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Cost-Benefit Comparisons of Ecological Risk Against Water Management Options in the Finniss River System, Australia

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  • Quantitative probabilistic ecological risk assessment has been used to evaluate the likely effect on fish diversity and abundance of filtered and bioavailable metals in streamwater affected by acid drainage from the abandoned and remediated Rum Jungle U/Cu mine in the Northern Territory of Australia. The water quality was determined using monitoring data from a gauging station on the East Branch of the Finniss River, downstream of the mine site, and modelled assuming a number of potential water quality management options. The management options ranged from no action, through some flushing options to full catch and treatment of contaminated seepage from the waste rock heaps. The computer code AQUARISK was used to undertake the analyses. Critical criteria for contaminant water concentrations at the site, derived from probability density functions of available fish ecotoxicology data, were found to closely approximate the regulatory trigger values for the contaminants of concern. Modelled predictions of reduced diversity and abundance were also in good agreement with in situ biodiversity measures. Based on a reasonable target of 67 per cent species tolerance for this heavy impacted site, it was found that none of the low cost options for wastewater management was acceptable. Combinations of two of the options approached acceptability. Both of the catch and treat options exceeded the arbitrary acceptability target well. This implied that the more expensive option of liming to pH 10 might be unnecessary at this site. Thus, the use of ecological risk assessment modelling has proven useful in undertaking cost-benefit analyses for this site. The approach provides a management decision-making tool that can be economically used to link expensive on-site environmental engineering options with site-specific ecological goals rather than the previous nebulous aims of ‘reduced contaminant load’ or ‘improved biodiversity’ that often resulted in excessive expenditure without achieving successful environmental benefit.

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