MINING giant Rio Tinto has been fined for a breach of environmental guidelines when it released water from its Hail Creek mine in central Queensland during recent floods.
As coal companies continue to struggle with releasing excess water from their mining pits, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection confirmed Rio Tinto was issued with a $2200 penalty infringement last month.
Rio said the breach was the result of a "failure in monitoring equipment".
However, the State Opposition and environmental groups said the fine was a slap on the wrist for the global mining company, which is also being investigated over a breach at its Kestrel mine, also in Central Queensland.
The Australian Financial Review revealed last month that more than a quarter of Queensland coalmines that released excess water into rivers and creeks during the January floods had allegedly breached environmental guidelines.
Seven companies remain under investigation for non-compliant discharge of water from mines. Another company, Sojitz Coal, has been issued with a warning over a breach at its Minerva mine in the Bowen Basin.
Rio Tinto admitted it had been fined for the breach but said it was due to an equipment failure. "Once this became apparent, we acted immediately to stop the release and the water did not leave the mining lease boundary," a spokesman said.
"This release did not meet our own high standards for environmental management and we have taken steps to prevent a repeat, including replacing the faulty equipment."
Mining companies have been lobbying successive Queensland governments to ease environmental restrictions to let them discharge water, which is a legacy of the 2010-11 floods.
They say the flooded pits have cost them hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years.
Opposition environment spokeswoman Jackie Trad said Rio Tinto had been hit with a comparatively small fine for dumping "toxic water" into the Fitzroy catchment.
"If this is the kind of penalty being dished out, it will not be surprising if Rio Tinto and other large mining companies continue to breach environmental regulations and pollute Central Queensland waterways into the future," she said.
Environment Minister Andrew Powell defended the size of the Rio Tinto fine, saying it reflected the seriousness of the breach. Fines can range up to $2.2 million for companies or $458,000 for directors as well as possible jail time. "Different enforcement options are used, depending on the breach," he said.
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