Coal waste pollution, the Royal National Park, and Peabody’s Metropolitan Colliery

Many people don’t realise that there’s pit top workings of a coal mine adjacent to the Royal, Australia’s oldest National Park, just a couple of kilometers from the famous Figure Eight pools.

This mine, the Metropolitan Colliery, has released polluted waste material into a waterway which flows through to the heart of the Royal on numerous occasions through 2022, in January, July, August, September, October, November, and December.  

On 16 January, 2023 the  NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) reported yet another spill, “grey, turbid water with possible coal material present.

More coal waste spilled into the Park in August 2023.

On 5 August 2023 the embankment of the mine site next to the adjacent creek collapsed. Coal waste material spilled into the creek, and from there into the Hacking River, which flows through the heart and length of the Royal National Park.

The mine is owned by an American multinational, Peabody Energy. Following the 2022 coal waste discharges the NSW Environmental Protection Authority reviewed Peabody’s pollution license in early 2023, and claimed it was “tightened”.

Coal waste sediment at the Audley Weir precinct, February 2023. Photo credit Bob Crombie.

We put in a submission to an EPA review of Peabody’s license in early 2023, with detailed analysis of the ecological damage and photos of previous coal waste spills from the mine.

A second submission was put in following extensive flooding in February, which saw chunks of coal and coal waste sediment washed up over the grounds of the beautiful historic Audley Weir heritage precinct, kilometers downstream from the mine.

It is not clear whether Peabody escaped liability for cleaning up coal waste that appeared on the lawns. It is possible the National Parks and Wildlife Service funded this work.

This second submission warned the EPA of the danger of landslides and asked for this to be taken this into account in the license review. We asked for Emergency Risk Protocols to be established to prevent the Royal being polluted again. The August 2023 landslide shows that both these points were ignored.

The coal pollution in the Royal comes from Peabody’s surface pit top operation at Helensburgh, but the coal stored at Helensburgh comes from underground, a few kilometres away, from under the Woronora Reservoir. See the map below for the connection between the mining under the catchment and the pollution in the Royal. You can read more about the mining under Woronora Reservoir at this link.

This mine has now caused damage to two water catchments: the Woronora Reservoir catchment, and the Hacking River catchment which runs through the full length of the Royal National Park.

Both major parties support the continued operation of this mine.

In the lead up to the March 2023 election both the Animal Justice party candidate and the Greens candidate for Heathcote said “The mine at Helensburgh should close “as soon as possible”. The Greens Protected Areas policy calls for an end to “inappropriate development and infrastructure in or adjacent to national parks”.

During the election campaign, Maryanne Stuart, now Labor MP for Heathcote, also said mining under the water catchment should stop.

The Illawarra Mercury reported on 9 March, 2023 that this position will not be implemented if Labor forms government.

No one else in the party stepped up to support her.

Maryanne Stuart’s comment that she “hopes… a new mine in this location will not be required” may refer to a new coal exploration license granted to Peabody in 2022.

Since the election she has backed away from statements that she would close the mine, and transition the workers there as quickly as possible into the renewable sector: “If elected on March 25, we would implement that straight away – we need to transition quickly.”

The company is currently in the “protected” water catchment with machinery, drilling holes, cutting out tracks through the bushland. If members of the public even enter this area and are caught they face fines of up to $44,000. The rationale for these fines is to protect the area where this mining company have been given free reign.

The information below is a submission guide to the NSW Environmental Protection Authority’s review of Peabody’s “Environmental protection” license

There are two approaches you can take: 1. ask the politicians to support EPA in cancelling Peabody’s license altogether, or 2. ask them to ensure the license is tightened so that this sort of pollution never happens again.

Whatever option you choose there are a couple of points from the Protection of the Environment Operation Act 1997 which are vitally important and should be included in any email. When reviewing the licence the EPA has to consider: 

  • ** the “environmental values of water affected”, and
  •  ** “the practical measures that could be taken to restore or maintain those environmental values”.

Both these points are relevant because we know the value of the Royal National Park means that it deserves to be protected. We also know that the clean-up undertaken to date has only been partially successful. Heavy rain washed most of the black sludge waste material far downstream, and no containment measures were put in place. To date the EPA has decided that remediation should only take place to the intersection of McKell Avenue and Lady Wakehurst Drive. Sutherland Shire Environment Centre members have seen coal sediment pollution much further downstream, at far as Audley Weir. Over the new year holiday period other members saw coal sediment waste material in Port Hacking itself, at Swallow Rock Reserve.

The value of the Royal National Park and inadequate cleanup should be emphasised in any email: our politicians must consider whether the Royal National Park ecosystems should continue to be risked in this way.  

Your email does not need to be long, or include all the information detailed below. Please check out the link to the letter template on the button above. It’s just really important to make your email personal and you can select key points which concern you to help build your case. Let your local political candidates know how you feel about what has happened and why you think it’s wrong.  

1. Cancel the license

If you believe it is not appropriate to have a coal mine in a location where it has the potential to do such damage to our waterways and beaches, and that it is not acceptable to risk the ecological integrity of the Royal National Park, please ask that Peabody’s Metropolitan Colliery be prohibited from releasing anything into the Royal National Park at all, and ask that its pollution license be cancelled. 

•  The multiple pollution events which occurred through 2022, in January, July, August, September, October, November, and December are only the ones we know about.  With heavy rainfall coal sediment waste may have been released at other times, and not been reported or recorded.  This raises the question of whether we can rely on this company to do the right thing.  They have already proven they cannot operate in this sensitive location without unacceptable impacts.

•  Even if spills occurred due to a significant amount of rain we’ve had earlier this year should the Colliery be operating in this location if is unable to manage conditions at the site?

•  The photo below shows the mine’s surface facilities and two holding dams where the coal waste sediment is kept directly adjacent to Camp Gully Creek.  If you look closely at the bottom part of the picture you’ll see two large drains that allow the dams to overflow directly into the creek (and from there into the Hacking River).  The site is very narrow and constrained for the type of coal processing facilities Peabody requires.

You can click on the photo below and zoom in to look at it more closely on google earth.

Coal sludge waste, Camp Gully Creek 7 September, 2022. A thick, viscous oily material. No measures were put in place to prevent this flowing downstream into the Hacking River and on through the length of the Royal National Park, down past Lady Carrington Drive, Audley Weir and out to Port Hacking. Photo credit Bob Crombie.

Swallow Rock Reserve, Port Hacking, New Year’s Day, 2023. Coal sediment is visible on the sand. By the time the EPA inspected the area this had washed away, but the EPA agreed that the material in this photo is coal which came from mine. Photo credit Lily Meier.


Another important point to consider re the question of whether we can rely on this company to do the right thing, is that over the last few years Peabody has included multiple “Invalid sample” test results on their monitoring summaries submitted to the EPA. In addition to the multiple “Invalid samples” there have been months where Peabody’s testing claims no breaches were recorded, even when we know for a fact that coal sediment / waste material was released.

The tables below show the 2021 and 2022 summaries.

•  Another point to raise if you are making the case for the cancellation of the license, is that independent water testing by Dr Ian Wright on 14 August 2022 showed that the Colliery discharged saline wastes at twice the rate of ANZECC salinity guidelines.  It had no authorisation from EPA to do this.

The graph on the left below shows salinity in Camp Gully Creek upstream of the Colliery on 14 August, at the Colliery discharge point, and downstream. Subsequent testing by other independent researchers through late 2022 has shown consistently high salinity levels.

•  As the second graph on the right shows, Dr Wright’s test results also found increased levels of barium, lithium or strontium at the mine site, substantially higher than levels found upstream.

Peabody had no authorisation to discharge these metals into Camp Gully Creek.

•  Since the most recent pollution events Sutherland Shire Environment Centre members with higher degree qualifications in science and ecology have carried out surveys of the impacted areas.  Dr Chad Beranek and freshwater ecotoxicology researcher Shannon Kaiser have found dying frogs in waterways downstream from the mine. Frogs found in those areas had a diminished body condition compared to frogs in nearby control sites (streams nearby not impacted by the mine pollution).

•  Other independent local researchers led by Dr Andrew Brooks carried out informal surveys in October 2022 and found a “significant impairment of the benthic macroinvertebrate community“, and a marked reduction in the diversity of families of such organisms.

The main findings of his preliminary assessment are shown below.

At Camp Gully Creek they found no pollution-sensitive riffle beetles (Elmidae) or mayflies (Leptophlebiidae, Baetidae, Caenidae). 

•   All these studies raise questions about ongoing flow on effects through the ecosystem. Such impacts are not just a matter of what happened in 2022. There have been other spills in previous years.  Old coal waste material is still visible along the length of the Hacking River.  The EPA refers to coal waste that has accumulated from previous spills as “legacy issues“.  Will such “legacies” be ongoing?  We know the latest ‘clean-up’ has only taken place to the intersection of McKell Avenue and Lady Wakehurst Drive.  Coal waste and sediment has been seen much further downstream and the EPA have not provided any justification as to why that intersection was chosen as an arbitrary cut off point for remediation.

•  One crucially important point to note is that the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 requires national parks to be managed in a manner that protects the integrity of ecosystems for future generations.  This means:

  • Conserving biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem function, protecting geological and geomorphological features and natural phenomena, and
  • Maintaining natural landscapes conserving places, objects, features and landscapes of cultural value and significance.

The Metropolitan Colliery has shown it is unable to align its operation with requirements of the NPW Act.  It has been unable to protect the ecological integrity of the Royal.  This makes a strong case to cancel the license altogether.

2. Option two: Tighten and amend the license 

If you believe it is reasonable for the mine to keep operating in this location, a second option is for you to ask that the Peabody Metropolitan Colliery pollution license be tightened to ensure only clean treated water is released into Camp Gully Creek, and no pollutants or waste material.   

All points made above are still relevant, and can also be mentioned if you decide to call for the license to be tightened.  

• Please also consider requesting that Full Emergency Disaster Recovery Plans are established.  No preventative measures were put in place this year to stop the coal fine sediment waste flowing down the full length of the Hacking River.  Remediating this damage, clearing away the fine coal sediment has proven extremely difficult, if not impossible.  The EPA and the NPWS have both noted clean-ups can cause further damage to the river ecosystem. If there has been a pattern of previous undisclosed pollution events how can the EPA ensure this does not happen again?

•  As is, the current EPA licence has allowed Peabody’s Colliery to pollute Camp Gully Creek, and from there on the Hacking River.  The Colliery is currently only required to collect samples once a month when wastewater is being discharged. When it disposes of wastewater to Camp Gully Creek the mine is only required to meet the following criteria: oil and grease;10 mg/L; pH 6.5-8.5; total suspended solids; 30 mg/L.   If you chose to ask that the pollution license be amended, not cancelled, please ask for tighter limits and tighter monitoring for salinity, pH and turbidity

• The Colliery should be required to measure water quality continuously in all wastewater discharges, as well as in the creek, both upstream and downstream of the mine.  This monitoring should occur in real time

•  Please ask that the license is tightened so that there are discharge limits reducing the disposal of metals in the coal mine wastewater (i.e. aluminium, nickel, zinc, barium, strontium and lithium etc) which act to damage or compromise the health of the creek.  

•  The license should ensure no coal fine sediment is allowed to be released into the creek.  

• Camp Gully Creek and the Hacking River should have ongoing assessment of ecological health to ensure that the mine does not impair aquatic biodiversity. The Colliery should be required to fund quantitative biological monitoring of Camp Gully Creek using wastewater sensitive biota (e.g. macroinvertebrates) with a study design that includes reference sites in the Hacking River catchment and locations in Camp Gully both upstream and downstream of the mine. This monitoring should occur at least every three months in order to provide an assessment of any ecological impact and the trajectory of recovery.

With the election coming up in March this is our best chance to put pressure on politicians, to tell them how you feel, and to persuade them to change their stance.

Please ask them to speak up and protect the Royal National Park, not Peabody.

This video to the left shows a section of the Hacking River a few hundred metres south from the Jersey Springs picnic area in the Royal National Park. About 1.5km north of the Audley Weir precinct.

It was taken on 29 Mar 2022.

This mining operation has now adversely impacted two major water catchments: the Woronora Reservoir catchment and the Hacking River catchment in the Royal National Park.

Enough is enough.

If you have any questions please contact Dr Catherine Reynolds:

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