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Central QLD flood exposes flaws with coal mine water release laws

Central Queensland coal mines are releasing billions of litres of polluted water many times saltier than the receiving rivers in the catchment of the Great Barrier Reef, prompting concerns about the ecological health of impacted waterways.

Even mines that claim to be “zero-discharge”, such as the Kestrel coal mine, are releasing water into the Fitzroy River Basin. According to the Environment Department’s figures, Kestrel was yesterday releasing water at a rate of 350,000 litres every second into Crinum Creek - that's an Olympic-sized swimming pool every eight seconds. 

The salt content of the mine water was recorded at 5580μS/cm, while Crinum Creek’s background salinity level was just 250μS/cm.

At least 11 coal mines across Central Queensland were yesterday also releasing massive volumes of mine water into the Fitzroy River catchment.

While there has been a very significant rainfall event across Central Queensland in recent days, coal mine opponents argue coal companies use opportunities like this - when creeks and rivers are running - to drain their perpetually filling coal pits to dump untreated water into rivers. Opponents also argue the Palaszczuk Government could do more to force mines to reuse their water onsite and mitigate events such as this.

Environmental Advocacy in Central Queensland director Dr Coral Rowston said, “It’s totally unacceptable for the Palaszczuk Government to grant coal mines permission to simply dump their salty and polluted water into the environment during times of flood.

“Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right. The release of contaminated mine water into the environment should not be permitted by a state government that claims to care about water quality and the Great Barrier Reef.

“The sudden and significant increase in salinity is likely to have a negative impact on the biodiversity and ecological health of the rivers and creeks of the Fitzroy River Basin.

“But it’s not just huge volumes of salt that pose a problem. There will be large amounts of heavy metals and other potentially toxic contaminants in this water that will flow right into the Great Barrier Reef.

“Climate change impacts, such as the floods we are experiencing at the moment, are going to become more frequent and severe. We can’t afford to build more coal mines in Central Queensland and expect to be able to manage even greater discharges of dirty water into the largest Great Barrier Reef catchment.

“It’s particularly galling that even coal mines that publicly claim to be ‘zero-discharge’, such as Kestrel, are releasing thousands of litres into Central Qld creeks every second which will be carrying sediment to the Reef.”

Lock the Gate Alliance Queensland coordinator Ellie Smith said, “This isn’t an isolated incident based on the current extreme weather event - mining companies release their polluted water like this every single wet season. This is groundwater that has been stored for many months, and mining companies are just using heavy rainfall as an excuse to dump it into our rivers.

“At the bare minimum, coal mining companies should be required to treat their wastewater using reverse osmosis and reuse it on site. Instead the Palaszczuk Government allows them to store polluted water in huge pits that are dumped into our rivers every wet season.

“Allowing coal mines to dump billions of litres of polluted water into our reef catchment rivers shows the Palaszczuk Government has no respect for the Reef, those who rely on it for work, nor for those who cherish it for the natural wonder it is.”

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