Coal mining could 'kill' Hunter River

John Wright has watched the health of the Hunter River deteriorate.
John Wright has watched the health of the Hunter River deteriorate.

The Hunter River will become nothing more than a dead drain if coal mines continue to expand upstream, killing off the farming sector and­ ­burgeoning tourism industry reliant on its life-giving waters, environ­mentalists claimed yesterday.

Hunter Environment Lobby ­president Jan Davis’ dire warning was echoed by Greens senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon and long-time Morpeth resident John Wright on the fourth anniversary of him raising fears of the river’s demise in a page one article in the Mercury.

Mr Wright stands by his criticism of the mines for ruining the river. 

“They’re ruining our Hunter Valley up there; you look at it, it’s like a moonscape up there, it’s become all about the dollar and no one cares about the river anymore,” Mr Wright said from his family’s Morpeth farm on the banks of the Hunter River.

“When I was a kid you could go for a swim and have a mouthful of water and it’d be OK because there was nothing wrong with it.” 

Mr Wright said there should be tighter ecological regulations on how the mining industry disposes of its water if the river’s health is to be restored. 

Ms Davis said the river’s health was deteriorating each year as water filled with chemicals and high levels of salt was extracted from coal mines and fed into the river system, killing vital organisms that keep the river alive.

With 30 proposals for coal mine expansions in the pipeline, she said the river faced a fate of no return where it would transform into an irreparable third-world drain.

Ms Davis was part of the Hunter River Management Committee - made up of government agencies and community groups - which investigated the health of the river between 1997 and 2002.

She said the changes in salinity were evident through the city’s agricultural pursuits, with many crops now unable to be grown because of the increase salinity. 

“There is so many turf farms near the river because the salinity doesn’t hurt them, but it makes lucerne and vegetable crops sick.”

Greens Senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon visited the city a year ago with concerns for the river’s health, calling for an inquiry into the impact of coal mining on the river as well as a regional water study but did not have support in the Senate. 

Environment Minister and Maitland MP Robyn Parker said the effect of mining and power operations on water quality in the Hunter River was strictly regulated and controlled by the Hunter River Salinity Trading Scheme (HRSTS) which has consistently met its salinity water targets over 10 years of operation. 

“The scheme is operated by the EPA with technical support provided by the Office of Water and State Water which monitor the salinity levels in the river from a number of gauging stations both within the river itself and at mine sites,” Ms Parker said.

“The scheme ensures that water quality is maintained by setting out procedures that only allow saline water discharges from industry in high flow and flood flow conditions when the salt levels can meet the upper, middle and lower river salinity targets for the river. These targets are set at 600EC [a standard measure of salinity] above Denman and 900 EC below Denman and Singleton.

“To ensure best practice of the scheme it is overseen by an independent advisory committee that also provides advice to the EPA on its ongoing operation. This committee includes representatives from industry, government and others with environmental interests.” 

Ms Davis said coal mines use large volumes of water to wash the coal and if more mines and expansions came online more water would be needed, posing a threat to the river.

She said water that washed the coal was recycled, but eventually it was released into the river at times of government-specified high flow which choked the organisms as it moved downstream.

“The pollution doesn’t just flow into the sea and disappear, it causes problems on its way and it doesn’t all flow out,” she said.