Mining industry slammed at Queensland Water Summit

October 8, 2015
The flooded and abandoned Ensham mine.

About 50 people attended the Queensland Water Summit in Dalby on September 23. Despite its midweek timing, a wide range of people attended from across the state, including farmers threatened by increasingly severe drought and mining company pollution of their water sources, to community members, doctors and clergy from communities impacted by coal seam gas, underground coal gasification and coalmining.

The summit was organised and funded by independent Senator Glenn Lazarus, who spoke briefly but mostly listened to the concerns raised by attendees.

He also coordinated a feedback session at the end of the day to collect practical suggestions from participants on how best to sustainably manage Australian water resources. He will submit them to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with his repeated invitation to Turnbull to visit the gasfield-affected communities.

Four speakers gave presentations. Associate Professor Larelle Fabbro from Central Queensland University spoke on the need for sources of water that do not dry up, within a historical Australian weather pattern of floods every five years and droughts every 10. Climate change will mean more intense events.

Dam problems

The large dams called for by the Nationals as the means to "drought-proof Australia" change water quality and encourage toxic algal blooms. The longer water is stored, the poorer its quality; and the bigger the dam becomes, the more the water quality changes for the worse, as the water mixes less. In summer the surface heats and the cold bottom layer rots and breeds highly toxic algal blooms often invisible on the surface. Many types of toxic algal blooms have still not been identified.

Large dams can also prevent many fish species from migrating from fresh to saltwater to breed.

Fabbro said another risk in dam storage is toxic mine water releases, whether deliberate or accidental. The Ensham mine wall holding back mine wastewater, supposedly the "best designed levy bank," gave way recently upstream of the Fitzroy river — the water supply for Rockhampton and many other communities.

Fortunately the toxic water was caught in small dams downstream and did not wipe out Rockhampton's water supply. However, the abandoned mine at Mt Morgan continues to release toxic waste into the Fitzroy River and its rehabilitation has been estimated to cost $200 million.

There have been many toxic water releases from coal and other mines since the 2011 and 2012 floods. Coal-fired power stations are another heavy water user that contaminates groundwater. Fabbro said that at a time of increased need for groundwater, its contamination is a great risk.

She concluded by posing a question about the many non-productive farms in drought years that are only viable in non-drought periods. Should we support them until the drought ends or should we just allow them to attempt to farm and go broke? As an audience member responded, if our land needs carers, should we as a society make payments for ecosystem services?

Other speakers included Dr David McRae, who spoke on the challenges of cloud seeding for rain and the cuts in funding that have crippled this research. Simon Philby, who founded the Live in the Projects Company, which encourages collaboration between governments, companies and people on how to create, capture and manage new water supplies, such as small scale "water from air" technology, and rainwater filters for urban and polluted areas, also spoke.

Water for free

Paul Wynn, legal adviser for the Lock the Gate Alliance, showed the toxic impact of mining on aquifers and outlined the legal rights given to mining companies by Queensland governments.

Petroleum and gas companies have been given a statutory right to use whatever water they need. They must do a baseline assessment and report on underground water impacts, and have “make-good” obligations, although these are not specified.

Hard rock mining, such as the coal industry, must have a water license in two-thirds of Queensland, but in practice these are never withheld. There are no requirements for reports on their impact on groundwater and no statutory “make-good” provisions. Wynn presented a draft make-good agreement he has put together for the Lock the Gate Alliance.

With the state Labour government looking at backing down on election promises to change these statutory water entitlements, Wynn urged participants to lobby their local MPs to amend mining legislation to remove companies' right to take or interfere with groundwater for mining development.

There was considerable audience participation and feedback on the ongoing devastation of Australian groundwater and catchments by the mining industry. There was no mention of conflict between water allocations for environmental purposes versus farming use, but rather of the threat posed to both by the mining industry.

Challenge urged

There was wide and vocal agreement and the loudest applause of the day was for a western Downs cattle farmer who spoke about the need to find independent or small party candidates with the backbone to stand up to mining companies and protect our water before it is destroyed, as both major parties have been bought off by mining company donations.

“I am legally liable for any contaminants in my cattle,” she said, “but I have no control over what happens to the catchments and groundwater they drink from.” She urged listeners to challenge the mining industry media campaigns on the indispensability of mining to the economy.

She spoke strongly on the threat that mining industry water use and pollution poses to the very existence of the agriculture and tourism industries, which employ far more people than mining and which create a GDP that is redistributed within Australia, rather than the mining profits which are mostly exported by multinationals and pay little if any tax.

“The complete farming supply chain creates 1.6 million jobs and earns $155 billion GDP annually,” she said. “Tourism employs 1.4 million jobs, contributes $150 billion annually to GDP. Both industries have been declared 'supergrowth' sectors of our economy over the next 20 years.

“This is in marked contrast to the 40,000 mining jobs that have shrunk even further with recent massive lay-offs over the past two years.”

Lazarus commented: "Unlike other countries who have moved to 100% renewables, I don't think this government is thinking past donations from the mining industry regarding renewable energy."

Constructive suggestions coming from the day included the need for a national summit on water; an immediate moratorium on the unconventional gas industry, for which Lazarus has organised a petition which already has more than 65,000 signatures; legislating landholders' right to say no to mining on their land; a levy on the mining industry to clean up the 50,000 abandoned mines polluting our catchments and aquifers nationally; making urban areas self-sufficient in water by making rainwater tanks compulsory for new buildings in Queensland as they are in NSW, along with the recycling of stormwater and sewage; creating a national ombudsman for water; restoring funding for the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative, for bore capping, tanks, pipes and troughs in the Great Artesian Basin.

Dr Justin Peter of the University of Southern Queensland called for the reinstatement of CSIRO funding and advocated the role of science and innovation in sustainable water use.

Others spoke on the competing interests for water and the need for a national water audit to measure water use. We should reserve water for drinking and food production, and only then to look at pricing water for other uses.

There was unanimous support for the right of all people to clean water and the desperate necessity to stop water pollution from getting worse. This was put clearly into the context of our constitutional right to water for agricultural and environmental purposes. As water must be clean for both purposes, this makes the mining companies' water pollution and unrestricted water use unconstitutional.

Participants raised the following as breaches of section 100 of the Constitution: the dumping of toxic CSG water into the Chinchilla water supply, farm dams, and overloaded NSW sewage treatment plants; the dumping of mining equipment tyres into mine pits undergoing "rehabilitation"; the dumping of toxic CSG waste into landfill at the Kenya water treatment plant near Chinchilla and into evaporation ponds subject to flooding across water catchments and prime farmland.

Calls were also made for a Senate inquiry on water, where, along with a National Water Summit, all of these issues could be raised. As 89% of Australians live in urban areas, participants agreed that both events could be a way to publicise and communicate the desperate need for immediate action to protect our greatest natural resource.

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