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It’s not a good policy to cut ‘green paper’

The Morrison government has long sought to reduce green regulations, claiming that excessive environmental regulations unfairly hinder businesses.

This is not the case. In the 30 years I’ve spent researching water pollution, I haven’t seen “green tape” translate into an effective environmental regulation for industry. I have yet to witness a coal mine that is effectively regulated following approval through the NSW and federal environment assessment processes.

Five examples of how environmental regulations are not doing enough to stop pollution and toxic chemicals entering the environment.

Closed mines continue to pollute decades after they are completed.

My research into water pollution in Sydney basin coal mines consistently reveals an inadequate level of environmental regulation. I have repeatedly exposed long-standing issues that the industry is not learning from, like pollution continuously leaching from closed and active mines.

Read more: What should we do with Australia’s 50,000 abandoned mines?

As part of my PhD research in 2002/3, I studied Canyon Colliery – a coal mine deep in the Blue Mountains that closed in 1997. The mine constantly releases large volumes of toxic zinc and nickel-contaminated water from the flooded underground workings into an otherwise pristine mountain stream.

This has caused significant ecological damage to the Grose River.

Blue Mountains National Park: Contaminated water washing from the canyon mine. Ian Wright is the author.

The mining has stopped for 23 years, but pollution is still a problem. This is a testament to the ineffective and weak environmental regulations. It will likely last for centuries.

The Canyon Mine is one of the thousands of abandoned, contaminated mining and industrial sites scattered around Australia that lack environmental controls.

Wollangambe River

Environmental regulations have become stricter in the past 25 years, thanks to legislation introduced by the Howard Government in 1999 and NSW’s Protection of the Environment Operations Act, which was introduced in 1997.

Many new mines, which cause environmental damage, have been approved despite the law.

Clarence Colliery, an active coal mine in the Blue Mountains, has been the subject of research by my team from Western Sydney University.

The mine has caused severe pollution and environmental damage in the Wollangambe River, a World Heritage River. In 2017, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), based on our research, imposed more effective restrictions to limit the release of toxic pollution from the mine.

The author samples water from the contaminated Wollangambe River. The author provided

Our research revealed that despite approvals by both the NSW government and the federal government, no one was aware of the extent of the pollution caused by poorly treated mine wastes. The ecological condition of more than 20 km of the “protected river” Wollangambe was affected.

Centennial Coal owns Clarence Colliery. The Conversation asked for a comment. The company pointed us to their statement from 2017 when the EPA completed a five-year evaluation of Clarence’s Environmental Protection Licence. The company then said:

Clarence will now operate under a revised EPL that includes agreed reductions to metal concentration limits in all water discharged into the Wollangambe. The target for salinity will be 100 EC.

Clarence must also comply with a Pollution Reduction Programme, also issued by EPA. This will lead to Centennial formalizing its options to address water quality issues.

Georges River

In 2010, I submitted a document as part of an environmental assessment of BHP Billiton’s Bulli Seam Coal Mining Operations, now owned by South 32.

The reports that explained how the expanded operation would try to minimize or avoid environmental impacts were read in thousands of pages.

The mine extension has been approved. The mine extension was approved despite the “green-tape” obstacles. Our research revealed that the wastes from the mine were a source of pollutants that are harmful to the river life along the Georges River. The upper Georges River was polluted with salt, zinc, arsenic, and nickel.

The NSW EPA received my evidence from the case in which environmental groups sued the coal mining owner.

Since then, the EPA has worked to reduce the pollution coming from the mine.

Coal mining beneath Sydney’s water system

On March 16 this year, many were shocked when the NSW Government approved new coal mines, “longwalls,” directly beneath Woronora Reservoir. This reservoir is part of Sydney’s water supply.

Longwall mining is the removal of coal by continuous mechanical means in underground mines, which allows the roof to collapse after the coal has been removed.

What can they do with a river? Redbank Creek, 65 km southwest of Sydney, is a sad testament.

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Jane S. King

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