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Using Science to Develop a Sustainable Management Policy for Acid Sulfate Soils in Queensland, Australia

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  • Coastal acid sulfate soils (ASS) are wetland soils and unconsolidated sediments that contain iron sulfides which, when exposed to atmospheric oxygen in the presence of water, form sulfuric acid. ASS form in protected low energy environments such as barrier estuaries and coastal lakes and commonly occur in low lying coastal lands as Holocene marine muds and sands. When disturbed, the iron sulfides in these soils can oxidise and produce large volumes of sulfuric acid (essentially similar chemistry to acid rock drainage with mines) resulting in the subsequent release of toxic levels of iron, aluminium, manganese and possibly heavy metals. This results in detrimental effects on aquatic biota, plants, animals and steel/concrete structures and on human health in the surrounding environment. There are an estimated 2.3 million ha of ASS located along 6500 km of the Queensland coastline. In contrast to many mineral sulfides encountered in the mining industry, the pyrite crystals in ASS can be as small as 2 mm and commonly occur as framboids with extremely large surface area per unit mass, substantially increasing their reactivity if exposed to air (oxidation). Highly reactive iron monosulfides can also occur, particularly in drains and shallow lakes. Many coastal areas, where some 80 per cent of the population of Queensland reside, are coming under pressure for agricultural and urban development. Construction of canal estates, marinas, housing/industrial estates, roads, golf courses, aquaculture ponds, sand/gravel extraction and drainage for sugar cane can disturb ASS and release sulfuric acid, which may then drain into adjacent waterways with heavy rain. As development continues to encroach on coastal lowlands, the identification, quantification and management of ASS must be addressed as part of a commitment to the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). ASS can be successfully managed by adopting best practices and following guidelines, but government, community and industry must collaborate to raise awareness, avoid ‘hot spots’ and develop more cost-effective solutions. Scientists led the education and public awareness program showing infrastructure and environmental damages arising from ASS in Queensland. Using results from mapping and research, they convinced policy makers, industry and polititians to accept the need for legislation founded on good science. The resulting ‘State Planning Policy 2/02: Planning and Managing Development Involving Acid Sulfate Soils’ identifies the State’s interest in acid sulfate soils. The Queensland Government considers that development involving acid sulfate soils in low-lying coastal areas should be planned and managed to avoid potential adverse effects on the natural and built environment (including infrastructure) and human health. SPP 2/02 states where the policy applies and when a development application will trigger the policy. It can also be used to assist local governments in preparing their planning schemes under the ‘Integrated Planning Act 1997’. The SPP 2/02 comes with a ‘State Planning Policy 2/02 Guideline’ to provide advice and technical information on interpreting and implementing the SPP 2/02. This guideline has legal status in assisting in the interpretation of SPP 2/02. Those seeking more detailed technical information can now also access the ‘Soil Management Guidelines’ and ASS ‘Sampling Guideline’, available from the Department of Natural Resources and Mines website. These are some of a series of chapters being developed for the ‘Queensland Acid Sulfate Soil Technical Manual’.

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