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Impact of Gold Mining on Surrounding Areas in Australia

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Mining in its broadest sense began in Australia in the far distant past, perhaps as long ago as 40,000 years ago when Aboriginal people dug out rocks from which they created tools and weapons, such as spears, axes, and hammers from stones such as chart, granite, quartz, and secrete, well as ochre, which they used to produce their sacred images and decorating their bodies for other decorative uses too. There is evidence that frames were painted with ochre before burial. The (undated) New South Wales Mining Council explains how the remnants of 193 Aboriginal mining activities were found in spite of the effects of modern mining. Trading routes were developed even in those early years, which crisscrossed the region. The people also used coal for cooking and heating, and it is mentioned in the dream stories of the Awabakal people who lived in the area of modern Newcastle.

Impact of Gold Mining on Surrounding Areas in Australia

 Modern-day mining though began following the arrival of European settlers on the east coast seaboard in 1788. In the early days of the new colony, Hawkesbury sandstone was quarried and shaped of use in old buildings at Sydney Cove. The incomes quickly spread, and in 1791 the first coal discovery took place near Newcastle because of the activities of escaped convicts, including William Bryant. This discovery led to further investigations of possible sources, and within a few years, coal was being mined in several areas, both North and South of Sydney.   

At first, only coal was obtained from the sea at New Castle by ship-owners. This, they then shipped from 1798 onwards to the broader community in Sydney. The following year enough fuel was available to allow its export to India.

John Lister and William Tom at Ophir, in central New South Wales, made half a century later, in April 1851, gold was found by gold. An associate of theirs showed their gold to the then Colonial Secretary, Edward Hargraves. Hargraves claimed the reward of £5000 for its discovery. Lister, Tom, and the Rev. W.B. Clarke received only £500 each. It seems, however, according to recently discovered correspondence that the government had already acknowledged that there was gold to be found at Ophir, 25 kilometers from Orange, three years earlier in 1848 ( Mining Resources, 2010). Today, however, the mine has become a tourist site with underground tours and the opportunity to pan for gold (Ophir Gold Mining, NSW, 2012). According to the Mining Corporation of New South Wales (Undated), modern Australia, and New South Wales, was founded on the wealth and skills of mining. To understand the impact of possible new mining activities, it is necessary to know what has occurred in the past and the long term impacts of mining activities of various types throughout Australia.


Mining in Australia has affected the areas surrounding mines, and this impact has continued. 

The Origins and Impact of Australian Gold Mining

The Origins and Impact of Australian Gold Mining.

The discovery of gold at Ophir brought with it several long term advantages. It encouraged emigration to the new land, in particular from China. The mine was eventually worked out, but the miners and their descendants have remained, bringing aspects of their culture with them and their skills and transferring into other businesses in the area.

Other advantages came to transport. The gold had to be transported out, and the workers brought in, as well, of course, as any necessary supplies. Over some 50 years, “Cobb and Coaches” ran back and forth, and rail lines were then established with frequent connections to major centers including Sydney and Melbourne.

Before the discovery of gold, Australia had been seen are merely a penal colony. Gold, together with other minerals mined, were the catalysts that brought wealth to Australia and attracted thousands of ‘voluntary ‘settlers., quadrupling the population between 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871. This then became linked to new feelings of independence and confidence. These eventually led to the Federation’s creation, and later in 1901 came the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The gold rush began only weeks after that original discovery with thousands of laborers digging around Bathurst, with an influx of hundreds more joining them each day. All this activity prompted the Governor of Victoria, Charles J. La Trobe, to offer £200 to anyone who found gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. James Dunlop at Ballarat, Victoria, was among the first of many to do so in August 1851. However, earlier in the year, the precious mineral had already been found at Clunes, Warrandyte, Kilmore, and Buninyong. The massive amounts found at Bunningyong and Ballarat started the tremendous Victorian gold rush.

Victorian gold rush

Within weeks diggings had been extended, in some cases going as deep as 12 meters. The ore was creamy with a wash yielding up to 225g of gold in each dish. News of these huge returns soon spread, and by the following year, a large number of would-be miners were arriving from overseas. This was at the height of the industrial revolution, so by 1856, more than forty steam engines were being used for crushing quartz and for hauling the ore and water from the ever-deepening mine shafts. Stream beds were found overlaid by basalt flows. The miners were able to recover gold from the surface, from streams, deep-lead alluvial, and crushing rocks. A variety of methods were used to improve it, from simple gravity to mercury concentration.

Almost all of Victoria’s gold mines had been discovered by the end of the 1850s. The majority lie along an arc between 80 and 240 kilometers north and west of Melbourne; the last significant find was in 1904 at Mafeking, and from this time on, yields began to fall. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, both sluicing and dredging techniques were in use, as was widespread use of the cyanide process, which was able to collect gold, which was more or less invisible or had not worth bothering about when large nuggets were still being found. 

Yen ( undated) describes how this method was used. It involves crushing rocks to tiny crumbs, and these are then mixed with cyanide. This method leaches out small amounts of gold from the broken stones and is justified by the high prices that gold still sells for. The foundation is first obtained by blasting, the rocks are then carried to a crushing mill, after which they are mixed with the cyanide in solution. This has the effect of leaching out any gold. The process enables mines that would otherwise not be worth working into profitable businesses once more. However, the method produces large amounts of waste products, including toxic ones, particularly those associated with the cyanide. Noble and Marmion ( 1983) describe the adverse effects this has upon both plant life and wildlife, leading to a loss of biodiversity, and Yen ( undated) also mentions the possibility of toxins entering the water supply unless active intervention is carried out to prevent this. Both highly acidic and metal-laden wastewater in surface water and groundwater might run off-site to contaminate water downstream.

With so much gold being brought out, it was natural that yields quickly fell from alluvial sources. Within the whole of Victoria, Victoria’s yearly gold production peaked at 82.25t by 1857, but in the next twenty years fell by almost two thirds to 30t by 1877. Gold continued to be found, but by, and by the 1970s amounts had dropped to about 0.25t. In recent years the 2008-9 production annually was only about 7.26 tonnes.

Since those early days, mining has had a significant impact on the local landscape, with even rivers being diverted and original landscape features being obliterated under layers of silt. This left scars on the scene, which can still be seen according to the Australian Mining History Association ( 2012). The incomers needed housing and other resources and so out of a city of tents and huts gradually developed the various more permanent towns now in the area, with their mixture of buildings and infrastructure, schools, shops, bars, roads and hospitals, a lasting legacy of the efforts of those early pioneers.  

By September of 1851, the Ballarat miners had become real diggers by going down three to twelve meters to find the creamy wash yielding anything up to 225g of gold per dish. Few shafts were as costly as this, but between July and October, Ballarat grew into a tent and shanty city housing close to 9,000 people. By August of the following year, the rush from overseas was underway, and the surface alluvial gold became scarcer. By late 1856, over forty steam engines were operating to haul ore and water from the deepening mine shafts and crush quartz. Hidden stream beds overlain by basalt flows were discovered, so that gold was recovered from surface, surface alluvial, deep-lead alluvial, quartz and hard rock crushing by various methods. These included gravity and mercury concentration. Sluicing and dredging techniques and extensive use of the cyanide process followed towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Victoria’s annual gold production peaked at 82.25t in 1857; it fell below 30t in 1877, and by the 1970s had fallen to around 0.25t. The 2008-9 yearly production was about 7.26 tonnes. The mining of gold in the areas is still possible because of modern methods. The so-called Eureka rebellion in Ballarat in 1884 ( Vanguard 2012) has its origins the disgruntlement the miners felt about such things as the need for licenses. It was felt to be essential and is still celebrated annually. The men built a fence, and from inside, they defended themselves successfully against the militia sent in by the government. Before the mining began, the area was a pastoral one. The government in place set up at that time had to make several changes to cope with the transformation into a densely populated industrial area. Several new laws were required. There were demands to build better infrastructure, and administrative systems were needed to cope with the changes. Some of those changes have been permanent, others less so, but it is clear that mining had a massive impact on the newly established country.  

Despite its early importance New South Wales remains the state with the second-highest level of gold production (Hughes, 2006, page 9), but Victoria and its goldfields have certainly played an important role. According to a report from Bullion Street ( March 2012), Australia as a whole, despite a slight drop in new production levels, remains the second-largest producer of gold. 


In modern times people, in general, are much more aware than they once were of the impact their activities might be having in the broader environment. The early settler miners were concerned first and foremost with merely making a living under challenging circumstances. The waste heaps they left behind and the damage is done a negative legacy. Still, the people themselves and their descendants have added extra complexity and culture to the Australian melting pot.

  • Bullion Street, March 2012, Australia gold production hit 264 metric tons last year, available from http://www.bullionstreet.com/news/australia-gold-production-hit-264-metric-tons-last-year/1256 ( accessed 5th December 2012)
  • Hughes, W., 2006,  Minerals and Metals Availability in New South Wales , Minerals Development Branch, NSW Department of Primary Industries
  •  New South Wales Mining Council Ltd, Available from  http://www.nswmin.com.au/Mining-in-NSW/History-of-Mining/History-of-Mining/default.aspx ( Accessed 5th December 2012)
  • New South Wales Mining Council Ltd, Indigenous Mining History, Available from http://www.nswmin.com.au/Mining-in-NSW/History-of-Mining/History-of-Mining/default.aspx ( Accessed 5th December 2012)
  • Noble ,D. and Marmion, H., 1983, Cyanide in Riparian Vegetation,” Gold, Silver, Uranium, and Coal: Geology, Mining, Extraction, and Environment, M. C. Fuerstenau and B. R. Palmer, eds. New York: The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers,.
  • Mining Resources, 2010,  Mining Techniques Through History, Available from http://vicmins.com.au/category/mining_resources/ ( Accessed 5th December 2012)
  • Ophir Gold Mining, 2012 Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIf053YEW1w ( Accessed 5th December 2012)
  • Vanguard , November 28th 2012, Eureka Rebellion- an historical perspective, Avasilkable from http://vanguard-cpaml.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/eureka-rebellion-historical-perspective.html ( Accessed 5th December 2012)

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