FOSTERVILLE Gold Mine has been forced to make a $25,000 donation after the company pleaded guilty to causing toxic spray to drift onto a neighbouring property.
The company was sentenced in the Bendigo Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday to one charge from the Environmental Protection Authority in relation to the incidents in February and March, 2013.
The court heard the owners of a neighbouring property on Campaspe Road complained to the EPA on March 20, 2013, after they noticed spray from the mine drifting onto their property, causing their trees to lose foliage.
Trees had “white crusting” on the bark with leaves covered in a fine white powder. Up to 200 trees were affected between February 28 and March 4.
The spray was carbon-in-leach water, a byproduct from the gold mining process containing arsenic, sulfur, sodium, iron and antimony.
The water is evaporated using a system of sprays on the Robbins Hill Precinct, leaving minerals behind.
The trees were found to have arsenic levels 80 times the normal level.
No horses or humans were harmed by the spray, and drinking water was not found to be impacted.
The company stated a number of factors were behind the spray drifting onto the property, including years of drought followed by flooding rain leaving excess water in the evaporation ponds.
A lawyer acting on behalf of the company said a “one in 10 year” weather system caused strong south easterly winds – unusual for central Victoria – carrying the spray onto the property.
“High rainfall had washed more water into the ponds than usual. There was at least double, and likely 10 times, the normal concentration of toxic material in the water,” he said.
The spray system was disabled on March 18.
An investigation by the EPA, with co-operation from Fosterville Gold Mine, included soil samples and documentation. The company also conducted an internal review.
Since the incident, the company spent $600,000 on hay and labour for the property owners, before buying the property for $1.6 million.
Fosterville Gold Mine told Magistrate Richard Wright they did not deserve a conviction or a fine as it was the company’s first environmental breach, the climatic conditions were unprecedented, they had spent significant money after the incident and the company had done “good work in the community”.
Prosecuting for the EPA, Mandy Fox said it was “entirely inappropriate” for the company to avoid a financial impost.
She said the decision to purchase the affected property was “entirely a business decision” in an attempt to create a buffer zone around the mine.
“There needs to be general deterrence, the protection of the environment is critical,” Ms Fox said.
“We also need to encourage members of the public to report breaches with the knowledge that they will be taken seriously.”
Almost all of the trees made full recoveries.
Magistrate Richard Wright said there were always risks involved in removing toxic water and it was the company’s responsibility to ensure no harm was done.
“The company has done work after this incident and has been a good corporate citizen, but at the end of the day damage has been done,” he said.
Fosterville Gold Mine Pty Ltd avoided conviction, but was made to donate $25,000 to the City of Greater Bendigo to support an environmental program within the council.
The company was also made to pay the full $38,205 in EPA costs.