Lake Cowal has been described as one of Australia’s most magnificent wetlands, but there are fears a gold mine expansion could threaten the breeding activities of its waterbirds.
- Evolution Mining wants to extend its gold operation at Lake Cowal
- The waterway is the largest inland lake in NSW and home to thousands of waterbirds
- A conservation group says it could irreversibly damage the lake and its wildlife
The inland lake in western New South Wales is the largest of its kind in the state.
And during breeding season, it is home to up to 50,000 water birds, with some flying from Russia.
In 2005 the lake got a new neighbour, Evolution Mining’s Cowal gold operation, which now wants to expand.
Mal Carnegie from the Lake Cowal Foundation said it was “a significant expansion of the mining operation rather than a continuation of the mining operation”.
Part of the mine already covers 132 hectares of the lake’s 13,500ha footprint.
“The total disturbance area within Lake Cowal itself will end up being 499ha, which is around about 3.7 per cent of the surface area of the lake, so it’s quite a significant area of increased impact,” Mr Carnegie said.
Noise, light pollution fears
The Lake Cowal Foundation is an environmental trust that was created to protect and enhance the lake.
In a submission to the NSW Department of Planning in response to Evolution Mining’s application to expand, the foundation raised concerns about how close the extension will come to bird breeding habitat.
“The footprint will actually push towards the main bird breeding areas of the lake,” Mr Carnegie said.
“It’ll be within three kilometres of the footprint [and] the potential impacts on the birds are noise and light pollution.”
Mine ‘successfully working’ for 18 years
In its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the company acknowledged there was little formal research on how noise and light affected birds, but said its operations to date had not interrupted the wildlife.
“There does not appear to be any difference in the number of birds, the number of species, or the diversity of birds recorded along the transect closest to the mine site, compared with those present prior to the development of Cowal Gold Mine,” the company said, in the EIS.
The mine’s general manager Joe Mammen said the company had a strong track record when it came to such matters.
“It’s important for us to recognise that the current Cowal operation has coexisted for approximately 18 years in terms of where we currently are working, and successfully working, with the local landholders and also the environment,” he said.
But Mr Carnegie does not agree.
“I think it’s probably a little bit of a stretch to say … because while the monitoring has taken place over a long period of time, it doesn’t necessarily target all areas and habitats of the lake,” he said.
“They may look to move to other areas to initiate their breeding activities or just forget about it altogether … that’s our main area of concern.”
Protection bund to be extended
Evolution Mining’s plans also involve extending the lake protection bund, which is a wall that separates Lake Cowal from the mine.
The company’s EIS stated it would be preferable for this work to be done when the lake was empty.
The document warned the protection bund would need to be in place before 2026 so the mine could retain its existing open cut workforce.
“There are some particular construction styles that will actually support and … reduce and minimise the impacts that goes through from there,” Mr Mammen said.
Mr Carnegie said building and extending the bund while the lake had water in it posed significant risks.
“If they’re constructing the lake protection bund during a wetter period, like we’re in now, we would have some concern of escape of silt and fine sediments from that construction process,” he said.
The mine is now preparing its response to the submissions.