Chemical contamination and geothermal

What are the potential sources of chemical contamination from geothermal energy generation activities?

Increased levels of the chemicals arsenic, mercury, lithium, and boron are very likely to occur in geothermal fluids and can impact surrounding waterways and mahinga kai. Waste released from geothermal fields into waterways instead of being reinjected back into the geothermal field will damage aquatic life and make water unsafe for drinking or irrigation. 

Bioaccumulation (the accumulation in an organism of heavy metals that are not able to be broken down) of mercury, arsenic, and boron in the tissues of mahinga kai residing near geothermal areas can also make them unsuitable for consumption.

Potential impacts of chemical contamination on water quality and mahinga kai 

  • Local loss of fish species - fish may be harmed by contaminated water. Discharges and runoff into waterways can be lethal to aquatic life, depending on the strength of the contaminant and size of the waterway.
  • Local loss of invertebrate species - contaminants can be particularly lethal to invertebrates, e.g., kōura. Invertebrates are also food for fish, and persistent discharges that kill invertebrates could cause fish to travel farther in search of food, exposing them to greater risks and stress.
  • Decreased dissolved oxygen (DO) levels - waste compounds released into waterways initiate biochemical reactions that use up oxygen as the stream bacteria break down the organic matter (Biogeochemical Oxygen Demand, BOD). Excess nutrients can also lead to algal blooms, and oxygen is used up when the algae die and decompose. Fish ‘breathe’ oxygen through their gills; a decrease in available oxygen (anoxia) in the water column threatens their ability to respire, which may lead to death. Fish that tolerate low levels of dissolved oxygen (such as the introduced species gambusia) may replace native populations that are less tolerant.
  • Increased turbidity and decreased water clarity - water may become cloudy or discoloured with chemical contamination, which reduces the ability of fish to see prey and detect predators.
  • Damage to species - repeated exposure to sub-lethal doses of some contaminants can cause physiological and behavioural changes in fish that have long term effects on the population, such as reduced reproductive success, abandonment of nests and broods, a decreased immunity to disease, tumours and lesions, impairment of the central nervous system, and increased failure to avoid predators.
  • Some contaminants, such as mercury, may bioaccumulate in animal tissues and be carried to human consumers of the fish.

Learn more about the potential environmental impacts of chemical contaminants in waterways