Lead concerns prompt NSW central west to demand toxic gold and silver mines are closed

June 23, 2023
Newcrest Cadia Holdings gold mine near Orange is one of the world's largest gold producers. Photo: Australian Mining

The Central West Environment Council (CWEC) has called on New South Wales Labor to close production at Newcrest’s Cadia Holdings’ gold mine, near Orange, to protect the community from toxic dust poisoning water tanks.

Toxic dust has been blowing off the Cadia mine’s evaporative tailings dams since a collapse in 2018: multiple personal blood tests show evidence of dangerous levels of metals.

The pollution is reported to have spread up to 50 kilometres across the region since 100-kilometre-an hour extractor fans were installed in the main mine shaft.

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority (NSW EPA) has ordered Newcrest to comply with various clean air regulations, as blood samples of residents near Millthorpe and South Orange show dangerous levels of selenium, nickel and copper.

Water scientist Professor Ian Wright found high contamination levels in drinking water tanks in the district.

Cadia Community Sustainability Network (CCSN) Vice President Frances Retallack said results from residents water tank testing were damning. It showed 83% of the water samples contained lead, 27.6% of which were at levels more than 10 times the guidelines. Of the most recent set of 20 samples, 45% exceeded nickel guidelines, 30% exceeded arsenic guidelines, 20% exceeded cadmium guidelines and 65% of these samples recorded mercury.

Retallack said of the many residents who also shared their personal blood test results with CCSN, 40% reported symptoms including reduced kidney and liver function, skin conditions and memory impairment.

The CWEC wants filters installed on Cadia Holdings’ mine vents and has called on environment minister Penny Sharpe, the Environmental Protection Authority and Mining, Exploration and Geoscience to halt mines which jeopardise the health of communities.

The Newcrest Cadia mine continues to operate at full capacity, despite no filters on the mine’s exhaust fans.

The CWEC called an urgent meeting on June 17 in response to authorities’ failures to protect communities. It said Labor must revoke the Independent Planning Commission’s (IPC) approval of two other metal mines in the Central West — the McPhillamy gold and Bowden silver mines — and called for an inquiry into the IPC. It said the approvals must be revoked on the grounds of administrative failure and to provide procedural fairness.

Reform needed

Bev Smiles, CWEC chair, told that meeting that policy and regulatory system reform is urgently needed, including “reinstating merit appeal rights through the NSW Land and Environment Court”.

She said there needs to be “clear pathways with the power to implement changes” and a “more balanced cost-benefit analyses which accounts for the true costs to human health, environment and community of mining operations”.

The meeting also called for the immediate shut-down of mining companies which breached their licences and larger fines.

Dan Sutton, from the Belubula Headwater Action Group (BHAG), said the IPC’s approval of MacPhillamy’s gold mine, near Blayney, was concerning. He said BHAG raised $30,000 for expert reviews of the IPC hearing on MacPhillamy’s applicationid. BHAG  proposed more than 200 amendments to the approval, but the IPC did not reference these reports, nor recommend protections when it approved the mine on the grounds of “economic benefit”.

Sutton said the objections to the MacPhillamy’s gold mine included: serious threats of pollution and interference with the Belubula River from the proposed tailings dam; the plugging of 24 springs that feed the river; and the abandonment of an open mine pit into perpetuity.

Concerns were also raised about the IPC’s approval of MacPhillamy’s proposal to pipe coal mine slurry from Lithgow, more than 80 kilometres, to use in the mine operation and to suppress dust. He said an application relating to First Nations heritage on the Kings Plains mine site is being reviewed.

Janet Walk from the Mudgee Region Action Group (MRAG) told the meeting about the rising opposition to the Bowdens lead zinc and silver mine, near Lue, with a proposed tailings dam on Lawson Creek which feeds into the Cudgegong River.

First presented as a “silver mine”, Bowdens sponsored clubs, schools and sports teams to woo the community. “We were then hit with 400-pages of technical documents for an open-cut lead mine with only 1% production of silver, and given six weeks to respond.”

The community raised nearly $200,000 for expert reports and legal challenges. It said the tailings dam is designed to seep 1.5 megalitres a day of tailings water into the catchment. “Rio Tinto walked away from the mine because of the water issues ... There is not enough water for operations and for dust containment,” Walk said. 

She said the IPC approved the mine without referencing the community’s concerns. “They have come up with 14 management plans without any subsequent scrutiny and no protections.” 

Lead concerns

Dr Peter Bentevoglio, a landholder in the Lue district, said he had researched the impacts of lead with a fellow neurologist. They questioned Bowden’s EIS, which estimated just 60 kilograms of dust generation by the mine annually and which would have no impacts on human health.

“Where does this figure come from,” Bentevoglio asked? The neurologists’ investigation of the EIS showed dust will contain 10 times safe levels of lead and it will have a cumulative impact in the environment over the mine’s 23-year operation.

“The cost of chronic exposure to lead includes a 10 year earlier onset of dementia and kidney disfunction, [which could] result in the need for dialysis three times a week, at a cost of about $1500 a session. Have these costs been taken into consideration in approving the mine on the basis of economic benefit,” Bentevoglio asked.

Walk said regional opposition is growing, with tractor-cades and protest posters spreading across the district. “We are not going to let them poison our kids.”

Greens MLC Sue Higginson told the CWEC that the Central West is becoming the “new Hunter Valley” under the NSW Critical Minerals and High-Tech Metals Strategy. She said the global mining boom was driving the biased assessment procedures and regulations.

Higginson said conflicts of interest, distortion of economic benefit, weak penalties and the denial of legal review distort the planning and regulatory systems on mine approvals and operation. Communities have been left to bear the cost of toxic pollution, dust, noise and degraded water systems and aquifers whilst all levels of government turn a blind eye to the impacts of intensive industrialisation of the region by mining.

Higginson, a former environmental lawyer, said the playing field has been tilted firmly towards mining corporations’ interests. She the approvals processes were so weak that if “State Significant Projects” are referred to the IPC the community loses the ability to challenge decisions in the Land and Environment Court. Neither is the IPC required to respond to community objections.

CWEC is calling for reforms of planning approvals, including: reinstating merit appeal rights through the NSW Land and Environment Court; beefing up health impact assessments; a more balanced cost-benefit analysis with longer-term social and environmental costs of mining factored in. It also wants larger fines for companies which breach their licenses.

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