Skip to main content

Legacy Contamination of River Sediments from Four Decades of Coal Mine Effluent Inhibits Ecological Recovery of a Polluted World Heritage Area River

Abstract

A revised environmental licence that authorises the disposal of coal mine effluent has reduced the severity and spatial extent of water pollution and associated ecological impairment of a high conservation-value river flowing into and within the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. This study investigated water quality and the ecological condition of the Wollangambe River above and below a colliery effluent outfall and assessed the longitudinal impact 22 km downstream. Results are compared to a previous study conducted in 2012/2013 when the environmental licence allowed hazardous pollutant discharges (zinc, nickel) from the colliery. The current study revealed that water quality and river sediment at sampling sites in close proximity (< 2 km) to the effluent outfall continues to contribute ecologically hazardous concentrations of metals and river macroinvertebrates reflect diminished ecological health. However, further downstream monitoring has revealed a significant improvement in ecological condition that can be directly attributed to the revised pollution licence. We hypothesise that the ecological recovery of the most contaminated reaches of the river that lies proximate to the discharge point is constrained by four decades of accumulated zinc and nickel within river sediments. Nickel (978 mg/kg) and zinc (2080 mg/kg) exceeded ecosystem protection guidelines by 45 and 10 times, respectively. The study highlights the importance of appropriate and site-specific environmental licencing to protect riverine ecosystems of conservation significance from long-term contamination.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

Data Availability

Data will be provided on request to the corresponding author.

Code Availability

Not applicable.

References

  • ANZECC (Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council) (2000) Australian and New Zealand guidelines for fresh and marine waters. Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council.

  • ANZECC (Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council) (2019) Toxicant default guideline values for sediment quality. https://www.waterquality.gov.au/anz-guidelines/guideline-values/default/sediment-quality-toxicants. Accessed 12 December 2021.

  • Australian Government (1998) The Greater Blue Mountains area: World Heritage nomination. https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/50d276f9-337f-4d9f-85f5-120ded99fc85/files/gbm-nomination.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Australian Government (2021) The World Heritage Convention. https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/about/world/world-heritage-convention. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • APHA (American Public Health Association) (1998).Standard Methods for the examination of water and wastewater. 20th edition. American Public Health Association.

  • Battaglia, M., Hose, G. C., Turak, E., & Warden, B. (2005). Depauperate macroinvertebrates in a mine affected stream: Clean water may be the key to recovery. Environmental Pollution, 138, 132–141.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Belmer, N., Tippler, C., Davies, P.J., & Wright, I.A. (2014). Impact of a coal mine waste discharge on water quality and aquatic ecosystems in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, in Viets, G; Rutherfurd, I.D, and Hughes, R. (editors), Proceedings of the 7th Australian Stream Management Conference, Townsville, Queensland, Pages 385-391. https://asnevents.s3.amazonaws.com/Abstrakt-FullPaper/11658-7ASM-67%20Belmer.pdf. Accessed 30 Dec 2021.

  • Belmer, N., Paciuszkiewicz, K., & Wright, I.A. (2019). Regulated coal mine wastewater contaminants accumulating in an aquatic predatory beetle (Macrogyrus rivularis): Wollangambe River, Blue Mountains New South Wales Australia. American Journal of Water Science and Engineering, 5(2), 76–87.

  • Belmer, N., & Wright, I.A. (2020). The regulation and impact of eight Australian coal mine waste-water discharges on downstream river water quality: A regional comparison of active versus closed mines. Water and Environment Journal, 34, 350–363.

  • Belmer, N., & Wright, I.A. (2021). Grading coal mine wastewater impacts to aquatic ecosystems, measured through a new Macroinvertebrate Diagnostic Biotic Index, Accepted June 2021, Proceedings of the 10th Australian Stream Management Conference, Kingscliff, New South Wales.

  • Birch, G., Siaka, M., & Owens, C. (2001). The source of anthropogenic heavy metals in fluvial sediments of a rural catchment: Coxs River, Australia. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 126, 13˗35.

  • Brake, S. S., Connors, K. A., & Romberger, S. B. (2001). A river runs through it: Impact of acid mine drainage on the geochemistry of West Little Sugar Creek pre- and post-reclamation at the Green Valley coal mine, Indiana, USA. Environmental Geology, 40, 1471–1481.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Centennial Coal (2021) Clarence Colliery. Environmental Monitoring Reports. https://www.centennialcoal.com.au/operations/clarence/. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Chessman, B. C. (1995). Rapid assessment of rivers using macroinvertebrates: A procedure based on habitat-specific sampling, family level identification and a biotic index. Australian Journal of Ecology, 20, 122–129.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chessman, B. C., & McEvoy, P. (1998). Towards diagnostic biotic indices for river macroinvertebrates. Hydrobiologia, 364, 169–182.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarke, K. R. (1993). Non-parametric multivariate analyses of changes in community structure. Australian Journal of Ecology, 18, 117–143.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, D. (2002). Best practice mine water management at a coal mine operation in the Blue Mountains. Masters of Engineering (Honours) thesis, University of Western Sydney, Penrith. https://researchdirect.westernsydney.edu.au/islandora/object/uws:430. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Clements, W. H., Carlisle, D. M., Lazorchak, J. M., & Johnson, P. C. (2000). Heavy metals structure benthic communities in Colorado Mountain streams. Ecological Applications, 10, 626–638.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clements, W. H., Cadmus, P., & Brinkman, S. F. (2013). Responses of aquatic insects to Cu and Zn in stream microcosms: Understanding differences between single species tests and field responses. Environmental Science & Technology, 47, 7506–7513.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Cheam, V., Reynoldson, T., Garbai, G., Rajkumar, J., & Milani D. (2000). Local impacts of coal mines and power plants across Canada. II. Metals, Organics and Toxicity in Sediments. Water Quality Research Journal, 35 (4), 609–632. https://doi.org/10.2166/wqrj.2000.035

  • Consani, S., Carbone, C., Dinelli, E., et al. (2017). Metal transport and remobilisation in a basin affected by acid mine drainage: The role of ochreous amorphous precipitates. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 24, 15735–15747.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Corkum, L. D. (1989). Patterns of benthic invertebrate assemblages in rivers of north western North America. Freshwater Biology, 21, 191–205.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cremin, A. (1989). The growth of an industrial valley: Lithgow, New South Wales. Australian Historical Archaeology, 7, 35–42.

    Google Scholar 

  • Durand, J. F., Meeuvis, J., & Fourie, M. (2010). The threat of mine effluent to the UNESCO status of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, 6, 73–92.

    Google Scholar 

  • EPA (NSW Environment Protection Authority) (2013). Using environment protection licencing to control water pollution. EPA Licencing fact sheet. EPA 2013/0119. https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/-/media/epa/corporate-site/resources/epa/130119eplswater.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • EPA (NSW Environment Protection Authority) (2015). Clarence Colliery. https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/licensing-and-regulation/licensing/environment-protection-licences/licensing-under-poeo-act-1997/variations-to-ep-licences-under-s8-of-poeo/clarence-colliery. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • EPA (NSW Environment Protection Authority) (2021). NSW Environment Protection Authority. EPL 726. Notices and Licences. https://app.epa.nsw.gov.au/prpoeoapp/SearchResult.aspx?SearchTag=licence&searchrange=licence&range=licence. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Daniels, W. L., Zipper, C. E., Orndorff, Z. W., Skousen, J., Barton, C. D., McDonald, L. M., & Becka, M. A. (2016). Predicting total dissolved solids release from central Appalachian coal mine spoils. Environmental Pollution, 216, 371–379.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Fairweather, P. G. (1990). Sewage and the biota on seashores: Assessment of impact in relation to natural variability. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 14, 197–210.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • García-Criado, F., Tomé, A., Vega, F. J., & Antolín, C. (1999). Performance of some diversity and biotic indices in rivers affected by coal mining in northwestern Spain. Hydrobiologia, 394, 209–217.

    Google Scholar 

  • Godfree, R.C., Knerr, N., Encinas-Viso, F. et al. (2021). Implications of the 2019–2020 megafires for the biogeography and conservation of Australian vegetation. Nature Communications 12, 1023. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21266-5

  • Graham, K., & Wright, I. A. (2012). The potential and reality of the environment protection licensing system in NSW: The case of water pollution. Environmental Planning and Law Journal, 29, 359–372.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, D. P., & Harding, J. S. (2012). Acid mine drainage index (AMDI): A benthic invertebrate biotic index for assessing coal mining impacts in New Zealand streams. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 46, 335–352.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Harrison, J., Heijnis, H., & Caprarelli, G. (2003). Historical pollution variability from abandoned mine sites, Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, New South Wales, Australia. Environmental Geology, 43, 680–687.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Hawking, J.H. (2000). A preliminary guide to keys and zoological information to identify invertebrates from Australian freshwaters. Identification Guide No. 2 (2nd Edition), Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology.

  • Herbst, D. B., Medhurst, R. B., & Black, N. J. B. (2018). Long-term effects and recovery of streams from acid mine drainage and evaluation of toxic metal threshold ranges for macroinvertebrate community reassembly. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 37, 2575–592.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Hickey, C. W., & Clements, W. H. (1998). Effects of heavy metals on benthic macroinvertebrate communities in New Zealand streams. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 17, 2338–2346.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • IUCN (2020) Greater Blue Mountains Area 2020 World Heritage Area Conservation Outlook Assessment. https://worldheritageoutlook.iucn.org/explore-sites/wdpaid/220294. Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Iwasaki, Y., Kagaya, T., Miyamoto, K.-I., Matsuda, H., & Sakakibara, M. (2011). Effect of zinc on diversity of riverine benthic macroinvertebrates: Estimation of safe concentrations from field data. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 30, 2237–2243.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Ji, H., Li, H., Zhang, Y., et al. (2018). Distribution and risk assessment of heavy metals in overlying water, porewater, and sediments of Yongding River in a coal mine brownfield. Journal of Soils and Sediments, 18, 624–639.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Judell, T.L., & Anderson, J.D.C. (1988). Investigations into the predictability of volumes and characteristics of mine waters in coal seams of the Sydney Basin. 3rd International Mine Water Congress October 1988, Melbourne Australia. http://imwa.de/docs/imwa_1988/IMWA1988_Judell_319.pdf. Accessed 30 Dec 2021.

  • Lenat, D. R., & Penrose, D. L. (1996). History of the EPT taxa richness metric. Bulletin of the North American Benthological Society, 13, 305–307.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lorenzelli, P., Wright, I.A., & Davies, P. (2018). What happens to the stream when the coal mine closes – A cautionary tale for legislation, licencing and best practice. Proceedings of the 9th Australian Stream Management Conference, 12-15 August 2018. Available at: https://asnevents.s3.amazonaws.com/Abstrakt-FullPaper/51697/9asm+final+submission+phillip+Lorenzelli.pdf. Accessed 30 Dec 2021.

  • Lidman, J., M. Jonsson, and Å.M.M Berglund (2020). The effect of lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn) contamination on aquatic insect community composition and metamorphosis. Science of the Total Environment 734 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139406

  • Macqueen, A. (1997) Back from the brink: Blue Gum forest and the Grose Wilderness. Self-published. Second Edition. ISBN: 0646319019.

  • Merovich, G. T., Stiles, J. M., Petty, J. T., Ziemkiewicz, P. F., & Fulton, J. B. (2007). Water chemistry-based classification of streams and implications for restoring mined Appalachian watersheds. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 26, 1361–9.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Merriam, E. R., Petty, J. T., Merovich, G. T., Jr., Fulton, J. B., & Strager, M. P. (2011). Additive effects of mining and residential development on stream conditions in a central Appalachian watershed. Journal of the North American Benthological Society, 30, 399–418.

    Google Scholar 

  • Metzeling, L., Perriss, S., & Robinson, D. (2006). Can the detection of salinity and habitat simplification gradients using rapid bioassessment of benthic invertebrates be improved through finer taxonomic resolution or alternatives indices? Hydrobiologia, 572, 235–252.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mudd, G. M. (2009). The sustainability of mining in Australia: Key production trends and their environmental implications for the future. Research Report No RR5, Department of Civil Engineering, Monash University and Mineral Policy Institute. http://users.monash.edu.au/~gmudd/files/SustMining-Aust-Report-2009-Master.pdfAccessed 5 July 2021

  • NSW OEH (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage) (2015) Canyon Colliery Discharge Investigation. https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/-/media/epa/corporate-site/resources/licensing/150171-clarence-colliery-dischargeinvestigation.pdf?la=en&hash=02C6CF78145CF0B6FE5169F1BAE258B8F8B0E5B3 Accessed 6 July 2021.

  • Plafkin, J. L., Barbour, M. T., Porter, K. D., Grosse, S. K., & Hughes, R. M. (1989). Rapid bioassessment protocols for use in streams and rivers: Benthic macroinvertebrates and fish. United States Environmental Protection Agency.

    Google Scholar 

  • Price, P., & Wright, I. A. (2016). Water quality impact from the discharge of coal mine wastes to receiving streams: Comparison of impacts from an active mine with a closed mine. Water, Air and Soil Pollution,. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-016-2854-7

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pringle, C. M. (2001). Hydrologic connectivity and the management of biological reserves: A global perspective. Ecological Applications, 11, 981–998.

    Google Scholar 

  • Resh, V. H., & Jackson, J. K. (1993). Rapid assessment approaches to biomonitoring using benthic macroinvertebrates. In D. M. Winter & V. H. Resh (Eds.), Freshwater Biomonitoring and Benthic Macroinvertebrates (pp. 195–223). Chapman & Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Resongles, E., Casiot, C., Freydier, R., Dezileau, L., Viers, J., & Elbaz-Poulichet, F. (2014). Persisting impact of historical mining activity to metal (Pb, Zn, Cd, Tl, Hg) and metalloid (As, Sb) enrichment in sediments of the Gardon River, Southern France. The Science of the Total Environment, 481, 509–21.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Rich, S. (2016). Troubled water: An examination of the NPDES permit shield. Pace Environmental Law Review. 33(2 Winter 2016), 3.

  • Rosenberg, D.M., & Resh, V.H. (1993) Freshwater biomonitoring and benthic macroinvertebrates. Chapman & Hall.

  • Saunders, K. M., Harrison, J. J., Butler, E. C. V., Hodgson, D. A., & McMinn, A. (2013). Recent environmental change and trace metal pollution in World Heritage Bathurst Harbour, Southwest Tasmania, Australia. Journal of Paleolimnology, 50, 471–485.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shikazono, N., Zakir, H. M., & Sudo, Y. (2008). Zinc contamination in river water and sediments at Taisyu Zn–Pb mine area, Tsushima Island Japan. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, 98(3), 80–88.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Skousen, J. G., Ziemkiewicz, P. F., & McDonald, L. M. (2019). Acid mine drainage formation, control and treatment: Approaches and strategies. The Extractive Industries and Society, 6, 241–249.

    Google Scholar 

  • IBM Corporation (2017). IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 25.0. Armonk, NY: IBM Corp.

  • Strosnider, W. H. J., Hugo, J., Shepherd, N. L., HolzbauerSchweitzer, B. K., Hervé-Fernández, P., Wolkersdorfer, C., & Nairn, R. W. (2020). A snapshot of coal mine drainage discharge limits for conductivity, sulfate, and manganese across the developed world. Mine Water and the Environment, 39, 165–172.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • UNESCO (2021a) Greater Blue Mountains Area. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/917/. Accessed 12 December 2021.

  • UNESCO (2021b). Fossil hominid sites of South Africa, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. https://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/4228. Accessed 12 December 2021.

  • UNESCO (2021c) Tasmanian wilderness, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. https://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/4128. Accessed 12 December 2021.

  • UNESCO (2021d) The World Heritage Convention. https://whc.unesco.org/en/convention/. Accessed 30 Dec 2021.

  • Victoria EPA (2009). Industrial waste resource guidelines: Sampling and analysis of waters, wastewater, soils and wastes. https://www.epa.vic.gov.au/about-epa/publications/iwrg701. Accessed 7 Aug 2021.

  • Warwick, R. M. (1993). Environmental impact studies on marine communities: Pragmatical considerations. Australian Journal of Ecology, 18, 63–80.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wei, T. T., Yu, Y., Hu, Z. Q., Cao, Y. B., Gao, Y., Yang, Y. Q., Wang, X. J., & Wang, P. J. (2013). Research progress of acid mine drainage treatment technology in China. Applied Mechanics and Materials., 409–410, 214. https://doi.org/10.4028/www.scientific.net/AMM.409-410.214

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., Chessman, B. C., Fairweather, P. G., & Benson, L. J. (1995). Measuring the impact of sewage effluent on the macroinvertebrate community of an upland stream: The effect of different levels of taxonomic resolution and quantification. Australian Journal of Ecology, 20, 142–149.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., & Burgin, S. (2009). Comparison of sewage and coal-mine wastes on stream macroinvertebrates within an otherwise clean upland catchment, south-eastern Australia. Water, Air and Soil Pollution, 204, 227–241.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., & Burgin, S. (2009). Effects of organic and heavy-metal pollution on chironomids within a pristine upland catchment. Hydrobiologia, 635, 15–25.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., Wright, S. A., Graham, K., & Burgin, S. (2011). Environmental protection and management: A water pollution case study within the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Land Use Policy, 28, 353–360.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., McCarthy, B., Belmer, N., & Price, P. (2015). Subsidence from an underground coal mine and mine wastewater discharge causing water pollution and degradation of aquatic ecosystems. Water, Air & Soil Pollution, 226, 1–14.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., & Ryan, M. (2016). Impact of mining and industrial pollution on stream macroinvertebrates: Importance of taxonomic resolution, water geochemistry and EPT indices for impact detection. Hydrobiologia, 772, 103–115.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, I. A., Belmer, N., & Davies, P. (2017). Coal mine water pollution and ecological impairment of one of Australia’s most ‘protected’ high conservation-value rivers. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 228, 90. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-017-3278-8

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Yan J., Frierdich, A.J., & Catalano, J.G. (2021) Impact of Zn substitution on Fe(II)-induced ferrihydrite transformation pathways. EarthArXiv: https://doi.org/10.31223/X57K73 Accessed 10 December 2021.

  • Younger, P. L. (2004). Environmental impacts of coal mining and associated wastes: A geochemical perspective. Geological Society, 236, 169–209.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge and pay our respects to the traditional custodians of the land in which this study was conducted, the Darug, Gundungarra and Wiradjurri people and their elders past and present. Thanks to the Blue Mountains Conservation Society and Colong Foundation for Wilderness for providing financial support for the analysis of water samples. Thanks to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for permission to collect samples in the conservation area. Western Sydney University provided laboratory and technical support for the research. The senior author undertook this research as part of his Masters of Research study. We thank Michael Franklin and Sue Cusbert for their technical assistance.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

All authors made substantial contributions to all parts of this research.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ian A. Wright.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fleming, C., Belmer, N., Reynolds, J.K. et al. Legacy Contamination of River Sediments from Four Decades of Coal Mine Effluent Inhibits Ecological Recovery of a Polluted World Heritage Area River. Water Air Soil Pollut 233, 15 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-021-05487-4

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-021-05487-4

Keywords

  • World heritage
  • Environmental management
  • Freshwater ecosystems
  • Water quality
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Metal pollution
  • Ecological recovery
  • Coal mine wastewater
  • Wastewater regulation