Olympic Dam desalination threatens cuttlefish, say researchers

Brine discharge from the proposed Olympic Dam seawater desalination plant in South Australia poses a potential threat to the unique spawning aggregation of the giant Australian cuttlefish, in the upper Spencer Gulf, South Australia, according to two researchers.

Jacqueline L Dupavillon, on the staff of the Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories at the University of Adelaide, and honours student Bronwyn M Gillanders, have warned in the journal Marine Environmental Research that the survival of cuttlefish embryos decreased with an increase in salinity, with no embryos surviving to full term in salinities greater than 50‰. Mean weight and mantle length also decreased with increasing salinity.

However, Sabine Lattemann from the Institute for Chemistry & Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM), University of Oldenburg, Germany, who reviewed the marine chapter of Olympic Dam plant’s environmental study, told D&WR that “the studies were sound and the results credible”.

Gary Crisp, chief technical officer of South East Queensland (Gold Coast) Desalination Co Pty Ltd, who has experience with the only major Australian plant with any length of operating experience, said, “I believe a year after the plant is built we will see no adverse effect. They said that Cockburn Sound would be an undersea desert. The Perth plant has produced exactly the opposite.”

Mine owner BHP Billiton Ltd, the world’s largest mining company, said on 1 May 2009 that it may decide next year on a possible Aus$ 15 billion (US$ 11 billion) expansion of its Olympic Dam mine and is seeking uranium supply agreements with China. The operation will use 253,000 m³/d of water, of which 200,000 m³/d will be pumped 320 km in a pipeline from a desalination plant in the upper Spencer Gulf.