Pollution from an old northern Queensland mine has turned a creek that feeds a major river into a toxic contamination zone.
Residents around the Walsh River and Jamie Creek, south-west of Cairns and near the township of Watsonville, have been told not to drink, swim or use the water by the Queensland government.
The government has tested the site and found the Baal Gammon copper mine, which sits next to the creek, has contaminated the waterway.
Leading environmental engineer, RMIT professor Gavin Mudd, says the level of contamination going into the creek and river is among the worst he has ever seen, with aluminium, copper, zinc, and cadmium levels “thousands of times higher than the concentrations we’d like to see”.
“I certainly wouldn’t be drinking it.”
Locals are angry that their water source has been deemed too risky to use.
“It is sort of unbelievable that you’ve got NSW, half of Queensland in drought,” said David Dyer, a Walsh River resident for more than 30 years.
“Here we are, we’ve got a running river that you can’t use.”
‘A couple of buckets of poison’
Milky white and red iron sludge derived from the mine pollution rests on the surface of Jamie Creek, which feeds the Walsh River in the wet season.
In contrast to the red and white sludge, one of the few types of lifeforms to have survived and flourished in the acidic water is highly resilient, bright green algae.
Steve Murray and Alexis Alexandrou have lived along the Walsh River for 13 years, using the river water downstream from Jamie Creek for livestock and crops.
They have been unable to use it since receiving a letter in May from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science (DES), saying the contaminants in the creek exceeded the safe levels for drinking, recreational use and stock watering.
In recent weeks, a sign was also erected along the Walsh River by the local council, on the request of the department, warning against using the river water.
“Some people, like the lady just down the road, she didn’t even receive a letter. She’s been here 30 years,” Mr Murray said.
“How many people are drinking the water that don’t know it is contaminated?”
The Murray-Alexandrou family have also spent tens of thousands of dollars on their vineyard and a river water licence that can’t be used.
Their vineyard has withered, and their daughters are banned from swimming in the water.
“It’s pretty devastating. You wonder how anyone would be allowed to do it,” he said.
“You’ve got [the river] at your door and someone is allowed to just come along and basically throw a couple of buckets of poison wherever you drink from. I don’t think that’s right anywhere in the world.”
‘It’s quiet’ on the river
Mechanic David Dyer lived along the river for decades and told the ABC he had stopped using the water for drinking and growing organic produce.
He had stage 5 kidney failure, but has died from unrelated causes since being interviewed.
Mr Dyer couldn’t use the dialysis machine he would have normally used because it needed 700 litres of water per treatment — an impossible task as he only had access to rainwater.
He was spending an extra two hours per treatment on a smaller machine that only used 60 litres.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but over three years it is a couple of months extra on that machine,” Mr Dyer said.
The first major pollution event this decade occurred in 2012, when mine overflow contaminated the water in the creek and the river.
Mr Dyer said dead fish were found after this event and the river’s ecosystem has not recovered. Species of fish, platypus and turtles have not returned.
“You go 100 metres away from the river — wildlife everywhere. Go down near the river — it’s quiet,” he said.
Owner paid to take on mine liability
Then-owner and the operator of the Baal Gammon mine, Monto Minerals and Kagara Pty Ltd, were issued an environmental protection order (EPO) to stop further releases of contaminated water and a year later were fined a total of $200,000.
The mining project changed hands again and the next mineral rights holder, Consolidated Tin Mines, paid current owner Baal Gammon Copper Pty Ltd $1.8 million to assume liability in 2017.
In March and April this year, officers inspected the mothballed copper mine three times and found contaminated water leaking from the site at each of the inspections.
After the third inspection, they issued an EPO to Baal Gammon Copper, which is ultimately owned by Brisbane businessman Denis Reinhardt.
The department ordered the company to immediately carry out works at the site to ensure no more contaminated water was released.
However, the department has refused to answer questions about what measures, if any, it has taken to enforce the EPO, saying it would be inappropriate to comment due to the ongoing investigation.
‘We will make sure polluters pay the price: Premier
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the levels of contamination were “disturbing”.
“It’s very concerning the reports that I’ve heard in relation to the discharge in the waterways in the far north,” she said.
“That matter is under investigation and I don’t want to pre-empt that investigation.
“I’m quite sure the minister is across those details, but it was very disturbing to hear the levels of contamination and we will make sure that polluters pay the price.”
Contacted by the ABC, Mr Reinhardt said: “There is currently no release from the mine site into Jamie Creek”.
“All requirements of the EPO have been met including the replacement of impermeable material covering the waste rock dump, progress of which has been reported to DES,” Mr Reinhardt said.
However, the department says it is “currently investigating alleged non-compliance” with the April environment order.
Mr Reinhardt also said the daily monitoring and recording of water levels and water samples are reported to the department.
He also said that in May, independent testing in the Walsh River, downstream from the creek, found it was within contaminant limits of their environmental authority. But these are for stock water limits, not drinking water standards.
“BGC is committed to improving the environment at Baal Gammon, which requires some considerable financial resources and will not be an overnight fix,” Mr Reinhardt said.
Government sitting on rehabilitation money: Opposition
The Queensland government wants Baal Gammon Copper to pay more than $2 million in financial assurance to protect the environment around the mine, in addition to the $3.75 million it already holds.
Mr Reinhardt wouldn’t comment on the matter as it is currently subject to a land court case between his company and the Department of Environment and Science.
After this story was first published, the Minister for the Environment Leanne Enoch contacted the ABC with a statement.
“I have instructed the Director General to report back to me urgently with proposed actions and timeframes for pursuing further enforcement measures against the mine operators,” Ms Enoch said.
The State Opposition environment spokesman David Crisafulli said the state government should spend the assurance money now to clean up the mess.
“If the operator doesn’t act, then it is up to the government to act. That money isn’t designed to be sitting in an account. It’s there as a safety net to get in and do things,” he said.
“Yes, it might cost more than that amount to rehabilitate it, but that’s the role of the government to protect its citizens.”
Mother of two Crystal Stone said the Walsh River used to be a popular place for barbecues and birthday parties.
“None of the locals come here any more because of the contamination,” she said.
“Unfortunately, some outsiders come here who are not aware of the contamination, and they’ll go swimming in there.”