Waratah Rivulet is a
stream that is located just to the west of Helensburgh and flows
into the Woronora Dam from the south. Along with its tributaries, it
makes up about 29% of the Dam catchment. The Dam provides both the
Sutherland Shire and Helensburgh with drinking water. The Rivulet is
within the Sydney Catchment Authority managed Woronora Special Area.
There is no public access without the
permission of the SCA. Trespassers are liable to an $11,000 fine.
Longwall Mining under Waratah Rivulet
Metropolitan Colliery operates under the Woronora Special Area.
Excel Coal operated it until October 2006 when Peabody Energy, the
world’s largest coal mining corporation, purchased it. The method of
coal extraction is longwall mining.
Recent underground operations have taken place and still are taking
place directly below the Waratah Rivulet and its catchment area.
In 2005 the NSW Scientific Committee declared longwall mining to be
a key threatening process. The Waratah Rivulet was listed in the
declaration along with several other rivers and creeks as being
damaged by mining. No threat abatement plan was ever completed.
September 2006, conservation groups were informed that serious
damage to the Waratah Rivulet had taken place. Photographs were
provided and an inspection was organised through the SCA to take
place on the 24th of November.
On November 23rd, the Total Environment Centre met with Peabody
Energy at the mining company’s request. They had heard of our
forthcoming inspection and wanted to tell us about their operation
and future mining plans. Through a PowerPoint presentation they told
us we would be shocked by what we would see and that water had
drained from the Rivulet but was reappearing further downstream
closer to the dam.
The inspection took place on the 24th of November and was attended
by officers from the SCA and DEC, the Total Environment Centre,
Colong Foundation, Rivers SOS and two independent experts on upland
swamps and sandstone geology.
We walked the length of the Rivulet that flows over the longwall
panels. Although, similar waterways in the area are flowing
healthily, the riverbed was completely dry for much of its length.
The cracking of the sandstone streambed caused is typical of that
caused by longwall mining in the Southern Coalfield. The SCA
officers indicated that at one series of pools, water levels had
dropped about 3m. We were also told there is anecdotal evidence
suggesting the Rivulet has ceased to pass over places never
previously known to have stopped flowing.
The whole watercourse, where the coal has been extracted by the
longwall machine, has tilted to the east as a result of the
subsidence and upsidence. Rock ledges that were once flat now
sloped. Iron oxide pollution stains in the streambed were also
present. The SCA also told us that they did not know whether water
flows were returning further downstream. There was also evidence of
failed attempts at remediation with a distinctly different coloured
sand having washed out of cracks and now sitting on the dry river
bed or in pools.
Also undermined was Flat Rock Swamp at the southernmost extremity of
the longwall panels. It is believed to be the main source of water
recharge for the Waratah Rivulet. It is highly likely that the swamp
has also been damaged and is sitting on a tilt.
The longwall panels that have damaged the river are LW 8-13. These
pre-dated the new approvals process that came into force in 2004. A
Subsidence Management Plan for LW 14-17 was recently approved by the
DPI and LW 14 is currently being mined. The SMP states that land
above LW 8-13 had subsided about 1.3m on average and that there has
been no significant impact upon net flow or water quality.
TEC has applied under FOI legislation to the SCA for documents that
refer to the damage to the Waratah Rivulet.
the meeting with Peabody on 23rd November, the company stated its
intentions sometime in 2007 to submit a 3A application under the
Environmental Planning &Assessment Act 1974 to extract a further 27
longwall panels that will run under the Rivulet and finish under the
Woronora Dam storage area.
This is very alarming given the damage that has already occurred to
a catchment that provides the Sutherland Shire & Helensburgh with
29% of their drinking water. The dry bed of Waratah Rivulet above
the mining area and the stain of iron oxide pollution may be seen
clearly through Google Earth.
The Bigger Picture
In 2005 Rivers SOS, a coalition of 30 groups, formed with the aim of
campaigning for the NSW Government to mandate a safety zone of at
least 1km around rivers and creeks threatened by mining in NSW.
The peak environment groups of NSW endorse this position and it
forms part of their election policy document.
Longwall Mining under or close to Rivers and Streams
Seven major rivers and numerous creeks in NSW have been permanently
damaged by mining operations, which have been allowed to go too
close to, or under, riverbeds. Some rivers are used as channels for
saline and acid wastewater pumped out from mines.
Many more are under threat. The Minister for Primary Industries, Ian
Macdonald, is continuing to approve operations with the Department
of Planning and DEC also involved in the process, as are a range of
agencies (EPA, Fisheries, DIPNR, SCA, etc.) on an Interagency Review
Committee. This group gives recommendations concerning underground
mine plans to Ian Macdonald, but has no further say in his final
decision. A document recently obtained under FOI by Rivers SOS shows
that an independent consultant to the Interagency Committee
recommended that mining come no closer than 350m to the Cataract
River, yet the Minister approved mining to come within 60m.
The damage involves multiple cracking of river bedrock, ranging from
hairline cracks to cracks up to several centimetres wide, causing
water loss and pollution as ecotoxic chemicals are leached from the
fractured rocks. Aquifers may often be breached. Satisfactory
remediation is not possible. In addition, rockfalls along mined
river gorges are frequent.
The high price of coal and the royalties gained from expanding mines
are making it all too tempting for the Iemma Government to
compromise the integrity of our water catchments and sacrifice
Longwall Mining in the Catchments
Longwall coal mining is taking place across the catchment areas
south of Sydney and is also proposed in the Wyong catchment.
A story in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2005 stated that the
SCA were developing a policy for longwall coal mining within the
catchments that would be ready by the middle of that year. This
policy is yet to materialise.
The SMP approvals process invariably promises remediation and
further monitoring. But damage to rivers continues and applications
to mine are approved with little or no significant conditions placed
upon the licence. Remediation involves grouting some cracks but
cannot cover all of the cracks, many of which go undetected, in
areas where the riverbed is sandy for example. Sometimes the grout
simply washes out of the crack, as is the case in the Waratah
The SCA was established as a result of the 1998 Sydney water crisis.
Justice Peter McClellan, who led the subsequent inquiry, determined
that a separate catchment management authority with teeth should be
created because, as he said “someone should wake up in the morning
owning the issue” of adequate management.
An audit of the SCA and the catchments in 1999 found multiple
problems including understaffing, the need to interact with so many
State agencies, and enormous pressure from developers.
Developers in the catchments include mining companies. In spite of
government policies such as SEPP 58, stating that development in
catchments should have only a “neutral or beneficial effect” on
water quality, longwall coal mining in the catchments have been, and
are being, approved by the NSW government. Overidden by the Mining
Act 1992, the SCA appears powerless to halt the damage to Sydney’s