Last weekend an estimated 1,000 litres of diesel oil spilled into the Thredbo River, allegedly from a holding tank in Thredbo Village. The NSW Fire Brigade quickly responded placing booms at various locations across the river in an attempt to contain the spread of the oil slick, visible on the surface of the river. However, the spill continued throughout Saturday and well into Sunday before the source of the leakage was contained, raising questions about access to potential chemical spoilers of the alpine environment.
The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change has instigated a 6 month inquiry into the environmental impacts of the oil spill and has reported the contamination to the Environmental Protection Authority. Questions arising from this incident are how it happened in the first instance, and whether compliance with environmental safety is sufficiently stringent in the alpine region.
Water quality testing date for Thredbo is ‘privately owned’ and not readily available to the public for scrutiny drawing into question the frequency and independence of water quality testing. The NSW Government has overarching powers including over the conduct and activities of lessees within the Kosciuszko National Park and the terms of their lease including reporting breaches to the NSW EPA and ensuing legal action and fines under EPA laws. Of concern on this occasion was the failure of any of the concerned parties, Kosciuszko Thredbo, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Environment and Climate Change, and Environmental Protection Authority to issue a formal statement or press release about the oil spill and potential environmental health and safety issues.
Alpine Riverkeepers was alerted to the problem and received a rapid response from the Acting Resorts Manager for Kosciusko National Park. However they are still waiting for more detail as to the nature and extent of the spill and further action by the EPA and future preventative action by the NSW DECC and NPWS to monitor activities in the alpine region.
Oil spills in alpine regions around the world reveal the toxic nature of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons up to a decade later - depending on the extent of the spill - including on the food chain. Scientists are aware that oil pollution can be 100 times more toxic to fish than previously thought, including in the early stages of life, impairing reproduction, genetic damage, reduced egg volume, lowered growth and body weights, liver damager, eye tumours and debilitating brain lesions.
In the case of Thredbo, 1,000 litres of diesel oil is significant and may have impacts especially on fish reproduction. International studies point to the importance of decontamination of diesel oil spills in cold environments - in terms of soil, water and plant communities - with a general conclusion that biological decontaminant will not completely reduce the contaminant concentration to zero. Although bioremediation is use around the world for diesel oil spills in alpine water and soil environments, it is not 100% effective leaving the Thredbo River with a question mark over its environmental health into the future.
Thredbo River Keeper Peter Cocker said ‘it has happened now and there is nothing DECC can do except to ensure that it does not happen again and investigate and repair any environmental impacts.’
Alpine Riverkeepers firmly believes that tighter controls are needed over industrial workshops and worksites in Kosciusko National Park as well as over individual contractors.
Our alpine aquatic environments are under threat not just from drought and climate change, but from acid rain from industry (such as coal fired power stations in Victoria), from the nutrients and silver in cloud seeding and industrial contaminants including diesel used in machinery. Silver from cloud seeding is particularly toxic to aquatic species inducing respiratory depression in some fish species. With a marked and visible spike in algal pollution in the alpine region, the glacial lakes, some of the fens and streams, now the Thredbo and Snowy Rivers, there is a strong question mark over the health of alpine aquatic environments.
Last year, the EPA ordered DEC / NPWS to install a holding tank on the Perisher STP to reduce potential contamination to surrounding environments including Perisher Creek and it is important the NSW Government step up to the mark in terms of greater scrutiny and compliance with environmental health and safety standards. Kosciuszko National Park is a Biosphere Reserve with immense international significance as well as economic importance to the region, especially so the fishing sector.