Urgent action required to protect World Heritage as NSW’s “internationally significant” Thirlmere Lakes damaged by coal mining

Published: May 30, 2016

Two teams of scientists have concluded that longwall coal mining has damaged the Thirlmere Lakes, part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage property, adding weight to calls for getting damaging coal mining out of Sydney’s drinking water catchment.

In an ABC news report, the Lakes system is described by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service as being “of international significance on the basis of its outstanding natural values.”

According to former mining consultant and co-author of one of the research papers, Dr Philip Pells, there “is a strong body of evidence now that the groundwater lost to the [Tahmoor] coal mine has impacted on the lakes." Dr Pells described the damage as severe, the overall impact of which means that the National Park of which they are a key feature, is “stuffed.”[i]

“Allowing longwall coal mining to wreck a World Heritage property is completely unacceptable,” said Lock the Gate’s Nic Clyde. “It may also be illegal.”

“We are seeking advice from the NSW Environmental Defenders’ Office to see if there have been breaches of law,” said David Hunt, from the Friends of Thirlmere Lakes.

Sue Higginson, CEO and Principal Solicitor for the NSW Environmental Defenders’ Office confirmed that the EDO is “looking at what legal options the community has to see the restoration of this important aspect of the World Heritage property and this includes, where there is evidence, holding those responsible to account”.

“This new research suggests that the operations of a longwall coal mine so close to the Lakes has been completely incompatible with Australia's obligations under the World Heritage Convention,” said Caroline Graham, Friends of Thirlmere Lakes.

“In addition to seeking legal advice, our group will be writing to UNESCO today, urging the UN body to use its muscle to encourage the Australian and NSW Governments to find water for the Lakes now, while a solution to the damage from longwall coal mining is found” said Hunt.

“Given that the protection of World Heritage is a responsibility of the Australian Government, which is currently in caretaker mode, we’re also writing today to Greg Hunt, Mark Butler and Larissa Waters asking for urgent help to fulfill Australia’s obligations to the international community to protect this place for future generations.”

“Tahmoor Colliery’s response to the two studies on the ABC report gave the impression that their mine is 13 Km from the Lakes whereas in fact the critical long wall panels mined just before the first lake began to empty were along the boundary of the National Park only 700m from the lakes” concluded Hunt.

The news comes hot on the heels of warnings from WaterNSW that longwall coal mining in Sydney’s drinking water catchment is threatening Sydney’s water supply. The agency has warned the NSW Department of Planning twice this year that two projects near Wollongong (Dendrobium and Russell Vale) – both inside a Special Area of the water catchment – are likely to result in “unacceptable” impacts if they proceed as planned.


As part of the federal election campaign, Lock the Gate is calling for ‘no go zones’ for coal and unconventional gas mining.


  • Tahmoor Colliery is located a short distance east of the lakes. The longwall panels, at a depth of about 300m, do not extend into the National Park, but at their closest point are about 700m east of the nearest lake (see map below). The longwalls closest to the lakes were mined between 1996 and 2004.














  • World Heritage management principles and responsibilities are detailed in the Australian World Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement. These include management of World Heritage properties in accordance with the World and National Heritage provisions of the EPBC Act and in accordance with Australia's obligations under the World Heritage Convention to identify, protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations Australia's cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. Management arrangements must also ensure the integrity and authenticity of World Heritage properties at the time of their inscription are maintained.[i]
  • Thirlmere Lakes are “considered likely to meet the criteria for designation as an internationally significant wetland” by NSW NPWS.[ii]
  • Thirlmere Lakes National Park is part of the Warragamba Special Area and as such protects the quality of drinking water entering Lake Burragorang, the major water storage for greater metropolitan Sydney.[iii]
    • The park protects a range of threatened fauna, three endangered ecological communities and supports Thirlmere Sand Swamp Woodland, found only in this park.
  • According to a recent report by Philip and Steven Pells:
    • the “only reasonable scientific conclusion is that extraction of an average of 1200ML/year of groundwater by the mine since about 1995 has impacted on the water levels in the lakes. This conclusion is consistent with that of Schädler (2014), reached using a completely different methodology.”
    • “It is unclear if permanent damage has occurred, but it is expected that it would take decades after completion of mining, for groundwater conditions to recover towards pre-mining conditions.”[iv]
  • World Heritage obligations:
    • to identify, protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations Australia's cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value.
    • ensure the integrity of World Heritage properties are maintained.
  • David Hunt from the Friends of Thirlmere Lakesd notes the response from Mark Speakman, the NSW Environment Minister, repeating the same unsatisfactory comment heard for the last 5 years that no decisions can be made until after more research conducted and data collected.

[i] Thirlmere Lakes National Park Draft Plan of Management, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, November 2014

[ii] Ibid


[iv] Pells and Pells, May 2016, ‘The water levels of Thirlmere Lakes – Where did the water go and when will it return?’


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