Just over a year after it was given the go ahead to restart coal mining at Russell Vale Colliery, Wollongong Resources was fined for polluting the water running into Bellambi Gully with toxic metals.
The federal government's Department of Climate Change, the Environment, Energy and Water (DCCEEW) issued a $13,320 fine to the Illawarra miner in November for breaching pollution conditions.
The fine was issued to Wollongong Coal, however the fully owned subsidiary of Jindal Steel & Power recently rebranded to become Wollongong Resources.
The extension of underground mining at Russell Vale was approved by Coalition minister Sussan Ley in August 2021, allowing the company to restart operations after several years.
One of the conditions was that the company must ensure water discharges to Bellambi Gully did not result in water quality exceeding certain limits for some metals.
While the federal environment department has not detailed exactly when the breach occurred, Wollongong Resources' own reports show it exceeded these limits several times in 2022.
For instance, in May, the aluminium levels were more than three times the limit allowed under the approval conditions, and over four times the limit of the Australian and New Zealand water quality guidelines.
Antimony - which is considered one of the most toxic heavy metals - also exceeded the limit on several occasions, with one reading in May close to double the approval conditions and four times the water quality guidelines.
The Australian Conservation Foundation's (ACF) lead environmental investigator Annica Schoo said the multiple breaches were concerning.
"The fine was issued in November, and you can see from publicly available compliance reports that they have exceeded the limits multiple times over at least a six month period, just based on what the company has published themselves," she said.
"I don't know which of these inspired the infringement notice, but it's definitely not a one off occasion."
She said it was also concerning that the breaches had happened so soon after the company was allowed to restart mining at Russell Vale.
"It's especially concerning because the company doesn't have a good record - they have been fined in the past by the state regulator for a similar issue," she said.
"But the fine is also a positive sign that the federal environment department is closely watching. But we would really like to see a bigger infringement than $13,000 - that's a slap on the pinky finger."
A DCCEEW spokesperson said fine occurred after a "self-reported incident", with the the immediate environmental risk being minimised by Wollongong Coal ceasing the discharge of treated mine affected water.
"After engagement from the department, and strict controls being enforced by the department on the recommencement of water discharge, discharge of treated water recommenced on 30 June 2022," they said.
This was necessary to avoid uncontrolled discharge of untreated water, which could have resulted in "potential severe consequences for the environment", the department said.
Ms Schoo said the ACF was hopeful upcoming federal environment reforms would bring in improved enforcement measures for mining companies.
"We're really hoping to see a fully resourced, independent federal EPA with the tools to respond to these types of noncompliance," she said.
Bellambi Gully drains through residential areas and discharges at Bellambi Beach, which is a popular swimming location.
Ms Schoo said the metal pollution did not necessarily pose a risk to human health, but was regulated because the metals are toxic, mainly to aquatic species.
She said residents would have received a health notice if pollution posed a danger to humans, but said she would personally not be keen to spend time around the creek or the outlet near the beach.
"I certainly wouldn't fish there," she said.
Ms Schoo noted residents had already taken footage of the gully "running black" in the past, and said people could keep an eye on any changes to the creek.
"If people see anything they can let us, or tell the federal environment department and the NSW EPA because all of us have a stake in making sure these things are done properly," she said.
Wollongong Resources last year said it hoped to continue expanding it's operations at Russell Vale, saying the mine was producing 2000 tonnes of coal a day last September but that it hoped to expand to a million tonnes a year.
The company, which also operates the Wongawilli mine, is owned by Indian industrial conglomerate Jindal Steel and Power and coal mined in Russell Vale is exported to Indian steel mills.
The Mercury contacted Russell Vale Colliery to ask for a comment about the water pollution, but the company did not respond.
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