Queensland river poisoned by pollution from mothballed mine
Pollution from an old mine has made a northern Queensland major river into a toxic contamination zone, with the State Government warning residents not to drink, swim or use the water.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: While much of eastern Australia is in the grip of a drought, a community in far north Queensland is also struggling to water stock and grow their crops – but not because of the big dry.
7.30 can reveal that astronomical levels of heavy metals and highly acidic mine water have leeched into a local creek. The source is a derelict copper mine.
The contamination is so bad that the Queensland Government is worried about the impact on people using water from the river.
STEVE MURRAY: You have got the most beautiful natural resource right on your doorstep. And a lot of people do call it “paradise”. I have got some friends that come up here and they don’t want to go.
MARK WILLACY, REPORTER: For Steve Murray and his wife Alexis Alexandrou, their slice of paradise on the Walsh River has sustained their family, their crops and their livestock for more than a dozen years.
But a few months ago, a letter arrived from Queensland’s Department of Environment.
STEVE MURRAY: We have been told not to use the water for recreational use, for animals. Definitely don’t drink it.
How many people are drinking the water that don’t know it is contaminated?
MARK WILLACY: And this, according to the State Government, is the source of the contamination. The Baal Gammon mine, two hours’ drive south-west of Cairns, once produced copper, silver and tin.
First mined in the 1930s, it was shut down a few years ago and mothballed. But its giant pit remains an open sore on the landscape, one that for many years has been weeping a cocktail of acid and heavy metals into Jamie Creek right next door.
The contamination from the Baal Gammon mine comes down Jamie Creek to here, the Walsh River. Now, that is a problem because this river supports livestock, it supports agriculture and people drink its waters.
Recent government testing has found that people who do drink from this river could be what it calls “adversely affected by heavy metal contamination”.
GAVIN MUDD, PROF., ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER, RMIT: The levels we see in the discharged waters coming from Baal Gammon are astronomical.
For me, the contaminants of real concern are aluminium, copper; zinc as well and cadmium.
We know aluminium is implicated in things like Alzheimer’s. Cadmium is also a neurotoxin, so it affects the brain.
MARK WILLACY: The Queensland Government is so concerned by the contamination of waterways here, it has issued an Environmental Protection Order to the owner of the mine to stop any further releases of polluted water; and the Environment Department is now investigating alleged non-compliance with that order.
DAVID CRISAFULLI, QLD ENVIRONMENT SPOKESMAN: It has been nearly six months since those tests. There should be: warning bells have been sounded. People should know about it and we should be taking action.
DAVE DYER: When you see all the fish floating and now there is no life in the river, it’s very eerie. All the farmers without water; and here we have got beautiful, clear water and you can’t use it.
MARK WILLACY: Dave Dyer has lived and relied on the river for more than 30 years.
DAVE DYER: It is sort of unbelievable that you have got New South Wales, half of Queensland in drought: no water. Farmers doing it hard and walking off their land everywhere.
Here we are running a river that you can’t use.
MARK WILLACY: Dave Dyer no longer pumps water from the river for drinking or for his organic produce, which has been left to wither.
It is not just the people out on the Walsh River hit hard by this contamination. The hamlet of Watsonville is just downstream from the mine, on Jamie Creek.
(Mark Willacy walks on creek bed)
To my right, past that fence, is the mine. And this is the bed of Jamie Creek. During the wet season it runs like a torrent, but now in the dry, as you can see, what is left behind is an array of colours: yellows, oranges and reds. And scientists believe that is directly caused by the heavy metal contamination coming directly from that mine.
MARK WILLACY: From the air, you can see just how close the creek is to the mine and to its enormous flooded pit.
MARK WILLACY: Back down to earth, in the bed of the creek, you get a closer view of some of the contamination.
Further downstream, where the creek flows into the Walsh River, people complain of fish kills, choking sludge and a barren ecosystem.
DAVE DYER: I never thought the problem would have been this bad. No platypus, no birds down there, you know. You go 100 metres away from the river: wildlife everywhere. Go down near the river: it’s quiet.
CRYSTAL STONE: Don’t go in the water, though, all right?
MARK WILLACY: Crystal Stone was born here and she’s now raising her two daughters in Watsonville.
CRYSTAL STONE: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go for a swim?
(To Mark Willacy) We used to have families come down here and have birthday parties, gatherings, barbecues. You know, it’s really easily accessible with the road right here. You can just drive straight in, go swimming.
None of the locals come here anymore, just because of the contamination. Unfortunately some outsiders do come here, not aware of the contamination. And they’ll go swimming in there and probably let their dogs drink it.
MARK WILLACY: Like others here, Crystal Stone wants to know why more is not being done.
The Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, declined to be interviewed, citing an ongoing investigation.
The mine is owned by a company called Baal Gammon Copper. Its ultimate owner, Brisbane businessman Denis Reinhardt, took it over in 2016. His company was paid $1.8 million by the previous mineral rights holder to assume the mine’s liabilities.
GAVIN MUDD: The transfer of liabilities from one company to another is a very contentious area. And that’s something that, I think increasingly, people are saying: “Actually, no. We shouldn’t be transferring liabilities from one company to another until we know that either the rehabilitation is finished and the site is stable, or something like that.”
CRYSTAL STONE: It is not really a surprise. I can see why someone would get paid to take this mine. It is just been – the people that have tried to mine it in the past: it has just been
problem after problem after problem for them.
MARK WILLACY: In a statement to 7.30, Denis Reinhardt denies that his company has failed to conform with the Environmental Protection Order, saying it has taken “all reasonably practicable measures to ensure compliance,” adding there is “no longer a water seepage” into Jamie Creek from the mine.
The Government wants Baal Gammon Copper to pay an extra $2 million in environmental bonds, arguing the nearly $4 million it holds is not enough to fix the site. Mr Reinhardt won’t comment about this, saying the matter is the subject of a court case.
DAVID CRISAFULLI: If the operator doesn’t act, well, then it is up to the Government to act. And that money isn’t designed to be sitting in an account. It is there as a safety net to get in and do things.
MARK WILLACY: This isn’t the first time the Baal Gammon mine has leaked heavy metals into the waterways up here.
MARK WILLACY: Photos taken in 2012 by locals show dead fish and the creek and river running red and a murky dark brown.
The then owner and operator were later fined $200,000.
MARK WILLACY: Where are the grapes sourced from, Steve?
STEVE MURRAY: From France and Italy. They have got about a 50-year life span, but as you can see at the moment, they are not getting much attention because you can’t do anything, you know what I mean?
MARK WILLACY: You can’t water these with…?
STEVE MURRAY: We can’t water them, no.
MARK WILLACY (voiceover): Back at Steve Murray’s place on the Walsh River, he takes me for a stroll into his vineyard, an investment he ploughed tens of thousands into and one that is now withering on the vine.
(To Steve Murray) And it’s come all the way from Italy, France and it will die here?
STEVE MURRAY: That’s right. Yes. Just for fun.
MARK WILLACY: This beautiful spot was supposed to be this family’s dream home, but it has
become a poisoned paradise.
STEVE MURRAY: It is pretty devastating. You wonder how anyone can be allowed to do it, you know?
You have got all of that at your door and someone is allowed to just come along and basically throw a couple of buckets of poison in wherever you drink from.
I don’t think that is right anywhere in the world.
LEIGH SALES: That report from Mark Willacy and Alexandra Blucher of the ABC Investigative Unit.
And in a tragic postscript: one of the people interviewed for that story, Dave Dyer, was killed in a car accident this week. Our sympathies to his family.