'Dangerous' discovery at Aussie site abandoned 100 years ago: 'Toxic'

High levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, nickel, lead and zinc were found in the bubbling waters.

“Stratospheric” contamination has been detected at a former mining site in the NSW Central West, more than 100 years after it closed.

Western Sydney University scientist Professor Ian Wright suited up to prevent chemical contact with his skin and visited Sunny Corner, 35km east of Bathurst, on Thursday to measure metal concentrations. What he found was a “toxic cocktail at dangerous levels”.

Speaking with Yahoo News Australia on Friday, Professor Wright said despite the mine’s closure in the early 1920s, pollution could still be seen bubbling out of the ground.

Looking down into the mining site from above. Pine trees are located either site of the denuded site.
One hundred years after Sunny Corner's mine closed, plants still struggle to grow. Source: Ian Wright

Dissolved in pools of water and sulphur, he found high levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, nickel and zinc. But most worrying of all was the lead which he warned can act as a neurotoxin and cause “life-long impacts on brain development”.

Walking through mine site 'like a Mad Max scene'

The high-altitude site is located 1250 metres above sea level, in fertile basalt country, at the edge of a softwood plantation. Professor Wright described the ochre-red clearing in the valley as being “almost beautiful”.

But deeper into the old mine site, the landscape becomes “spooky” and the water bubbles like a "witch's brew". Old metal buckets and wire rope litter the landscape, there are “bizarre” coloured piles of rock and very little plant life. “I can sort of imagine Mad Max being shot here!” Professor Wright said.

A person in the distance looks at the green flowing water.
Only green algae can survive in the mine's toxic waters. Source: Ian Wright

Water inside one of the old mine shafts is a brilliant green, coloured by a strain of algae that can tolerate the toxins. “It was by far the worst water quality I have ever interacted with in my life in any environment,” he said.

When he last tested water at the site in 2021, zinc was measured at 24,000 times above safe water levels. Just downside from the site is Daylight Creek, a popular recreation spot with crystal clear water, which flows into the Turon River. "Just downstream from the area, there's a lot of people who go mountain biking bushwalking or driving," he said.

What scares Professor Wright is that he believes there are too few warning signs in the area. "You’d never know that this nasty cocktail of cocktails is so close,” he said.

Other toxic mining sites you should know about

Troubled mining sites litter Australia and neighbouring countries like Papua New Guinea and continue to pose a threat to human health. They include:

  • The Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, was majority owned by a Rio Tinto subsidiary, operating between 1972 and 1989. Its creation sparked a civil war during which thousands of people died. Rivers and land were contaminated and wildlife vanished.

  • Wittenoom blue asbestos mine in Western Australia was owned by a subsidiary of CSR and operated between 1943 and 1966. Over 2000 residents and workers died from asbestos-related illnesses, according to Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. The town was officially closed in 2022 and remains a dangerous place to visit.

  • Ok Tedi sliver mine in Papua New Guinea was leased by BHP in the early 1980s, until it completed a withdrawal from the site in 2002 and it was later nationalised by the government. Tens of thousands of litres of sludge and chemicals were dumped into the Tedi River. It is estimated operations resulted in the deaths of fish and demise of sections of rainforest.

Left - the Panguna mine from above. Right - a local man sitting in front of a sign saying 'Restricted Area'.
Long after Rio Tinto's Panguna mine closed, the landscape remains scarred by toxins. Source: Getty

What we can learn from toxic mine sites

Having travelled to a number of former mining sites, Professor Wright’s message is that governments need to think very carefully before they approve new mining operations.

Western NSW is undergoing a mining boom due to the world’s increasing demand for metals and he believes the cleanup needs to be addressed at the planning stage well before a project is approved.

“I don’t think we learn. It’s always: This time it will work, don’t worry it will be great,” he said. “But by the time the mine closes the decision makers are gone, the shareholders have done very well, and it’s the future generations and ecosystems who suffer the consequences.”

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