Acid leaks in unused mines unearthed

The eroding cliff face from an old alluvial mine in the Gladstone area.
The eroding cliff face from an old alluvial mine in the Gladstone area.

More than half of Tasmania's 381 abandoned mines contain rock that could potentially produce acid. Should more be done to clean up our past mining mistakes, or should the focus be on maintaining good practice? ALEX DRUCE reports.

A DEEP, jagged gully is cut into the hillside above the town of Royal George.

It was once the site of an open-cut tin mine, and though it has not been operational for 80 years, it is the reason why a communal water tank sits in the remote Northern Midlands town, 20 kilometres south-east of Avoca.

The Royal George mine is one of 215 abandoned sites in Tasmania identified as a source of acid-producing rock, which can see heavy metals leach into local rivers and streams.

Heavy metal contamination has affected the drinking water in several mining towns in the state's North-East and North-West.

A public health warning was issued for Rosebery last year after testing detected lead in the drinking water, and residents of Avoca, Whitemark and Pioneer are currently bound by "do not consume" warnings from the Health and Human Services Department.

Monash University environmental engineering senior lecturer Dr Gavin Mudd described acid mine drainage as the toxic legacy of a bygone era, when mining practices were less scrutinised.

But after inspecting some of Tasmania's abandoned mines for himself in the past week, the national director of the Mineral Policy Institute called for such sites to be rehabilitated.

Dr Mudd and lobbyist Isla MacGregor, of the Tasmanian Public Health Network, visited a number of disused mines in the North-West, including Queenstown, Zeehan, Rosebery and Corinna, as well as old tin mines in the North-East such as Gladstone, Rossarden, Storeys Creek and Royal George.

Dr Mudd said the trademarks of acid mine drainage were clear during his trip: russet-coloured water and rocks, sparse vegetation and the absence of basic aquatic wildlife.

"We're looking at a number of biological deserts," he said. "There's no doubt that acid mine drainage has affected and continues to affect a lot of these sites, their surrounding ecosystems and the nearby waterways."

In 1994 the Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources established the Abandoned Mines Rehabilitation Trust Fund to help regenerate land affected by mining or exploration.

In 2011-2012, the fund spent $150,000, with a particular focus on Royal George, as well as shaft capping to improve public safety throughout the state.

DIER told the ABC last year that total expenditure for 2012-2013 was expected to be $400,000, with a renewed focus on Zeehan and in the North-East.

Last week Minerals Council of Tasmania executive director Terry Long dismissed Dr Mudd's expedition as a "dismal tour" designed to bolster the case against new mines.

"People recognise that historical negative impacts of mining, such as acid drainage, are a product of their times and would not be repeated in modern society," he said.

"The (tour) should be rejected for what it is - pure ideologically inspired opposition to modern society."

But Ms MacGregor insisted that she and Dr Mudd were not against new mining.

"We just want to see proper regulation and transparency from government and the industry," she said. "We have nothing against mining if the proper care is taking place."

Dr Mudd said he would present his findings in an online report and at a forum in Hobart on May 3.

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