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The Mitchell River Watershed Management Group (MRWMG) is very concerned about the recent contamination of Jamie Creek and the Walsh River caused by the Baal Gammon mine. MRWMG supports in principle the reworking of the Baal Gammon mine site at Watsonville, along with other historic abandoned mines in the area, as this has the potential to stop on-going discharges of heavy metal contaminated acid mine drainage into the Walsh River catchment at no cost to the community whilst creating local jobs, supporting local businesses and winning valuable minerals. However, this must be done carefully and in accordance with best current practice to avoid causing any additional environmental damage in the area.
Our office was contacted by a number of concerned residents of the Watsonville area following a discharge of a red mud type material from the mine to Jamie Creek in February 2012. Many residents in this area rely on Jamie Creek for their water supply and have been drinking it for many years. The mine spill caused a fish kill with dead fish washing down to Collins Weir and has left the creek undrinkable with locals reporting ongoing absence of both fish and red claw.
Rob Ryan, the MRWMG Treasurer and a mining geologist of many decades experience, visited the site and spoke to Kagara, the mine operators. He was told that the discharge was due to an exceptional rainfall event occurring before earthworks on diversion banks around the disturbed area of the mine had been completed. The run-off from this rain event ran through the mine area and carried the red mud material off-site to Jamie Creek.
The Environmental Services section of DERM (now in the new Department of Environment and Heritage Protection), which licenses mining under the Environmental Protection Act, took upstream and downstream water quality samples on 8 occasions between 23 February and 3 April 2012. They found levels of contamination in Jamie Creek below the mine for Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, Manganese, Nickel and Lead that variously exceeded:
- drinking water standards for humans by as much as 25 times for Arsenic & Cadmium;
- livestock drinking water standards for Cadmium,Copper and Manganese; and
- some locations even exceeded the safe levels of Arsenic and Cadmium for swimming at the time of sampling.
The mine manager door knocked people downstream on Jamie Creek through Watsonville after the spill and advised them that the creek was contaminated with Arsenic and Cadmium and unsafe to drink, a position definitely supported by the water quality test results. The results from April 3rd still exceed human drinking water standards for Arsenic and Cadmium at Watsonville.
However, the upstream results also revealed that the Arsenic drinking water standard for humans is 0ften exceeded in Jamie Creek, the Walsh River and even Collins Weir as a result of contamination from historic mining in the area, but nowhere near as badly as resulted from the Baal Gammon mine spill.
Kagara Ltd, who operate the Baal Gammon mine at Watsonville, closed the mine down on April 12th and laid off most of their local workforce and subcontractors. On Monday 30 April it was announced that Kagara, who also operate several other mines in the area, had gone into voluntary administration a week after trading in their shares was suspended.
On May 2nd Monto Minerals, the parent company of Baal Gammon Copper Pty Ltd who hold the mining lease and environmental authority for mining at the Baal Gammon mine, made a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange in which they state that Kagara are in default of their Mineral Rights Agreement to operate the mine on five matters.
The major concern arising from Monto’s statement to the ASX, given the spill and high risk of ongoing contamination of Jamie Creek and the Walsh River, is the apparent failure of Kagara to lodge a $3,750,572 financial assurance under the conditions of the environmental authority. This financial assurance is meant to be in place before any mining has occurred just in case, as has happened here, the miner goes bankrupt and is incapable of rehabilitating the site.
Baal Gammon Copper P/L may have some liability for site clean-up, but may also just be another shelf company with no real assets. This layered structure of ownership and responsibility may end up being of little comfort to:
- local residents whose water supply has been poisoned and now must fetch water in from elsewhere;
- the Traditional Owners who, on top of having a poisoned river, haven’t received any royalties under their Indigenous Land Use Agreement with the mining company to compensate for damage to their country; and
- any tradesmen and other local businesses owed money by Kagara.
The MRWMG has concerns about the long term impacts of the February spill on the downstream water quality of Jamie Creek, the Walsh River, Collins Weir and the water supplied to downstream irrigators producing export crops and to graziers producing export beef. We are also concerned at the potential for the heavy metals discharged to bioaccumulate in fish making them unsafe to eat.
With Kagara now under administration a major concern is who will be responsible for the maintenance of the site to minimise any further off-site discharges while the administrators attempt to find refinancing of Kagara or a new operator. All the environmental licences, notices under the Environmental Protection Act and financial sureties applied to Kagara are still in place to control activities on the site. Environmental Services officers will be identifying who is in control of the site and closely monitoring it to ensure that any necessary works are carried out to prevent any further discharges.
The MRWMG has unsuccessfully sought funding in the past to study the impacts of old mine sites in the catchment and establish mine rehabilitation programs that minimize any impacts from them. The Baal Gammon mine is just one of many such sites in the Watsonville / Irvinebank area that need remediation. The problems, both operational and financial, with the Kagara project could unfortunately put it back on the list of abandoned mines with even more problems than before.
MRWMG will be working with the EPA, the company and the community in an attempt to minimise any impacts.
Local residents are encouraged to contact the Mitchell River Watershed Management Group ((07) 4053 3471), Environmental Services ((07) 4222 5334) and their local MPs if they have any further concerns or more discharges occur. CAFNEC has supported the MRWMG and written to the relevant ministers seeking a response to these concerns.
By Brynn Matthew, Mitchell River Watershed Management Group