Sunday, May 31, 2009

There's Gold in Them Thar Wetlands

All photos courtesy of

Lake Cowal is situated 47 km north east of West Wyalong in central New South Wales (NSW). It is the state’s largest natural inland lake and is part of the Wilbertroy-Cowal Wetlands within the large flood plain of the Jemalong Plain. Lake Cowal receives most of its water from its major tributary, Bland Creek, buffered by occasional floods from the Lachlan River. However, this enough to keep the lake full only seven out of ten years. As the flood waters begin to recede, the lake drains back into the Lachlan River.

Lake Cowal has earned a place in the Australian Register of the National Estate and in its Directory of Important Wetlands. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) has listed the lake as a “Landscape Conservation Area”. The Australian Heritage Commission has suggested the NSW government consider the lake Cowal region for listing under the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance.

Under the Ramsar Convention on Wetland, members (Australia is one) are obligated to promote conservation, repair and wise use of all that member’s wetlands. Australia has lost 89% of its wetlands over the last century making Lake Cowal a potentially contentious issue.

The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services (NSW NPWS) states:
“Lake Cowal is listed on the National Estate because of the diversity and number of species that inhabit the lake. For example, Lake Cowal has at least three recorded accounts of more than 1% the Australian population of some wader species. As such, Lake Cowal also meets the Ramsar Wetlands of Importance listing criteria. The NPWS is of the opinion that Lake Cowal provides significant wetland habitats and drought refuge both in area, diversity of habitat types and duration of availability of resources.”

Unfortunately, there is gold in the land around Lake Cowal and greed has raised its ugly head. There is a proposed ‘Mining Lease Application’ which would encompass approximately 2,650 hectares (10.23 sq.mi.) under consideration for Lake Cowal and area.

One hundred and twenty-eight million tons of low to medium grade ore would be excavated from an open cut pit 1 kilometer wide by 325 meters deep on the lake shore. This operation would be partly within the high water level of Lake Cowal. It is estimated that 2.7 million ounces of gold could be realized from this site.

In February, 1999, following the findings of a second Commission of Inquiry, the New South Wales Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning, the Hon. Craig Knowles, signed a Consent to the development application made by North Gold (WA) Ltd for an open-cut cyanide leach gold mine.

The only barrier between the lake and the open pit would be an earth wall or bund. Tailings would be stored in dams 3.5 kilometers from the lake. Water would be supplied from a bore in the Bland Creek Paleochannel borefiled, 20 km east of the mine site and would pump up to 16 megalitres per day.

Besides being one of the last in a long line of dwindling wetlands, Lake Cowal is a wealth of biodiversity and home to many endangered flora and fauna species.

Some of the endangered bird/bat life it supports are the Austral Pillwort (Pilularia novae-hollandiae), Winged Peppercress (Lepidium monoplocoides), Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus), Blue-billed Duck (Oxyura australis), Painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis), Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa), Yellow-bellied Sheathtail-bat (Saccolaimus flaviventris), and the Little Pied Bat (Chalinolobus picatus). This list is by no means exhaustive as 227 species of birds have either been recorded or are considered as possible stopovers in the Lake Cowal region.

Significant numbers of migratory species listed in the China - Australia Migratory Birds Agreement, (CAMBA) and the Japan - Australia Migratory Birds Agreement (JAMBA) use the lake as habitat. As a signatory to these two agreements, Australia is responsible for the conservation of the habitat of these listed species.

There are protected species under the water as well as on top. The lake is home to such fish as the Silver Perch (Bidyabus bidyabus) which is protected in New South Wales; the Freshwater Catfish (Tandanus tandanus) which is subject to a voluntary ban by commercial fishers; and the Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) also protected.

Lake Cowal / The Bland is an important sacred region for the Aboriginal Traditional Owners and is often called "the Heartland of the Wiradjuri Nation".

When explorers first came to Lake Cowal they recorded how tribal Aboriginals used the area as a campsite and sacred site. There are many thousands of artifacts and relics at the Lake Cowal site that are testimony to this usage.

Barrick Gold and their predecessors have not consulted with the traditional Aboriginal owners from the region, many of whom have declared their opposition to the Lake Cowal gold mine project. No attention was paid to the fact that this land is interwoven with their ancestors, their lives today, and their identity.

Developing a gold mine at Lake Cowal has already meant much destruction of this Aboriginal Sacred Site including Aboriginal artifacts, scar trees (used to mark graves of the people) and other cultural objects. Barrick Gold has now been granted a “Consent to Destroy” from the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services. This permit has allowed Barrick Gold to proceed with this destruction.

See Valentines Day Action.

Click here for media releases about court actions of Wiradjuri Elder Neville Williams.

Cyanide is so lethal only one teaspoon of a 2% solution can kill an adult human. It is even more toxic to aquatic biota than to birds. Despite the fact that the gold mining industry claims that leaks, spills and other accidents are few, far between and not as harmful as the public fears; cyanide leaks and spills are commonplace in the industry. These mining accidents have poisoned entire river systems devastating the bird life.

Another fallacy is that cyanide breaks down rapidly into safe chemicals. The truth is that many potential breakdown products are nearly as lethal as cyanide itself.

A spill of wastewater containing cyanide, arsenic and potentially other toxins could severely damage the entire Cowal wetland (one of the 11% of wetlands left in Australia) and related waterways including the Murray River System. The Murray River system is already over-stressed by salt, nitrogen, acidity and agricultural chemicals. As well as the risk of killing fish, bird-life and farm stock; toxins could enter the food chain jeopardizing fishing industries and drinking water. (See CYANIDE ACCIDENTS – unfortunately only updated to December 2006).

Dr Barry Noller, Deputy Director of the National Research Center for Environmental Toxicology, in “Cowal Gold Project: Comments on the Environmental Impact Statement” writes, “longer term generation of seepage under alkaline pH and more alkaline conditions may give solubilization of arsenic. Note that arsenic is soluble under alkaline conditions and that the predominant form is arsenite. Arsenite is extremely toxic to biota and is a carcinogen. Evidence the effect of population drinking groundwater in Bangladesh, through contraction of skin cancer.”

Noller also notes, "Data for trace elements in mine waste rock is not given, although it is indicated that arsenic levels are high. This data should be made public. Waste rock emplacement is close to Lake Cowal and seepage may reach Lake Cowal.”

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