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Increased Water Pollution After Closure of Australia’s Longest Operating Underground Coal Mine: a 13-Month Study of Mine Drainage, Water Chemistry and River Ecology


This study investigated the water pollution impact of mine drainage from an underground colliery that had stopped mining 3 years earlier. After more than a century of operation, the mining stopped, pumping ceased and groundwater accumulated, causing the flooding of the deepest sections (c. 15%) of the mine workings. The mine then began free-draining to the adjacent Wingecarribee River. The closure and flooding triggered acid mine drainage that has resulted in mildly acidic pH and higher concentrations of several metals. Of greatest environmental concern were ecologically hazardous concentrations of three metals: nickel (418 μg/L), zinc (1161 μg/L) and manganese (11,909 μg/L) in the mine drainage. Such concentrations are some of the highest concentrations reported for these metals in drainage from an Australian coal mine and are 2.5 to seven times higher than when the mine was operating. The concentration of nickel and manganese were stable, but zinc gradually declined throughout the 13-month study. The inflow of the drainage increased the concentration of the three metals in the river, causing exceedance of water quality guidelines for protection of aquatic species. The ecological impact of the mine drainage was substantial, causing a 63% reduction in family richness and a 90% reduction in proportion of invertebrates from the known pollution-sensitive orders (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera). Literature suggests the pollution could continue for decades. Of additional concern is that the mine drainage is currently untreated and pollutes a river in the water catchment of Australia’s largest domestic water supply reservoir.

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The research used research facilities of Western Sydney University and forms part of Nakia Belmer’s PhD research. Boral provided data on mine drainage and also helped with access to the mine drainage adit. The NSW Environment Protection Authority and NSW Division of Resources and Geoscience provided information on the mine closure process and regulation for coal mines before, during and after their closure. We are grateful for funding provided by Sustainable Southern Highlands Inc. Envirolab Services (Sydney) generously performed additional water testing. We thank Dr. Rob Mann (WSU) and Dr. Robert Niven (UNSW) for reviewing early manuscript drafts. Thanks to Ben Green and Paul Hammond for helping with fieldwork. Thanks also to Alison Ellis for drawing the map. We acknowledge and pay our respects to the traditional custodians of the land (Winge Karrabee) in which this study was conducted, the Dharug, Gundungurra, Tharawal and Yuin people and their elders, past and present.

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Correspondence to Ian A. Wright.

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Wright, I.A., Paciuszkiewicz, K. & Belmer, N. Increased Water Pollution After Closure of Australia’s Longest Operating Underground Coal Mine: a 13-Month Study of Mine Drainage, Water Chemistry and River Ecology. Water Air Soil Pollut 229, 55 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-018-3718-0

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  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Heavy metals
  • Recovery
  • Acid mine drainage
  • Mine closure