Great Artesian Basin and Painted Desert under threat from Altona's proposed Arckaringa Coal Mine

David Noonan

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) and South Australia's spectacular Painted Desert are threatened by one of the most destructive mining projects planned for Australia.

Rogue fossil fuel mining company Altona Energy PLC plans to exploit a coal deposit that lies beneath the aquifer of the GAB, north of Coober Pedy in the Painted Desert region. The Painted Desert is a national treasure, an artist's dream come to life in nature.

The British junior company Altona wants to dig a 20 square kilometre open-cut mine right through this spectacular landscape and Outback Australia's most important water source, effectively destroying the natural pressurised containment of the GAB aquifer.

Altona's coal mine would be a massive scar imposed on the landscape − some eight times the size of the Adelaide CBD. This is the sort of damage that can't be undone.

Mining water and threatening springs

Altona's coal mine would drain Australia's Great Artesian Basin and damage Outback bores for a century. Altona plans to 'de-water' the GAB − to pump out on average 320 million litres of groundwater every day through-out 30 years of mining − so that the natural flows of GAB groundwater will not 'interfere' with their proposed open pit coal mining operations.

This is an unprecedented water grab eight times higher than the maximum 42 million litres a day that the controversial and contested BHP Billiton Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine at Roxby Downs is licensed to extract from the GAB.

Altona intends to sell much of this public water resource to other proposed mining projects in the region − even proposing on its website "to open up the vast northern tracts of South Australia to industry and agriculture".

Mining water to this extraordinary extent would cause a significant regional drawdown effect and loss of pressure across the Western GAB. This represents a serious long term threat to the ecological viability and survival of these unique and fragile Springs – all of which are listed as Endangered Ecological Communities under Commonwealth environment laws.

Springs groups that are expected to be under threat across the north of SA include:

  • Mt Toondina Springs − the closest group of springs, some 50 km east of the coal pit;
  • Lake Cadbarrawirracanna Springs to the south east of the coal pit;
  • The northern String of Springs along the Oodnadatta Track (not the Lake Eyre Group further south);
  • Potentially the world famous Dalhousie Spring Group in Witjira National Park.

Altona's water grab has a 'cover story' in claiming a capacity to 're-inject' some treated water in to the GAB. This is a plan to compromise vital natural groundwater flows and then put the Springs on an experimental corporate life support system. That should not happen.

The Wilderness Society respects water in the Outback and aims to protect the Painted Desert region from fossil fuel industrialisation and coal mining impacts.

A safe climate means keeping Arckaringa Basin coal in the ground

The Arckaringa Basin is a carbon bomb with 20 billion tonnes of low grade coal beneath the GAB, equivalent to some 20% of Australia's current coal reserves. Altona's Exploration Leases for the Arckaringa Coal Project hold some 7.8 billion tonnes.

Given the science and the urgency of climate change over 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground and not be burnt if we are to stabilise the climate. We must not allow mining companies to exploit new fossil fuel basins to add to the problem.

The Wilderness Society has joined with the Conservation Council of SA to call on all political parties in the 2014 South Australian state election to:

  • Manage our resources sustainably, accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and stop issuing licenses to explore and extract coal.
  • Protect South Australia's water resources from environmental harm, particularly from mining exploration and exploitation, and reduce water extraction from the GAB.

Stopping coal and protecting water are key issues for community across Australia to engage.

Testing damaging technology in the Outback

Opening up the Arckaringa Basin for fossil fuel exploitation features Altona's proposed guinea-pig trial of high risk unconventional 'coal to diesel' technologies.

Altona's plans threaten to blow out our carbon budget and any real chance of averting dangerous climate change by staying below the internationally agreed 2 degrees C rise in global average temperatures.

Processing coal to diesel is a risky polluting technology that will cause high levels of greenhouse pollution, combining coal gasification, refinery and petrochemical facilities, and leaving hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal slag and other wastes in the Painted Desert.

Millions of litres a day of 'black water' waste from coal gasification would also be produced.

Arckaringa Basin is a coal rebranding exercise with claims of 'clean coal' and 'clean diesel' to exploit high risk unconventional coal deposits. According to the World Health Organisation, diesel fuel is a carcinogen – there is no 'clean diesel'.

Altona also claims an Arckaringa coal gasification facility will be Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) 'ready' with a proposed storage site in the region. But all CCS trials have failed to prove economic and CCS risks future greenhouse pollution leaks and disasters − potentially long after the proponents have left the scene. CCS is part of Altona's public relations sales pitch to promote the myth of clean coal to try and get away with their highly polluting coal to diesel plans.

Altona also plans a major new coal gasification fired power station in the Painted Desert that could displace sustainable new renewable energy projects across South Australia.

Selling water and electricity to other mining projects are key tactics in Altona's coal plans.

Altona targets the Painted Desert for multiple open pit coal mines

The first coal mine targets Arckaringa Station, 150 kms north of Coober Pedy to exploit the Wintinna coal deposit and trial a coal to diesel processing facility. This is to be followed by two further open-cut coal mines that Altona plans across the Painted Desert.

A second coal mine targets Evelyn Downs Station to exploit the Murloocoppie coal deposit.  The recently proclaimed Mount Willoughby Indigenous Protected Area on the western side of the Stuart Highway is also targeted as a third potential open pit coal mine to exploit the Westfield coal deposit.

The natural character of the Painted Desert would be irrevocably transformed by mining companies turning country into a fossil fuel industrial zone causing harm across the region.

In each case, country will be scarred and vast piles of coal slag waste and pit overburden are to be dumped over decades of mining.

The Painted Desert is a national treasure

The stunning Painted Desert hills burst out of the surrounding flatlands in a spectacular array of colours: red, brown, orange, yellow, white, purple and blue. The Painted Desert is home to Australia's largest monitor lizard, the Perentie, and a number of rare plants.

Altona's coal mine is to be imposed at the foot of the Arckaringa Hills in the Painted Desert.

An ancient landscape sculpted by water and a unique example of Breakaway Country, the natural values of this extremely fragile area were recognised for unique and significant aspects of the State's natural heritage and as a natural area of scenic and geological importance and listed as the Arckaringa Hills State Heritage Area in 1985.

The area features the ephemeral Arckaringa Creek that flood's to 2 km wide and flows into the Neales River and on occasion on to Lake Eyre itself. And a tributary Perentie Creek that is named after Australia's largest monitor lizard, the Perentie, that is known to visit the Arckaringa Hills, foraging rocky outcrops and surrounding areas.

The proposed open-cut coal mine would wipe out part of this State Heritage Area, including part of Arckaringa Creek and its 2 km wide floodplain and Perentie Creek, that are to be torn up and 'diverted' around the coal pit and forced to flow in artificial bunds.

The mine would butt against the former Arckaringa Hills National Estate area, registered for its "outstanding scenic value" and "biological significance due to the presence of rare plant species". Prime Minister Howard delisted this area in 2007 as part of his 'culture wars'.

The Arckaringa Hills State Heritage Area and these fine ephemeral Creeks should be protected from Altona's coal mining operations and allowed to continue to express their extraordinary natural diversity in the Painted Desert.

We are yet to see if the next SA state government will protect these areas.

Altona is about to resubmit an "Application for Exploration Works Approval" to the SA State government for a proposed exploration drilling program of some 31 boreholes. This is to further prove up the Wintinna coal deposit, to take 'bulk coal samples' for evaluation of coal processing options, and advance the company's plans to cut a hole through the aquifer of the GAB. This drilling program should not go ahead.

The Wilderness Society is campaigning to end the threat from this coal mining project.

David Noonan is a campaigner with The Wilderness Society (SA)