Digital Issue 2

Book review: Sludge – Disaster on Victoria’s Goldfields

  • By Jon Crosbie MAusIMM(CP), Group Manager Closure and Remediation, MMG

Book by Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies

What was the environmental impact of historical gold mining on Victoria’s rivers? This is the question that Sludge answers, a book born out of an Australian Research Council-funded academic collaboration between researchers from the disciplines of industrial archaeology, history, geomorphology and environmental chemistry. While there is a plethora of published works on the mining history of Victoria, these largely focus on the economic, political and social history; and there is a dearth of works on environmental history. This project was the first systematic study of the impact of historic mining on Australian rivers.

Sludge begins with a summary of the recent Brazilian tailings storage facility failures, and comparing the devastation to that which persisted in Victorian rivers for 50 years from the beginning of the 1850s gold rush.  ‘Sludge’ was the colloquial term used at the time for the ‘thick, semi-liquid slurry of sand, clay, gravel and water that flowed out of mining operations’, which today we know as tailings.

From 1851-1914, gold mining was Victoria’s biggest industry, producing 2500 tonnes of gold. The book provides a very detailed coverage of the mining and processing techniques used at the time. This includes both artisanal mining techniques and industrial mining co-located in the same catchment areas. Examples were provided of how technology changes influenced the quantity and rate of sludge being produced, as well as examples of how regulatory changes had similar influences.

The widespread and persistent impacts from mining sludge were observed on 75 per cent of Victorian rivers during this period, with an exhaustive number of specific examples provided from historical documentation, validated with some recent scientific fieldwork. Downstream landholders and farmers protested at the choking up of rivers, floodplains being smothered by sludge and water quality being unfit for human or livestock consumption. Over time there was an increased use of litigation (as well as violence) over water usage rights, with petitions and lobbying of MPs followed, to impose and enforce stricter regulations on mining, and even attempt to force injunctions to close down individual operations. Similar issues are still being debated today.

As detailed in the book, it took generations to control the sludge issue and protect the rivers and water supplies. Sludge hence provides clear lessons than can be applied currently to areas such as our social licence to operate, cumulative impact assessments of new mining projects, as well as mine closure planning. 

The book finishes with a call for stronger recognition of those who fought hard to protect the waterways for future generations, as they have largely been forgotten to history until now. The current clean water we enjoy is taken for granted, and we should be thankful. The book also provides an opportunity to reflect on current practices in the industry, which have come along way, yet we still experience similar challenges to those faced by our forebears 150 years ago. The authors acknowledge that mining delivers much value to society, yet our environmental legacies are enduring, so they challenge us by stating there is an ongoing need to improve our performance to maintain the sustainability of the industry.

This book will appeal to those interested in general mining history, Victoria’s goldfields’ history, and anyone curious about the short and long-term impacts from mining waste on the environment. I found it to be a real page turner.

Sludge is available now through Black Inc Books, with more details on the academic research available at rivers-of-gold.com.

Share This Article