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Shenhua hasn't done its homework about mine impacts, says author of ground water study -

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MARK COLVIN: New research has found that open cut mines can affect groundwater and the trees that rely on it up to several kilometres away from the mines themselves.

The findings may have implications for the proposed Shenhua coal mine on the New South Wales Liverpool Plains.

One researcher says the company should go back to the drawing board on the project's environmental impact statement.

Angela Lavoipierre reports.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: For as long as the Shenhua Watermark coal mine has been on the cards for the Liverpool Plains, farmers and green groups have been voicing their fears about its impact on local groundwater.

A new research project is backing those concerns, having found that trees several kilometres from an open-cut mine in the Pilbara, were affected by a drop in the watertable.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: At the site where the water table had dropped, at least due to our measurements, we could then say they were using much less water.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Dr Sebastian Pfautsch from the University of Western Sydney is one of the researchers.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: I always refer to an example where you have a very thick liquid in a bowl and you pop a straw in the centre of that bowl, and you start sucking that out, sucking liquid out.

It would form what we call a cone of depression towards the centre where your straw is.

Now, depending on the rate of pumping, the cone of depression will be deeper or more shallow.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Dr Pfautsch says the drop in the water table depends on a number of factors, including the depth of the mine.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: That then determines how far the cone of extraction spreads into the landscape. This is where you get the impact onto the vegetation, because it's far beyond the actual mine-site boundaries, because this actual cone of depression just spreads into the landscape.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: He believes the findings apply to Shenhua's proposed open-cut coal mine, near prime agricultural land in northern New South Wales.

The Federal Government has granted conditional approval for the project, although its state approval is currently being challenged in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.

Dr Sebastian Pfautsch says Shenhua seems not to have considered the possible effects of a drop in the watertable on areas outside the mine site.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: The studies and also the mitigation of effects that is suggested in those documents is mostly limited to the actual area of the mine, so within the boundaries of the mine site.

Now if you look at a map of where these several mine pits within the larger boundary of the mine where they actually propose, you will see that towards the west, the mine area is abutting straight away onto the Breeza State Forest.

Now, this forest also contains some of this endangered box gum woodland. I would expect, if you want to prevent any effect of your dewatering happening in or affecting that forest with its endangered woodland, that you start monitoring in this area as well, and not just on your mine site.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Tim Duddy from the Caroona Coal Action group has been a long-standing opponent of the Shenhua mine

TIM DUDDY: Well look, it doesn't come as any surprise to me. Certainly from the impacts that we've seen from mining projects around the country, where trees in proximity to mines tend to die and all those things that occur, it comes as no surprise that they are now saying that depleting underground water sources - shallow water resources - close to mine projects impacts other things in nature.

It comes as no surprise to us whatsoever.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Dr Sebastian Pfautsch's work was focussed on the impact for trees, but says there may also be an impact for nearby farms.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: The important work that needs to be done is to lessen those impacts as much as possible, so yes, to answer your question, there will be an impact.

You would expect that there is an impact if you have started digging a very big hole and you dewater the area around it that you will feel an impact further, either upstream within the aquifer or downstream.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: He believe there may be ways to mitigate that impact, but he says it's up to Shenhua to make that case.

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: We couldn't find during the time of our studies, we couldn't find a single tree that died because of drought, and this is only the case because water management is preventing that.

So these guys actually did they're homework. This is something that I think should be applied elsewhere when it comes to management of our natural resources.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Are you concerned then that Shenhua perhaps hasn't done its homework in this instance?

SEBASTIAN PFAUTSCH: From my reading, correct. From my reading, there could be more to actually prevent the chance that the environment will be harmed by de-watering.

MARK COLVIN: Dr Sebastian Pfautsch from the University of Western Sydney, ending that report from Angela Lavoipierre.