[ASC-media] Media release: pollution threat to groundwater

JCA Media jca.media at starclass.com.au
Mon Sep 24 00:43:52 CEST 2007

CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Envrionment


September 24, 2007


At a time of critical national water shortages, Australia's precious groundwater is at risk of pollution from industrial contaminants released on the surface.

Several million Australians rely on underground water for their drinking supplies and industry also depends extensively on it, says Dr Grant Hose of CRC CARE and the University of Technology Sydney, who is working to develop the nation's first guidelines for sampling and assessing  groundwater in order to protect it.

"Australians use almost 1500 gigalitres of groundwater every year and some communities depend entirely on it," Grant says. "In cities like Perth, Newcastle and Wagga, it is a major component of the household and industrial water supply."

Chemical and fuel spills and seepage from contaminated industrial sites often end up in groundwater, Grant says.  Australia's 100,000 potentially contaminated sites would, in most cases, be leaking contamination into aquifers running beneath them.

Till the current water shortage, it was largely a case of "out of sight, out of mind", but facing growing scarcity of all waters, Australia needs to put as much effort into protecting the quality of its groundwaters and their ecology as it does its surface water resources, he says.

"Current water quality guidelines treat groundwater as if it were the same as surface water - which it is not," he says.  "For one thing it has a completely different and unique ecosystem - one which can easily be damaged or killed by toxins leaching in from above.

"These microbes and invertebrates in aquifers help purify the groundwater, and are an important - though largely unrecognised - part of Australia's natural biodiversity. We don't want to lose them," he says.

Despite their importance, groundwater ecosystems are rarely taken into account in the assessment and management of contaminated sites, and there are no guidelines for assessing and protecting them when these sites are cleaned up.

Grant's research aims to provide industry and regulators - and through them the community - with guidelines for sampling and assessing groundwater ecosystems to enable comprehensive and sustainable management of groundwater and contaminated sites in Australia.

"Water is already scarce due to rising demand and shrinking resources, both surface and underground. That makes it imperative we do not waste groundwater by polluting it with toxic contaminants," he says.  "It is equally imperative we do not risk the health of communities who drink groundwater, or other ecosystems which depend on it such as our underground fauna or river red gums."

While his research is focussed on contaminated sites in NSW, Grant says its outcomes will have national implications. "The project is more about developing processes than it is about specific outcomes.  It's about how we assess underground ecosystems and should apply to a wide range of aquifers in different settings and locations. It's about how we run toxicity tests on groundwater organisms so we can develop water quality guidelines for groundwater. 

"At the moment we know very little about certainly the ecology of Australian groundwater ecosystems, what's there, the role it plays and how sensitive it is to pollution. These are some of the critical questions that this project will answer." 

"Groundwaters don't generally have fish or plants, and have few insects. This, plus the confined, dark conditions, means the life that inhabits them is very different from that of surface waters.  Yet it plays a vital role, for example, in breaking down organic pollutants and making the water safe to drink. That's a service we don't want to lose."

Grant says the guidelines will be in the form of a manual advising groundwater users or contamination managers how to check what is in their aquifers, and how it responds to toxins that may have leaked in from above. It will also provide advice on water quality standards to protect it. 

Although the project is in its early days, it has already made exciting discoveries of new species previously unknown to science, and is developing a better understanding of how groundwater ecosystems work.

CRC CARE managing director Professor Ravi Naidu says groundwater contamination is an example of a serious, second-round impact of contamination of land. "It is often the mechanism by which toxic contaminants can reach humans via plants, animals, the food chain and drinking water - as we have seen in examples such as the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh. Many people in Australia, for example, use groundwater to grow vegetables at home, and market gardens sometimes depend on it."

"This is an issue which Australia needs to address urgently as the national water shortage becomes more critical.  But it is also a field in which we have the opportunity to develop a world technical lead, with resulting export income from understanding how to deal with it."
More information:
Dr Grant Hose, CRC CARE and UTS, ph 02 9514 4087 
Email: grant.hose at uts.edu.au
Professor Ravi Naidu, CRC CARE, 08 8302 5041 or 0407 720 257
Kim Sinclair, CRC CARE communication, ph 08 8302 3933 or 0429 779 228
Kim.sinclair at crccare.com


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