There are five major drinking water catchments that are managed specially to provide clean drinking water to over 4 million people in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra. Large parts of the catchments have been gazetted as Special Areas designed to exclude public access and protect the quality and quantity of water to the city. Unauthorised access to Special Areas can lead to fines of up to $44,000.
These rules, however, do not prevent mining in these sensitive sites and there are 8 underground coal mines currently operating within the Sydney drinking water catchments. Over the last 20 years, longwall mining in the catchments has led to major land subsidence which in turn has caused cracking and draining of rivers, creek beds and undergrounds aquifers, cliff falls, draining of swamps, fish kills, methane gas bubbling to the surface of creeks and rivers, and iron oxide pollution, as well as the discharge of polluted mine water into local creek systems. Despite these known impacts, which were confirmed by an official inquiry, mining is still occurring immediately adjoining creeks and rivers in the catchment causing methane vents and creek fracturing.
One of the worst examples of damage from longwall mining in the Sydney catchment is the Waratah Rivulet, which previously provided 30% of drinking water to the Sutherland Shire. The once pristine Rivulet was cracked, drained and dewatered for almost its entire length and polluted with iron oxide after longwall mining in 2007. This article tells the story.
Another worst case example is the mysterious drying up of Thirlmere Lakes, a World Heritage listed lake system, after longwall mining approximately 700m away within a Special Area of the Warragamba Catchment. An independent study has concluded that coal mining is likely to have played a substantial role, although the NSW Government has conducted a questionable inquiry which tries to avoid that conclusion.
Despite this appalling damage, longwall mines continue to expand with a number of new longwall mining panels underway and new underground coal mines proposed for the Sydney drinking water catchments. Extraordinary as it seems, and despite promises to the contrary, Sydney's drinking water catchment which is vital to the health and wellbeing of 4.3 million people is not safe from the coal mining and its impacts.