Australian mining company South32 has agreed to pay $2.9m after an investigation revealed one of its coal mines had been draining drinking water to its facility for the past five years. 

A subsidiary of South32, Illawarra Coal Holdings, which was responsible for the work at the Dendrobium coal mine in Mount Kembla, conceded it did not have a licence to take any surface water through its mining activities.  

The company drained five megalitres or two Olympic swimming pools worth of water from the catchment area each day between 2018 and 2023 without a permit. The water laws enforcement body of the area, the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR), first received a complaint about the activity in 2018 and began its investigation.  

Grant Barnes, NRAR chief regulatory officer, said the monetary settlement was an alternative to court action, and the company would be monitored closely in the wake of a breach.  

“These alleged breaches are very serious, and they do concern significant quantities of water, water which is lost from an ecologically sensitive area both to surface creeks and wetlands above the Dendrobium coal mine,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).  

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The miner has also agreed to pay $70,000 to cover the costs of the investigation, as well as legal and monitoring charges. Further, the agreement requires South32 to invest in new technologies to improve surface water management and report the monitoring results annually.  

The fine of $2.9m will go towards funding the restoration of the waterway. 

“Over the coming months, we will work collaboratively with NRAR and other stakeholders to develop a suitable water-related community project,” a company spokesperson told ABC.  

The company adopted the surface water licensing regime announced by the New South Wales Government earlier this year.  

“We understand that water is a critical resource and recognise our obligation to pay for all water used by our operations in the same manner all water users do,” said the company spokesperson.