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Shenhua mine’s water uncertainty means we should proceed with caution

The Liverpool Plains near Gunnedah in New South Wales where the Watermark coal mine would be built. Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Shenhua mine’s water uncertainty means we should proceed with caution

The controversial Shenhua Watermark coal mine in New South Wales recently cleared another hurdle along the way to being granted full approval to proceed. But there are major environmental risks which should still call the project into question.

The mine, approved under environmental law by minister Greg Hunt, has earned the ire of federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce. Minister Joyce stated that it was “ridiculous that you would have a major mine in the midst of Australia’s best agricultural land.”

While the mine will not be built directly on farmland, there are still outstanding concerns around groundwater.

Following the approval by minister Hunt, Shenhua still needs a license from NSW, and approval of further plans around water management from the federal government.

So what’s the evidence for impacts on water?

The expert advice

The Independent Expert Scientific Committee (on large coal mining and coal seam gas) has carefully examined the groundwater assessments done on behalf of Shenhua on two occasions.

The IESC provides advice to the federal government on water issues from coal seam gas and large coal mining projects. However it doesn’t assess more generally the environmental risks and trade-offs of such projects. This is the job of the state and/or federal environment departments and ultimately, ministers.

The first assessment was in 2013, and the groundwater was assessed again in April this year after Shenhua responded to the committee’s requests for clarifications in the original assessment.

The focus of the IESC’s advice is mainly the issue of potential impacts to groundwater – a key argument from the local farmers for vehement opposition to the mine.

While the IESC was overall satisfied that the groundwater model and hydrogeological parameters used in the revised assessment were realistic, they still noted uncertainty in the prediction of local-scale aquifer impacts, and pointed out some areas of deficiency.

These included uncertainty over how the proposed mine might affect groundwater dependent ecosystems, and about what the landscape and water-table might look like following eventual closure of the mine.

For these reasons, and the intense opposition of local farmers, the water management plan will be subject to further scrutiny from the committee prior to a final decision on the mine.

Coal and water

Open cut coal mining always has major environmental and health impacts. One need only visit the open cut mines and communities of the La Trobe Valley or Hunter Valley to see this.

The effects include but are not confined to impacts on water, as it is not possible to mine coal and stabilise pit walls without removing groundwater from the surrounding area.

In the case of the proposed Shenhua Watermark mine, the modelling appears to show that volumes of groundwater required to be extracted are relatively low compared with typical open-cut mines.

However this does not mean there will be no impacts on groundwater (for example, if there are local ecosystems which depend on it) or other parts of the environment.

If, as recent reports suggest, the area is in fact a groundwater recharge area, then the impact of any groundwater contamination occurring at the mine would be more serious than otherwise.

“Rehabilitation” of open cut coal mining sites with respect to the water table and surrounding land is always a dubious promise. Any areas where coal has been exposed by open-cut mining are at risk of ongoing land instability, flooding and water quality problems, such as mobilisation of acid, metals and other contaminants.

Impacts on air quality in the surrounding regions, both in the long term from coal dust, and from short-term disasters such as coal mine fires (recently witnessed at Morwell) also need to be considered.

There is also the issue of mine waste management - a huge environmental challenge at open cut mines.

Issues associated with mine wastes such as leaching of contaminants into soil and groundwater, or overflow from tailings dams – such as was recently seen at the Clarence Colliery - are potentially serious impacts with many historical precedents.

Even with strict conditions required by the environment minister, breaches and unforeseen accidents can and do frequently occur at coal mines.

To say with confidence that such incidents would not occur at a mine of the scale of the proposed Shenhua open-cut seems extremely optimistic.

A critical issue for mining in Australia is the problem that oversight and enforcement of “strict” environmental conditions is often lacking once environmental approvals are given. The Clarence Colliery incident was one of a long history of environmental breaches at the site, and there are many similar repeat offending mine sites around the country.

Poor environmental track record

Australians should also be aware that Shenhua has a poor environmental track record when operating in its home country, China.

In 2013 a Greenpeace report highlighted serious breaches of environmental law at a Shenhua operated coal mine in northwest China, where polluted wastewater was being directly discharged into local waterways without treatment.

The groundwater extraction caused by this mine has also allegedly caused over 2,000 farmers’ wells to run dry, causing widespread anger among locals, as well as serious ecological degradation. Following the report Shenhua pledged to phase out groundwater extraction and clean up waste water.

Indian energy company Adani, who are proposing a similar, though larger coal project in Queensland, have faced similar questions over their environmental track record in India. While Australia does have strong regulations, enforcement and monitoring can be lacking, as revealed in a 2014 report from the Queensland Audit Office.

The Federal and NSW governments still have a chance to prevent the Shenhua mine from going ahead, and would have strong support from rural Australians and others who are concerned about the environmental impacts in doing so.

This decision will be critical in setting the future direction and priorities of the country – continuing with business as usual, or progressing to a new era of strategic thinking about long-term natural resources protection.

Both the economic and environmental risks of continued expansion of coal mining for export in Australia have been highlighted recently. Whether the warnings are heeded may have enormous future consequences.

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