Acid Sulfate Soils

What are Acid Sulfate Soils?

Acid sulfate soils discharge in drain

Acid Sulfate Soils (ASS) underlie parts of Tasmania's coastline and some inland locations. They are natural soils that contain sulfides (mostly iron sulfides), usually in microscopic form. Most of these sulfides were formed by bacterial activity (sulfate reducing bacteria) in underwater sediments over thousands of years. Sea water provides a ready source of sulfate sulfur for conversion to sulfides and thus extensive areas of ASS tend to be found on low-lying coastal margins once covered by sea water. As the river deltas and beach ridges advanced seaward and sea levels receded, the sulfur-rich sediments remained and today can be found in coastal plains, wetlands and estuaries. See:

    Landscapes in High Probability ASS areas   (623Kb)

In an undisturbed and waterlogged state these soils are harmless, but when disturbed and/or exposed to oxygen through drainage, excavation or climate change, a process of oxidation can produce sulfuric acid in large quantities. In an undisturbed state these soils are called Potential Acid Sulfate Soils (PASS). Once they are disturbed and start oxidising, they are called Actual Acid Sulfate Soils (AASS). They are collectively referred to as Acid Sulfate Soils (ASS).

After rain and particularly following prolonged dry periods, the sulfuric acid in AASS is released into the surrounding environment. As the acid moves through the soil profile it may 'mobilise' or cause the release of heavy metals and other toxins from the soil, which eventually flow into surrounding waterways. At worst toxic 'slugs' of metal-rich acid runoff can move downstream and flow into estuaries, reducing oxygen levels in the water, significantly decreasing water quality, killing fish and damaging sensitive ecosystems. For example, this process caused extensive environmental damage in NSW in 1987 when flooding mobilised aluminium and acid from disturbed ASS into the Tweed River.

ASS runoff has significant environmental, economic and social impacts on coastal communities. Besides the obvious impacts on the environment such as fish kills, death of other aquatic organisms and the decline of riparian and aquatic vegetation, acid runoff has been attributed to the decline or failure of some agriculture, fishery and aquaculture industries. The ecological damage can also affect valuable tourist resources including fishing grounds, swimming areas and other water sports areas. Acid discharges can damage infrastructure services and structures such as pipes, foundations, drains, bridges and flood controls.

High levels of iron and manganese may precipitate in receiving waters, causing aesthetic issues, staining infrastructure, coating aquatic vegetation and preventing photosynthesis or blocking the gills of aquatic fauna. High levels of some elements such as aluminium and arsenic may also have human health implications.

Acid sulfate soils may also underlie inland areas such as peat bogs, salt lakes and wetlands. If acid sulfate conditions underlie such natural features, disturbance will have a similar effect on the surrounding area as in coastal regions with release of sulfuric acid and reduced oxygen levels in the water. Risks are increased where inland water bodies receive irrigation return water, groundwater or recycled water, as they typically contain elevated sulfate concentrations.

Further general information about acid sulfate soils is available in the following publications:

What are Acid Sulfate Soils? (Pamphlet) (212 KB)

What are Acid Sulfate Soils? (Poster) (365 KB)

Acid Sulfate Soils Management Guidelines

The Tasmanian Acid Sulfate Soil Management Guidelines (PDF) are designed to provide technical and procedural advice to avoid environmental harm from acid sulfate soils (ASS) and to assist in achieving best practice environmental management through the use of six management principles.

The guidelines have also been designed to assist decision making and provide greater certainty to the construction and agricultural industries, state and local governments and the community in carrying out planning for activities that may disturb ASS. It is anticipated that the guidelines will be used by consultants, earthmoving contractors, developers, agricultural and aquaculture producers, sand and gravel extraction operators, community groups and administering authorities from state and local government. While the guidelines focus on developments below 20 m AHD the requirement for a management plan should apply wherever significant disturbance of ASS may occur in the State.

Section 1 - provides an introduction to ASS and why we should be concerned about them, where they occur in Tasmania and the Tasmanian legislation that is relevant to them.

Section 2 - steps through the process of assessing projects which may involve disturbance to ASS, with the aim of determining whether a management plan is necessary for the project.

Section 3 - outlines the management principles used to guide the development of a management plan.

Section 4 - gives details of management strategies, including avoidance, minimisation and neutralisation.

Acid Sulfate Soil Management Guidelines (1.84 MB)

Other Acid Sulfate Soil Information

Information pamphlets for field operators, planners and developers, and the agricultural and aquacultural environments are included below (designed to be printed double-sided and folded):

Acid Sulfate Soils : Indicators for Field Operators (251 KB)

Acid Sulfate Soils : Information for Planners & Developers (452 KB)

Acid Sulfate Soils in Agricultural & Aquacultural Environments (220 KB)

Acid Sulfate Soil Mapping

Acid Sulfate Soil predictive mapping is available for Tasmania at

Three layers are available which show the landscapes with potential to contain Acid Sulfate Soil in:
  1. Subaqueous Marine and Intertidal
  2. Coastal
  3. Inland environments
Field site information is also available on a seperate layer.

These separate map layers and field site information which includes associated soil core photos, laboratory results, profile description and risk assessment are available at
  • Simply add the ASS layers you want and click using the identify tool to retrieve additional information about the area (polygon) or field site (point).