The Queen River runs through the historic mining town of Queenstown on the scenic West Coast of Tasmania and is a wild fast moving river that winds through the mountains joining the King River and flows into Macquarie Harbour.

The town is home to the longest running Copper Mine in the world and improvements to the smelting process also were made here.

Unfortunately, however, it became one of the most dangerous mines … being in a temperate zone that receives 3 meters of rainfall every year … and being on a seismic fault line. There have been tragic accidents where too many lives have been lost. The mining and smelting degraded the environment so much Queenstown became famed for the denuded landscapes … and its Red River. The Queen River turns red from the iron oxide that leaches from the mine along with other metal sulphides and most of the creeks around the town are subject to the acid mine drainage and can be consider contaminated.

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Queen River is a Dead Zone

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Acid Mine Drainage is a continuous problem

Historically Queenstown, Zeehan, and Gormanston were bustling mining towns where some 10,000 residents lived. Now with mine closures the town supports just under a couple of thousand residents and Gormanston is almost a ghost town now compared to its prosperous years when several thousand residents lived there when mining was at it peak. Queenstown, the hub of the West Coast, was a mining town … but is now a town with a mine it. There is astounding natural heritage around Queenstown and the mine is an eyesore that decreases property value.

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Scenic Queenstown, a from mining town to a town with a mine in it

The mine has been in care and maintenance for several years now; the future is uncertain and contractors and miners have sought work elsewhere. Queenstown is not just a mining town now, it is also a popular fishing destination (Lake Burbury), a growing Arts community with several galleries and studios, and popular tourist destination … and for retirees. There is pristine rainforests such as on the Bird River, wild rivers, lakes and mountains to see and visit and in my book is one of the most scenic areas of Tasmania. The town is nestled in the mountains and is an atmospheric and scenic place. A great place to write a book, take art classes, pottery at the studio, carpentry with the men’s shed, thai chi class, bushwalking groups, fishing trips, craft markets and the like. The historical train gives a sense of history of our cultural heritage and it winds through the remote wilderness mountains to Macquarie Harbour.

Who will pay for the environmental degradation caused by a century of mining history given the company has changed hands so many times? Given the landscape was denuded by acid rain from smelters in the past, it has eroded the topsoil down to the igneous pyrite bedrocks which are high in sulphur and oxidise and leach out metal sulphides when it rains. This is an ongoing disturbance in the Queen and King Rivers, Comstock and Linda Creeks.

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Longest running copper mine in the world

The degradation of the landscape from the denuding from acid rain in the past and the ongoing Acid Mine Drainage contaminating natural water courses is significant and ought to be considered a public health risk and addressed accordingly.

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Mt Lyle Mine – a century of mining history left a scar on the land

People have come and gone for over a century and certainly left a big imprint on the land. Queenstown environs is regenerating naturally and the Gondwana Pines and rainforest will probably take another 150 years to regenerate. The mine and environs is regenerating slowly. However from a satellite it is easy to see the degradation caused to the region. From Lake Burbury, to the Airfield, to Macquarie Harbour the impact of the acid mine drainage and the acid rain in the past denuding the landscape is profound.

This includes the Queen and the Kind Rivers, and Macquarie Harbour where the tailings were – up until thirty years ago – dumped directly into the river. It also includes the swamplands near the airfield where the tailings are now deposited, as well as contamination of Glover Creek, Comstock Creek, Linda Creek, Lake Burbury and Macquarie Harbour. There was some $9 million allocated for stopping the acid drainage, however, after council did not spend the money the (Rudd) government withdrew the money and apparently it went to the Fox Abatement program (which is another shambles) in Tasmania.

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The tailings used to be dumped directly into the river and ultimately ends up in the ocean and the food chain

If the mine ever were to become operational again then there is much opportunity for shallow cut mining from the open cut. Given the fatalities, the seismic and water intrusion it can be considered too dangerous to underground mine. The underground has always been problematic due to the high rainfall, the open cut over the underground concentrating the rainfall runoff … such that it continually has to be pumped out.

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The Mt Lyle Underground Mine is Dangerous

Ecologically Sustainable Development is legislated and should be considered at the highest level. This originally included the key principle of internalisation of environmental costs: the polluter pays principle.

The acid drainage can be prevented and treated with cocomatting, cascading detention ponds, seepage beds and restoration of local province plants. The River corridor can be restored with a buffer from the public and the river can be slowed down and various sedimentation points. If funding were available the Macquarie Harbour mouth can be built up and restored. Priority to protecting public health by controlling the acid mine drainage such that it is a no-waste system and only slow groundwater releases to the natural water courses.

Open cut mining offers a sustainable industry whereby the impacts are contained within the local environs. There is a lot of copper and some gold and silver that can be further processed including processing out the gold and silver in the tailings dam. Connecting up the light rail and considering blasting a road through the open cut will help drain out the open cut and reduce water intrusion underground. These solutions are all practical and achievable to control acid mine drainage and mine safely in future.

A Coordinated and Cooperative Approach of managing the whole region where different stakeholders exist is a sensible way to addressing the problems. This is whereby a work party consisting of all the stakeholders can find common goals and begin to address the environmental degradation in the region and get the mine going safely again.

This lessens the ownership of each stakeholder and shares responsibility … given it is a century old legacy.

*Michael Peter Galvin is an Environmental Engineer