Creek poisoned by acid from old mines: photos

History of neglected waterway still stings

Why acid leaches from old mines

THIS dead creek in the Coalfields town of Neath is known by residents as the Hunter’s pollution ‘‘masterpiece’’.

It’s a legacy of coal mining,  and presents a hugely expensive clean-up challenge.

Once a pristine waterway teeming with fish and other animals, it is dead and glowing red.

 Poisonous sulphuric acid, iron and aluminium is leaching from abandoned coal workings throughout the Lower Hunter  into creeks and streams.

Experts say  the acid curse, a legacy of past mining practices, would not be lifted with current technology or limited funds for remediation. The state government confirmed there are seven derelict mine sites in the Lower Hunter affected by acid mine drainage including Aberdare East, Testers Hollow, Neath, Dagworth, Greta and Rothbury. 

With 65 abandoned mines and countless coal waste dumps throughout the region, the full extent of the problem is unknown.

“There is absolutely nothing that survives in the creek, it’s highly toxic,” said Col Maybury, pictured, the president of Kurri Kurri Landcare. “You’ve only got to look at it to see how much damage it is causing and it runs all the way to the Hunter River.” 

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 ACID leaching from abandoned coal workings throughout the Lower Hunter is creating an environmental nightmare with the clean-up bill a bottomless pit.

Poisonous sulphuric acid, iron and aluminium are bubbling into creeks and streams, leaving stretches of waterways acid-ridden and dead.

The Lower Hunter is scarred by dozens of abandoned mines where coal companies have walked away from degraded land without cleaning up or stabilising sites.

Experts have told the Newcastle Herald the acid curse, a legacy of past mining practices, will not be broken with current technology or the limited funds available for remediation.

A leading national expert on acid mine drainage Dr Alan Robertson said it was a “huge problem, with no simple solution”.

Dr Robertson, managing director of RGS Environmental, said acid mine drainage was recognised as the most significant environmental issue for mines around the world.

“There is a huge effort and cost involved in trying to solve the problem,” he said.

“We are learning about it all the time ... and have not found the magic pill as yet.”

There are seven derelict mine sites in the Lower Hunter recognised by the state government as affected by acid mine drainage. They include Aberdare East, Testers Hollow, Neath, Dagworth, Greta and Rothbury.

With 65 abandoned mines and countless coal waste dumps throughout the region, the full extent of the problem is unknown.

Environmental and soil scientist Simon Leake said the problem was much greater in the Lower Hunter due to coal in that area having an abnormally high sulphur content.

He described the run-off as “very toxic”.

No “gilled organisms’’ could live in it and affected soil would never be ‘‘as good as it used to be”, he said.

“What will happen is you will get whole sections of waterways that are dead,” he said. “The water needs to be diluted downstream.

‘‘The problem is abandoned mines are very difficult to treat, it’s like trying to hold your finger in a dyke. The only real way to treat it is impound the water in a dam and treat it with super-fine lime.”

Coal in seams around Newcastle and Wollombi has about 0.35per cent sulphur while export coal in the Greta seam contains 5.2per cent sulphur.

‘‘Waste’’ coal is much worse.  Tailings dumped at dozens of locations around Maitland and Cessnock has recorded sulphur content as high as 10.5per cent.

Most of the toxic mines and coal waste dumps are ‘‘orphan sites’’ – no longer owned by mining companies which are therefore no longer held accountable.

Due to limited state budget funding for remediation, most sites are simply monitored.

An Auditor-General’s report issued last year found that as ownership of mine sites reverts to the Crown, clean-ups may be the government’s “largest category of contamination liability”.

“The Office of Environment and Heritage advised that potential liabilities for clean-up under the Derelict Mines Program would be substantial and that the few million dollars allocated annually to this program are substantially inadequate,” the report said.

About $2.4million was allocated in last year’s budget.

If not rehabilitated, derelict mines can affect human and environmental health, threatening water quality through sediment run-off, metal contamination and acid mine drainage.

A spokeswoman for the Division of Resources and Energy said the seven acid mine drainage sites in the Hunter had been rated as low-to-medium risk.

She said higher risk sites were given priority for remediation funding.

“The NSW government continues to monitor the situation generally and is aware of the ongoing legacies of former mining practices,” she said.

“Today’s mines are strictly regulated and lodgment of a security deposit is required to cover rehabilitation costs if the mine owner becomes insolvent.”

A Hunter-based company was granted approval in 2006 to clear nearly 3million tonnes of coal waste from the Cessnock area, a procedure previously thought to be uneconomical.

Hunter Enviro Mining recently applied to the state government for approval to have its licence extended for four years and is awaiting an outcome.

It has been clearing chitter (coal reject) from dirt and waste material from sites at Aberdare East and Richmond Main East, with a third project planned to start at Neath.

The coal is taken by truck to the former Hebburn No.2 colliery, where saleable coal fines are separated at a washery and the remaining acidic waste pumped into the disused mine shaft.

The coal is sold through an agent as “trimming coal” for blending into larger cargoes, with a sale price much less than the typical Newcastle spot price.

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