Old antimony plant at Urunga.
Old antimony plant at Urunga. Ute Schulenberg

Significant threat to waterways

DANGEROUSLY high levels of arsenic and antimony in Mine Creek, which feeds into Wild Cattle Creek, has ignited debate about antimony mining in an area which leads into the water supply of the Clarence and Coffs Harbour regions.

Wild Cattle Creek is one of the major tributaries of the Nymboida River which leads into the Clarence and also supplies water to Shannon Creek Dam.

A map commissioned by Anchor Resources, the company which is licenced to explore, but not mine the site at Beilsdown, shows Mine Creek at one point had 377 ug/litre (parts per billion) of antimony which is 126 times the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council's (ANZECC) guidelines for drinking water.

Arsenic levels at the same spot were 85 ug/litre - more than 12 times the ANZECC drinking water guidelines.

The map is dated September 19, 2011.

Coffs Harbour City Councillor Mark Graham said the exploration by Anchor Resources, which was owned by China Shandong Jinshunda, represented a significant threat to waterways in the area.

"What concerns us the most is that China is closing down most of its antimony mining because of its effect on the environment and the human population.

"But then it's okay to come down and put an antimony mine on the Dorrigo Plateau."

Mr Graham slammed comments by Member for Cowper Luke Hartsuyker who welcomed the potential creation of 60 jobs from an antimony mine.

"The tourism industry down the Clarence River (rafting, fishing and swimming), the southern-most cane growing lands in Australia and the nationally renowned and highly valuable prawn fishery at the mouth of the Clarence River will all be heavily impacted should this mine proceed," he said.

The exploration, which is being conducted near a dormant antimony mine which last operated in the mid 1970s, falls in Bellingen Shire but borders with Clarence Valley Council.

Manager of Clarence River Tourism Jenny Massie said any sort of pollution which impacts on waterways could be devastating to the local tourism industry.

Projects such as Clarence Valley Council's Clarence River Way scheme recognised this, she said.

Ms Massie referred to a 2007 Tourism Profiles for Local Government Areas document which estimated that there was anywhere from 3500 to 7700 tourism industry workers in the valley depending on seasonal variations.

She said nature-based tourism was essential to the area considering the region was 56% national parks.

Mr Graham said 330 kilometres of creeks and rivers in the Macleay Catchment had been contaminated with arsenic by an antimony and gold mine at Hillgrove (east of Armidale).

The mine's operator Straits Gold Pty Ltd was fined $50,000 in the Land and Environment Court earlier this year due to the contamination incident which, Mr Graham said, ran from the mine all the way to the rivermouth at South West Rocks.

"That area has one third of the rainfall of the Dorrigo Plateau," he said.

"When it rains almost a metre in one night there is nothing you can do to prevent contamination, nothing.

"There is a greater risk of the Clarence being contaminated because of this rainfall and the nature of the ore body which contains arsenic, mercury and antimony.

"Here is a mine operating under existing legislation using the latest technology and you'd expect world best practice and it is still polluting."

Mr Graham said several hectares of coastal wetlands which feed into the Bellinger River at Urunga had been declared a complete dead zone and was unable to be restored due to antimony processing at the site in the 1960s and 70s.

"It feeds into the Urunga lagoon where thousands of people fish and swim every year- it is an existing risk to public health.

"This is a fantastic illustration of 'what you shouldn't do'," he said.

John Edwards from the Clarence Environment Centre said antimony was "really deadly stuff".

"By the time they get it out the process has released carcenogenic and toxic chemicals.

"The government and council in particular should be pro-active and lobby government on behalf of residents.

"They said they're going to store all the tailings in catchments - this is a high rainfall area (the highest in NSW) - these things don't work."

Mr Edwards referred to the former Timbarra gold mine which used a similar catchments to store its tailings.

"At the end of the day the thing failed.

"A lot of things have happened over the years and we never seem to learn from it."

Under NSW laws, councils do not have a consent role for mining activities.

Clarence Valley Mayor Richie Williamson said the council was concerned about plans for antimony mining at Wild Cattle Creek.

"We will be registering those concerns when it's appropriate," he said.

"There is no licence to extract, there is only a licence to explore ... the EIS has not been started for any mining."

Mr Williamson said council would seek to ensure the risk to the water supply of Coffs and Clarence was "absolutely nil".

He said he expected Coffs Harbour City Council would be writing to him seeking a collaborative approach on the issue.

"Should the mine progress, council will not be taking a back seat on the issue," he said.

Bellingen Shire general manager Liz Jeremy said there had been a meeting of concerned residents on the Dorrigo Plateau a fortnight ago and the council had been briefed by Anchor Resources.

"The council has no position at this stage," Ms Jeremy said.

Anchor Resources general manager Ian Price said the contamination levels in Mine Creek pre-dated the current exploration activities in the area and were "very similar" to the levels found there in a Government survey conducted in 1989 and the company's baseline levels found in 2009.

"Our activities have had no impact at all," Mr Price said.

Asked if he expected the exploration would lead to a full-blown mine in the area, Mr Price said it was too early to decide.

"There is a resource that has been discovered there but whether the resource is significant enough to proceed with the studies needed to proceed is still to be determined."

Mr Price countered Mr Graham's claims that tailings could not be contained saying: "Mines are established all over the world in high rainfall areas, much higher than this area," he said.

"Using world best practice there will be no contamination."

Mr Price said he was not familiar with the Hillgrove mine contamination and could not comment.

He said Anchor had addressed councillors for numerous councils, including Clarence Valley, in recent weeks and had met one on one with landholders and was in the midst of "community negotiation" on the issue.

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