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Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd—Caley Valley Wetland investigation

The department has investigated the potential release of coal or coal fines into Caley Valley Wetlands as a result of an authorised stormwater release from the Abbot Point Coal Terminal. The release was made under a temporary emissions licence (TEL) granted to assist with site water management during Tropical Cyclone (TC) Debbie.

Timeline

March 2017

The department granted Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd a TEL for the period 27 to 30 March 2017, to assist with site water management during and after TC Debbie.

The TEL authorised total suspended solids (TSS) releases of up to 100 milligrams per litre (mg/L) into the Caley Valley Wetlands.

April 2017

On 6 April 2017, the State Disaster Coordination Centre provided aerial imagery to the department which showed significant colour variation in the Caley Valley Wetland when compared with previous aerial imagery in the same area.

Departmental officers were deployed to the site the same day (6 April 2017) to investigate the potential release of coal or coal fines into Caley Valley Wetlands. Due to flooding officers could not access the site to collect water samples.

Departmental officers returned to site 11 April 2017 to investigate the potential release of coal or coal fines into the wetlands.

As part of the department’s investigation into the Caley Valley Wetlands, the former Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI) was engaged to assist with a preliminary assessment of the wetlands.

DSITI collected in situ water monitoring data, sediment samples and water samples across seven sites within the Caley Valley Wetlands on 27 April 2017 and 28 April 2017 to determine the state of the wetland and to ground truth the colour variation depicted in aerial imagery.

This sampling event formed the basis of the report titled Caley Valley Wetlands – Preliminary assessment of impacts to Caley Valley Wetlands from Abbot Point Coal Terminal Post Tropical Cyclone Debbie (PDF, 8.2M).

September 2017

On 18 September 2017, the department issued Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd with notice to conduct an environmental evaluation under the Environmental Protection Act 1994. The environmental evaluation will seek to monitor, identify and describe any adverse impacts to the environmental values of the Caley Valley Wetland due to activities conducted at Abbot Point Coal Terminal.

Following the submission and review of the report required under the environmental evaluation, the department will consider whether further enforcement actions are required in line with the department’s Enforcement Guidelines.

Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd has continued to work with the department on the investigation and has reported matters relating to its operation during and following TC Debbie as required by its environmental authority.

October 2017

On 3 October 2017 the department received an application from Abbot Point Bulk Coal seeking an internal review of the decision to issue the environmental evaluation. The internal review process has now been completed and on 31 October 2017 the department issued a varied environmental evaluation (PDF, 5.5M) to Abbot Point Bulk Coal.

November 2017

On 30 November 2017, Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd elected to appeal the decision to issue a varied environmental evaluation.

December 2017

On 12 December 2017, Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd was granted a stay on the condition that any releases to the Caley Valley Wetlands be notified to the department within 24 hours. The matter is due to proceed in the Planning and Environment Court for directions on 9 February 2018.

February 2018

On 9 February 2018 a directions order was made by the Planning and Environment Court. The directions order puts in place steps to progress the matter towards a hearing including disclosure, narrowing the issues in dispute, notification of experts and a mediation. The matter is listed for a directions hearing on 4 May 2018.

On 28 February 2018, Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd notified the department that a release commenced from release point W1 that day. The notification was made in accordance with a court order that requires any release to the Caley Valley Wetland to be notified to the department within 24 hours of the commencement.

March 2018

On 5 March 2018 departmental officers attended the wetland to undertake sampling (focusing on coal fines). The sampling was conducted to collect additional information with respect to impact and distribution of coal fines in the wetland. The department is currently reviewing the laboratory results from the sampling.

September 2018

The matter was reviewed before the Planning and Environment Court on 21 September 2018. Orders were made by consent to set aside the decision and notice, which means the evaluation notice is no longer in effect.

Frequently asked questions

Why did satellite imagery appear to show the wetlands full of coal fines?

It is difficult to draw conclusions as to the cause of the colour variation depicted in the imagery of the Caley Valley Wetlands following Tropical Cyclone Debbie, due to the high variability of the wetland system and the imagery itself. The appearance of water bodies in remotely sensed imagery can be affected by several factors, including the depth and clarity of the water, the angle of the sun and the sensor when the image is captured. No conclusions regarding the condition of the wetland could be determined from this imagery and inspection of the site was required.

Has the department carried out site inspections?

Officers from the department together with technical experts from the former DSITI, attended the site and collected in-situ water quality, sediment samples and water samples across seven sites in the Caley Valley Wetland on 27 April 2017 and 28 April 2017. This sampling event formed the basis of the report titled Caley Valley Wetlands—Preliminary assessment of impacts to Caley Valley Wetlands from Abbot Point Coal Terminal Post Tropical Cyclone Debbie (PDF, 8.2M).

Was coal and coal fines found within the Caley Valley Wetlands?

Visual observations by departmental officers confirmed that the satellite imagery of the area following Tropical Cyclone Debbie was not representative of the true condition of the wetland. The dark coloured water depicted in the satellite imagery was not observed during the site inspection.

The report Caley Valley Wetlands—Preliminary assessment of impacts to Caley Valley Wetlands from Abbot Point Coal Terminal Post Tropical Cyclone Debbie (PDF, 8.2M) provides a number of findings and recommendations in relation to the water and sediment samples collected during the site inspection.

The report’s key findings were:

  • Visual evidence of coal fines was not observed across the majority of sites assessed in the wetland, however trace levels of coal fines were detected at most sites following laboratory analysis of sediment samples collected.
  • Coal fines were visually observed at one site immediately downstream of the licensed discharge point (W1). This is consistent with the results from the sediment analysis at this site, which found that coal composed approximately 10% in sediment sampled at the immediate discharge point, reducing quickly to minor concentrations of around 2% further away from the discharge point and falling to trace levels below 1% throughout the broader wetland area. There appeared to be partial coverage of the wetland substrate with coal fines at this location. Despite this observation, there did not appear to be any impediment to growth of wetland vegetation in this area and new growth, in response to the recent flooding, was evident.
  • Coal fines do not appear to have caused any widespread impacts on the wetland.
  • Further assessment is warranted to more accurately delineate the area potentially impacted downstream of the licenced discharge point and to monitor the response of the wetland to the authorised discharge.

What is the department’s next step?

On 18 September 2017, the department issued Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd with notice to conduct an environmental evaluation (PDF) under the Environmental Protection Act 1994. The environmental evaluation will seek to monitor, identify and describe any adverse impacts on the environmental values of the Caley Valley Wetland due to activities conducted at the Abbot Point Coal Terminal.

The department completed an internal review process following an application for review received by Abbot Point Bulk Coal. On 31 October 2017 the department issued a varied notice to conduct an environmental evaluation (PDF, 5.5M) to Abbot Point Bulk Coal. Abbot Point Bulk Coal elected to appeal the issue of the environmental evaluation.

The matter was reviewed before the Planning and Environment Court on 21 September 2018. Orders were made by consent to set aside the decision and notice, which means the evaluation notice is no longer in effect.

Instead of continuing with the Court proceeding, the department has decided to immediately begin plans to conduct its own monitoring and undertake a review of the terminal’s water infrastructure. Any sampling results will be made publically available.

Why did the department issue a temporary emissions licence (TEL) to Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd?

Abbot Point Bulk Coal Pty Ltd was granted a TEL due to the forecast of a major rainfall event associated with Tropical Cyclone Debbie in March 2017. The TEL permitted a temporary increase to the environmental authority (EA) release limit for total suspended solids (TSS) from 30mg/L to 100mg/L at two authorised release points. The two release points were W1, into the Caley Valley Wetland and W2, to the northern side of the terminal. W2 does not report to the Caley Valley Wetlands. Please refer to the attached map identifying the location of these release points.

Last updated
21 September 2018