No clarity as water study gets muddy

THE University of NSW has reaffirmed its position that the drop in groundwater levels around Werris Creek are in part caused by the Whitehaven Coal mine, despite an independent state government commissioned report claiming otherwise.

The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Water commissioned independent expert Noel Merrick to conduct a peer review of the UNSW study, which was done on behalf of Caroona Coal Action Group who have used water concerns at Werris Creek in a campaign against the proposed Shenhua mine.

Dr Merrick’s review confirmed there had been a drop in groundwater levels, but “found no evidence that the declines are due to the mine”.

Instead, Dr Merrick pointed to climatic conditions as the likely cause for the decline.

However UNSW Water Research Laboratory (WRL) said its study advised that along with the mine, drought and landholders were contributing factors to the declining water levels.

Acting director of UNSW WRL, associate professor Ron Cox, said mining activity was likely to be contributing to declines in groundwater levels to the south of the mine.

“This was based on the proximity of earlier mining to the Quipolly Creek and WRL’s knowledge of groundwater flow in similar fractured basalt aquifers,” Professor Cox said.

In their study, UNSW reviewed the Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Management reports from Whitehaven Coal.

“These reports clearly identified that fractured basalt aquifers exist about the Werris Creek mine,” Professor  Cox said. “WRL’s review identified that these fractured basalt aquifers will result in complex groundwater flow that was not adequately addressed by these reports.”

Professor Cox said expert opinions cannot resolve the uncertainty surrounding groundwater systems and reductions in groundwater supply.

“This can only be addressed through well implemented monitoring programs and commensurate numerical modelling,” he said.

“WRL’s preliminary advice recommended a program of detailed field investigations, data analysis and modelling specifically targeting the uncertainty about the fractured basalt aquifers and the resulting mine influence on groundwater.

“This program was to remove many of the significant uncertainties remaining from the previous Whitehaven Coal Company data collection program.