to write. It’s the story of how the formerly idyllic Hunter Valley has been turned into a nightmare landscape of gigantic holes and dust-filled air, shattering the peace and physical health of many a community, along with the impacts of untrammelled mining on many places around Australia and the long and often futile fights against the brutally cynical avarice of the coal barons.
Bimblebox focuses partly on the threat to a designated and Federally funded nature reserve in Queensland which faces obliteration by Clive Palmer’s China First mega-mine but it also looks at the wider impications of the rampage of Australia’s huge, ruthless, largely foreign-owned, government-sanctioned extractive industries.
She doesn’t want to see the Tarkine suffer the same fate as her home territory, the Hunter Valley in NSW. Here’s her take on it:
‘With the Tarkine so blatantly thrown open to mining by the supposed gatekeeper, the Federal Environment Minister, it’s a critical issue for Tasmanians, as for all Australians.
‘This ‘industrial invasion’ by mainly foreign forces and with full government support, is impacting every state, damaging or threatening irreplaceable long-term natural resources.
‘Whatever the one-off resource to be dug up, they are going for anything, anywhere—and hang the consequences. Although coal and unconventional gas have wider implications for global warming, the practice of placing profit before people and the planet remains the same.
‘I call it ‘legalised looting’. Since our governments are not planning for our future beyond the boom, including revenue and jobs, once-conservative people are being driven to civil disobedience.
‘Let’s shock more Australians into action to rescue our precious places like the Tarkine, our water, like the Great Artesian Basin, our quality agricultural land, and the health and livelihoods of thousands of Australians, from inappropriate extractive industries and the shortsighted laws behind them.’
So far two dates for the visit are confirmed, with more to follow:
Thursday April 4, 5:30 pm: Talk on Rich Land, Wasteland at the Hobart Bookshop, Salamanca Square
Saturday April 6 6:30pm: Bimblebox screening, Sawtooth Gallery, ARI Level 2, 160 Cimitiere St, Launceston
Review of Sharyn Munro’s The Woman on the Mountain
Review of Rich Land, Wasteland
Sharyn Munro’s website
Book website by Pan Macmillan