The extraordinary polluting and political powers of the coal industry

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Feature Story - 7 November, 2012
Coal companies may soon be allowed to release polluted water from their mines into Queensland’s rivers, such as the Fitzroy, the drinking water catchment of Rockhampton and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. That’s if the coal industry get their way.
Flood waters meandering down the Fitzroy River en route to the Great Barrier Reef.The greatest La Nina event in recorded history delivered record amounts of rain to North Eastern Queensland, Australia, causing near unprecedented flooding across much of the  state and flooded many of the Bowen and Fitzroy Basin's open cut coal mines.Millions of litres of flood water from tailing dames was discharged into nearby river systems that sent thousands of tonnes of sediments and toxic sludge onto the Great Barrier Reef creating toxic blooms that stretched hundred of kilometers across pristine heritage listed waters that were visible in NASA satellite imagery.The discharges leave much of the effected area vulnerable to coral bleaching and threaten not only the reef's health but place in jeopardy a multi million tourism industry vital the the states and Nations economy.© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace

Last week, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman told Queensland Parliament “the government will not do anything to in any way degrade the feed water coming down the Fitzroy for their water supply. We will not do that.”[1] The same day, Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney introduced new laws that would do just that.[2]

On Monday, Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell told the media they had the wrong end of the stick –new laws would not allow coal companies to release their old flood water.

Today, we reveal that’s not the case.

There are 280,000 megalitres of polluted water sitting in coal mine pits in central Queensland, left there from heavy rain seasons in the last few years[3]. That’s the equivalent of 100,000 Olympic swimming pools of water. Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney has introduced legislation that will allow coal companies to get an exemption from their pollution limits and dump this polluted water into Queensland’s rivers. The laws will also give the environmental protection agency just 24 hours to respond after a coal company asks to release its polluted water, and no opportunity for the public to challenge.

Flood waters mixing with ocean water on the Great Barrier Reef off Rockhampton and stretching north to the Whitsunday Passage.The greatest La Nina event in recorded history delivered record amounts of rain to North Eastern Queensland. Causing near unprecedented flooding across much of the state and immersed many of the Bowen and Fitzroy Basin's open cut coal mines in water. Millions of litres of flood water from tailings dams were discharged into the nearby river systems, that in turn sent thousands of tonnes of sediment and toxic sludge into the Great Barrier Reef creating toxic blooms that stretched hundreds of kilometres across pristine UNESCO World Heritage listed waters. Visible in NASA satellite imagery, these discharges leave much of the effected area vulnerable to coral bleaching and threaten not only the reef's health but place in jeopardy a multi million dollar tourism industry vital the state s and Nation s economy.If the Great Barrier Reef sees a major coral bleaching event over the next year the whole ecosystem could spiral into decay leaving this tropical paradise, the world s biggest reef and delicate ecological treasure as an underwater graveyard.© Dean Sewell / Greenpeace

Over the past two years, rather than treating the polluted water so that it is safe for people and the environment, the coal industry has lobbied the Queensland Government to overturn environmental protection laws to give them a cheap and easy way out of their problems.

If these laws go ahead, water sitting in the bottom of coal mines which has accumulated toxins, including salt and metals, could be sent down river to graziers, towns, the city of Rockhampton and the Great Barrier Reef[4].

The laws do not limit these powers to emergency situations – so there’s nothing to stop the companies and the Queensland Government using them to wash this dirty water off their hands, into the drinking water catchment of Rockhampton and ultimately into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

On 17 October 2012, Environment Minister Andrew Powell admitted he is "approached on a daily basis” by coal mining companies wanting to release water.[5] In just a few weeks, powers to let them do that might be law in Queensland.

The Queensland Government has heard loud and clear what the coal industry wants. It’s time they hear what Australians want – protection for our drinking water, our river systems and the Great Barrier Reef.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Premier Newman to safeguard our drinking water and the Great Barrier Reef from dirty coal water.


[1] Campbell Newman. Answer to Questions Without Notice, Queensland Parliament Hansard. 1 November 2012.

[2] Economic Development Bill 2012. See pages 151-155.  

[3] Andrew Powell, Queensland Minister for Environment on 12 October during Budget Estimates hearing. “There are 16 coalmines with some 280,000 megalitres of water in total that is preventing them from operating at their full capacity.” (Source: http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/hansard/2012/2012_10_12_Estimates.pdf page 82)

[4] For the chemical composition of the water in the bottom of the Ensham mine, for example, which has been trapped for more than three years, see Hart (2008) Review of the Fitzroy River Water Quality: Report to the Queensland Premier. Issues http://www.fitzroyriver.qld.gov.au/pdf/fitzroyriverwaterqualityreport.pdf

[5] “State stands up to pressure from mines over stored water.” Rockhampton Morning Bulletin. 17 October 2012 http://www.themorningbulletin.com.au/news/miners-pressure-over-stored-water/1585504/

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