Coal & gas endanger shrinking Koala population

Land cleared for coal seam gas mining, Pilliga Forest. Photo: Kate Ausburn.
Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Wilderness Society released the statement below on April 27.

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Koalas must be included on the national threatened species list as part of Environment Minister Tony Burke’s 30 April announcement, especially in NSW’s Gunnedah region and the Pilliga Forest where they face the additional threat of expanding coal mining and coal seam gas operations, according to the Wilderness Society.

“Koalas need to be protected across Australia as they are rapidly declining in numbers, especially in the Pilliga Forest, where three-quarters of the population has been wiped since 2000,” said Naomi Hogan of the Wilderness Society.

“Minister Burke has ruled out protection for all koalas and we are concerned these northwest NSW koala populations may be left off the threatened species list, even while their populations are falling dangerously low.

“Gunnedah is known as the ‘Koala Capital of the World’, yet recent scientific studies show koala numbers across the region and in the nearby Pilliga Forest are seriously declining.”

Zoologist David Paull has recorded a 75% decline in the relative abundance of koalas in the Pilliga from 1993 to 2011. He said the population was relatively stable until 2000 and estimates there are only 500 to 2000 koalas left in the area.

“In 1993 I would take tours through the Pilliga and we would always see koalas, the river banks would be teeming with female koalas with babies on their backs,” said Paull, an associate of the University of New England. “Now, you are lucky to see them.”

Hogan said: “These northwest NSW koala hotspots are the target of very rapid and aggressive coal seam gas and coalmining expansion. The Pilliga Forest is covered by a proposal for the largest coal seam gas field in NSW, while the Liverpool Plains are threatened by coal seam gas pilot wells at Spring Ridge and Marys Mount. Koalas in Leard State Forest are facing three enormous open-cut coalmines.

“The spread of mines and gas wells, tree kills from coal seam gas spills and increased vehicles through the Pilliga Forest will likely put extra strain on these already declining koala populations.

“The 2011 Senate Inquiry into koalas recognised the major threats to Koalas are habitat degradation, vehicle strikes and fire — all of which are likely to increase in the Pilliga Forest, Liverpool Plains and Gunnedah areas if coal seam gas mining proceeds.

“Koalas are an Australian icon that deserves federal protection.”


Comments

Koalas are also present in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland which is totally overlain with coal and gas exploration permits and some mining leases. In drought koalas migrate to the creeks and river riparian areas. These are exactly the areas along the Belyando River and its catchments within the Galilee Basin which are targeted for five of the largest coal mines in the world e.g. Adani, Clive Palmer, and Gina Hancock to produce thermal coal primarily for coal-fired power plants in China and India. Adani's mine will be 50 km in length.

The mines would be next to or in the rivers (with river diversions). This means permanent loss of riparian vegetation as offsets for river diversions have not been successfully revegetated. Lose the vegetation and lose the koalas and other threatened species such as the endangered black-troated finch in this region.

Thousands of hectares will be cleared for these mines. The region's agriculture as well as its communities, water resources and biodiversity are under great threat as these mines are proposed to last 30 to 100 years.

The mines will sit along the eastern recharge areas to the Great Artesian Basin posing a long-term risk to this irreplaceable resource.

Massive scale mining has also been linked to earthquakes ( 3-4 in magnitude). If this happens retaining dam walls and berms could be breached and release toxic coal wastewaters (high in heavy metals and salinity) downstream. The Queensland government already allows the release of wastewaters into waterways under the "solution is dilution" policy during floods and other high rainfall events. The Belyando River flows into the Burdekin River which flows into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Belyando River also flows into the Burdekin dam which supplies water to Townsville.

A comprehensive biodiversity survey program is urgently needed in the Galilee Basin to identify areas of high value to be placed off limits to mining. The whole basin needs a risk assessment on its suitability for mining.