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

Many people don’t realise the pit top workings of an active coal mine are located just next to the Royal, Australia’s oldest National Park, only a few kilometers from the famous Figure Eight pools.

This coal mine is owned by an American multinational, Peabody Energy.

Peabody 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.  

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

In March 2023 the NSW Environment Protection Authority reviewed the mine’s license to pollute and tightened some conditions, but this has failed to prevent further damage to the park.

In August 2023, the embankment of the mine site next to the adjacent creek collapsed, coal waste material again spilled into the creek, and from there into the Hacking River, which flows through the heart and length of the Royal National Park. Through this whole time no effective emergency management procedures were put in place to stop the coal waste polluting the river.

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

We put in two submissions to the EPA review of Peabody’s pollution license in early 2023, the first with detailed analysis of the ecological damage and photos of coal waste spills from the mine. The second submission was put in following extensive flooding, which resulted in chunks of coal and coal waste sediment washing 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.

To date, the revised license has required monitoring conditions to be tightened, but the mine is still not being penalised for contaminated groundwater which leaves the site. Peabody’s EPL only covers discharges from the official discharge points.

The company has also refused to release the results of water monitoring collated over months. Only the daily results are available, with data shown in 15min increments, the results delayed usually by 2-4 hours. The term “Real Time” is a misnomer:

Coal waste remains visible through the Hacking River, and Peabody’s own monitoring shows escalated levels of salinity (conductivity) downstream of the mine site continuing to impact Camp Gully Creek.  Salinity levels downstream of the mine the day before Christmas were 2,496 μS/cm. The levels upstream of the mine were only 247 μS/cm.

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. The map here shows 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.

Peabody’s mine has now damaged two water catchments: the Woronora Reservoir catchment, and the Hacking River catchment which runs through the full length of the Royal National Park.

Both the Liberal National Coalition and Labor parties support the continued mining under our drinking water catchment, even though no other country in the world permits coal mining under a publicly owned water catchment. In the lead up to the March 2023 election the Greens and Animal Justice party candidates for Heathcote said “The mine at Helensburgh should close “as soon as possible”.

The Greens Protected Areas policy also 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. She stated Labor would 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.” No one else in the party at that time stepped up to support her. The Illawarra Mercury reported on March, 2023 that this position will not be implemented if Labor forms government.

Shortly after the election the new Labor MP backed away from statements that she would close the mine. Her 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. See our other webpage for details. Peabody is currently actively looking for coal in this new part of our “protected” water catchment, with the view of putting in yet another mine. They’ve cut tracks through pristine bushland and drilled bore holes 500m deep. If members of the public enter this area and are caught they face fines up to $44,000. The rationale for these fines is to protect the area – yet this mining company has been given free reign.

The video below was taken in Mar 2022, and 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 sent to the NSW EPA in early 2022 along with additional photos and evidence of increasing amounts of coal in the river. The EPA dismissed this report. Questions about discharges from the mine raised in State Parliament by Greens MP Cate Faehrmann in late 2021 were also met with assurances that the EPA were adequately monitoring the site.

The question is why the EPA failed to act. The result is the sort of discharge we saw in August and September 2022, terrible oily, black polluted coal sludge, as per the photo below. This all flowed down Camp Gully Creek into the Hacking River, and then through the Royal National Park. No barriers were put up to prevent it flowing downstream. This waterway eventually empties out into Port Hacking itself.

Camp Gully Creek September 2022. Photo credit Bob Crombie.

The short film below, “Coal Creek”, was filmed by James Patrick Photography and screened in early 2023.


The information below is a submission guide we prepared for the NSW Environmental Protection Authority’s 2023 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.

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. Ideally our politicians would be acting to protect the Royal National Park, not Peabody. It’s not as if they are no longer aware of what is taking place.

Camp Gully Creek March 2022. Photo credit Russell Arnold.

If you have any questions please contact Dr Catherine Reynolds:

Further news articles on the coal discharges

10 April, 2024, “Kristy worked on flood rescue all night. When she got home her town was covered in coal“, Sydney Morning Herald

24 March, 2024, “Helensburgh mine operator pleads guilty to three water pollution charges“, The Leader

1 February, 2024, “Peabody seeks new longwall as film about its pollution failures launches“, The Leader

25 January, 2024, “Peabody seeks new longwall as film about its pollution failures launches“, Illawarra Mercury

24 January, 2024, “‘Coal Creek’ doco to premiere at Port Kembla Servo on Sunday“, The Illawarra Flame

30 October, 2023, “Peabody’s Metropolitan Colliery sent the bill for EPA cleanup investigation and testing“, Illawarra Mercury

16 October, 2023, “Real-time water monitoring for Camp Gully Creek goes live“, Waste Management Review

1 October, 2023, “Camp Gully Creek pollution – a year on, what has changed?“, The Illawarra Flame

11 September, 2023, “EPA takes action over pollution incidents”, Wave FM 96.5

11 September, 2023, “Metropolitan Collieries faces fines of up to $5 million over pollution incidents at Camp Gully Creek, which flows into Hacking River“, The Leader

9 September, 2023, “Mine attracting attention: interview with Sue Higginson“, ABC Radio Sydney

26 August, 2023, “EPA responds to Metropolitan coal mine pollution incident“, ABC Radio Sydney

21 August, 2023, “Another clean-up after mine landslip pollutes creek running through Royal National Park“, The Leader

18 August, 2023, “Scientists fear for Royal National Park platypus after Peabody mine water contamination“, ABC Illawarra

12 August, 2023, “Environmental concerns over Hacking River contamination“, ABC Radio Sydney

22 May, 2023, “Metropolitan Collieries fined $30,000 for water pollution from Helensburgh mine and subjected to new licence conditions“, The Leader

23 May, 2023, “Sutherland Shire Environment Centre has ‘reservations’ about reintroduction of platypus to Royal National Park“, The Leader

9 May, 2023, “Mine clipped after ‘sludgy substance’ spotted in river“, Newcastle Herald

9 May, 2023, “Metropolitan Collieries mine fined after ‘sludgy substance’ spotted in river“, The New Daily

27 March, 2023, “NSW Greens call on Labor to close Peabody-owned Metropolitan Mine at Helensburgh“, ABC Illawarra

9 January, 2023, “Scientists alarmed at discovery of sick frogs in Royal National Park near coal mine pollution“, ABC Illawarra

18 November, 2022, “EPA puts Metropolitan coal mine on notice for repeated pollution spills into Royal National Park“, ABC Illawarra

16 November, 2022, “Peabody’s Metropolitan Colliery ordered to clean up dams thick with coal material“, Illawarra Mercury

16 October, 2022, “Peabody mine pollution cleanup will extend into Royal National Park“, Illawarra Mercury

16 October, 2022, “CEO says EPA considering criminal sanctions for Helensburgh mine“, Illawarra Mercury

15 October, 2022, “Peabody coal pollution extended all the way through National Park to Audley“, Illawarra Mercury

6 October, 2022, “Helensburgh coal pollution was so bad it was ‘not possible’ to see creek bed“, Illawarra Mercury

20 September, 2022, “‘Failing the environment’: Peabody ordered to clean up Royal National Park creek“, Illawarra Mercury

19 September, 2022, “Mining company responsible for coal waste pollution in Royal National Park could be fined up to $1M“, The Leader

19 September, 2022, “EPA orders Peabody Energy to clean up coal waste in Royal National Park“, ABC Illawarra

15 September, 2022, “Peabody pressed on water pollution“, Mining Monthly

14 September, 2022, “Shocking discovery of ‘black sludge’ in a creek in pristine part of Australia’s oldest national park is linked to $5billion US energy giant“, The Daily Mail

14 September, 2022, “Royal National Park creek runs black after coal mine pollution incidentSydney Morning Herald

13 September, 2022, “Coalmine wastewater spill south of Sydney turns creek in Royal national park to black sludge“, The Guardian

9 September, 2022, “Return of platypus to Royal National Park delayed amid concerns over water quality“, ABC Illawarra

15 August, 2022, “Concerns after ‘coal chunks’ found in Royal National Park river“, Daily Telegraph

4 August, 2022, “Metropolitan Colliery hit with $15k penalty notice after runoff into national park-linked creek“, Illawarra Mercury

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