How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



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The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The world’s coral reefs are in trouble, but don’t give up on them yet


Terry Hughes, James Cook University and Joshua Cinner, James Cook University

The world’s coral reefs are undoubtedly in deep trouble. But as we and our colleagues argue in a review published today in Nature, we shouldn’t give up hope for coral reefs, despite the pervasive doom and gloom.

Instead, we have to accept that coral reefs around the world are transforming rapidly into a newly emerging ecosystem unlike anything humans have experienced before. Realistically, we can no longer expect to conserve, maintain, preserve or restore coral reefs as they used to be.

This is a confronting message. But it also focuses attention on what we need to do to secure a realistic future for reefs, and to retain the food security and other benefits they provide to society.

The past three years have been the warmest on record, and many coral reefs throughout the tropics have suffered one or more bouts of bleaching during prolonged underwater heatwaves.

A bleached coral doesn’t necessarily die. But in 2016, two-thirds of corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef did die in just six months, as a result of unprecedented heat stress. This year the bleaching happened again, this time mainly on the middle section of the reef.

Reefs are being degraded by global pressures, not just local ones.
Terry Hughes, Author provided

In both years, the southern third of the reef escaped with little or no bleaching, because it was cooler. So bleaching is patchy and it varies in severity, depending partly on where the water is hottest each summer, and on regional differences in the rate of warming. Consequently some regions, reefs, or even local sites within reefs, can escape damage even during a global heatwave.

Moderate bleaching events are also highly selective, affecting some coral species and individual colonies more than others, creating winners and losers. Coral species also differ in their capacity to reproduce, disperse as larvae, and to rebound afterwards.

This natural variability offers hope for the future, and represents different sources of resilience. Surviving corals will continue to produce billions of larvae each year, and their genetic makeup will evolve under intense natural selection.

In response to fishing, coastal development, pollution and four bouts of bleaching in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017, the Great Barrier Reef is already a highly altered ecosystem, and it will change even more in the coming decades. Although reefs will be different in future, they could still be perfectly functional in centuries to come – capable of sustaining ecological processes and regenerating themselves. But this will only be possible if we act quickly to curb climate change.

The Paris climate agreement provides the key framework for avoiding very dangerous levels of global warming. Its 1.5℃ and 2℃ targets refer to increases in global average land and sea temperatures, relative to pre-industrial times. For most shallow tropical oceans, where temperatures are rising more slowly than the global average, that translates to 0.5℃ of further warming by the end of this century – slightly less than the amount of warming that coral reefs have already experienced since industrialisation began.

If we can improve the management of reefs to help them run this climate gauntlet, then reefs should survive. Reefs of the future will have a different mix of species, but they should nonetheless retain their aesthetic values, and support tourism and fishing. However, this cautious optimism is entirely contingent on steering global greenhouse emissions away from their current trajectory, which could see annual bleaching of corals occurring in most tropical locations by 2050. There is no time to lose before this narrowing window of opportunity closes.

A crisis of governance

Reef governance is failing because it is largely set up to manage local threats, such as overfishing and pollution. In Australia, when the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was set up in 1976, the objective of managing threats at the scale of (almost) the entire Great Barrier Reef was revolutionary. But today, the scale of threats is global: market pressures for Australian reef fish now come from overseas; port dredging and shipping across the reef are spurred on by fossil fuel exports to Asia; a housing crisis in the United States can batter reef tourism half a world away; and record breaking marine heatwaves due to global warming can kill even the most highly protected and remote corals.

Increasingly, coral reef researchers are turning to the social sciences, not just biology, in search of solutions. We need better governance that addresses both local and larger-scale threats to coral reef degradation, rather than band-aid measures such as culling starfish that eat corals.

In many tropical countries, the root causes of reef degradation include poverty, increasing market pressures from globalisation, and of course the extra impacts of global warming. Yet these global issues desperately need more attention at just the time when some governments are reducing foreign aid, failing to address global climate change, and in the case of Australia and the US, trying to resuscitate the dying fossil fuel industry with subsidies for economically unviable projects.

Effective reef governance will not only require increased cooperation among nations to tackle global issues, as in the case of the Paris climate deal, but will also require policy coordination at the national level to ensure that domestic action matches and supports these larger-scale goals.

The ConversationQuite simply, we can’t expect to have thriving coral reefs in the future as well as new coal mines – policies to promote both are incompatible.

Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University, James Cook University and Joshua Cinner, Professor & ARC Future Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence, Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.