On Wednesday 22 October in Borroloola, an Independent Monitoring Consultant released a damning report into the environmental performance of the McArthur River Mine, one of the world’s largest lead, zinc and silver mines, 60 kms southwest of Borroloola in the Northern Territory.
Mr David Browne of the ERIAS Group told a large group of Gudanji, Garawa and Yanyuwa landowners, along with residents of the Borroloola region, that both Glencore Xstrata and the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy were failing in their environmental management of McArthur River Mine.
For almost an hour Mr Browne detailed his Independent Monitoring team’s alarming findings, as many people struggled to understand the complex scientific language.
Mr Browne told the audience that the overburden, or waste rock pile, that has been bellowing clouds of sulphur dioxide for months from the mine site is being poorly managed.
While the mine has been attempting to halt the potentially toxic emissions, the clay cap that is being laid over the waste rock has been poorly compacted.
This means that when the monsoon rains arrive in a few weeks the rains will likely penetrate the bungled clay cap reaching the potentially acid-forming rock below the surface and then will leach acid, saline and metalliferous drainage into the groundwater.
This, combined with the surface run-off, will in all likelihood make its way into the streams and rivers of the region and pollute the waters that Aboriginal people have relied on for thousands of years for food.
The ERIAS report says that this “could have long-term impacts on groundwater, surface water quality, and terrestrial and/or aquatic ecosystems near the mine site”.
The ERIAS report lists this as the most significant environmental issue facing the region with Mr Browne telling the meeting “it would have significant impacts”.
Mr Jacky Green, a Garawa elder, demanded to know in plain English, “Simple way, poison or not?” Mr Browne replied, “That’s a difficult question, but yes”.
This clearly angered Aboriginal landowners who have long campaigned to stop the mine expanding from an underground mine to an open cut operation.
Asman Rory, a Gudanji landowner, told the meeting, “That’s our country, our food, our children’s future that’s being destroyed. Our old people been telling you government mob for a long time now that this was going to happen but you never listened to them.”
Mr Browne continued to detail how the mine had seriously underestimated the amount of potentially acid-forming material found at the mine site. Early estimates of such material were thought to be around 10 per cent, but this has significantly increased to over 50 per cent, with a further 30 per cent of the waste rock now recognised as having potential saline and metalliferous drainage.
With around 80% of the waste rock now thought to be potentially acid-forming material the challenge of fixing the toxic problem will be enormous, as will be the long-term cost. In all likelihood it will be Aboriginal people who will bear the final cost of this development project.
Fish in the diversion channel cut by the McArthur River Mine when it diverted McArthur River (an act consented to by the Northern Territory Labor Government despite a legal challenge brought by Aboriginal people), have tested positive for lead.
Levels of lead found in the fish in the diversion channel exceed the maximum permitted by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. In 2013, the permitted lead level was exceeded in 9 out of 10 fish caught. The lead tested similar to that found at the mine site.
Fish in other places, as well as upstream from the mine, are also testing positive for heavy metals.
Like many others at the meeting, Mr Gadrian Hoosan, a Garawa man holding ceremonial boomerangs, was highly alarmed at hearing this news.
“Our kids, our kids, all our kids are in danger now. Our food’s poisoned,” he called from the front of the meeting.
Mr Browne went on to tell the audience that the mine was not meeting its own commitments in its own management plan. He told that 20 per cent of Glencore Xstrata’s own tests had failed specifications and that each time this happened another test was not undertaken.
Other significant environmental problems noted by the Independent Monitoring team included the poor rehabilitation of vegetation along the banks of the diversion.
While Mr Browne commended the mine on the amount of work that had been undertaken here he said that of the 67,000 new trees planted during 2012 and 2013, flooding and high flows in the wet season had caused erosion and washed many of the previous planting away, thereby further increasing erosion.
He also told how his team had found that the diversion channel itself had eroded by up to two metres in the past four years since the diversion was cut.
The meeting was also told that the tailings facility at the mine was also not up to scratch, with elevated water levels at around two metres, increasing the likelihood of the bund wall collapsing when the monsoons arrive. If this happens it would result in toxic waste being discharged into the surrounding ground water system. If the mine continues to leave the tailing facilities with too much water in them so that evaporation cannot occur, it could also dramatically increase seepage into the ground water.
Mr Browne said that there had been previous recommendations about the poor management of the tailings facilities at McArthur River Mine, especially in relation to the management of bores. But, alarmingly, McArthur River Mine have failed to act on these, leaving many people wondering if they will continue to ignore the latest and most damning recommendations released on Wednesday.
As the morning got hotter so did the meeting as Aboriginal landowners were left angered and bewildered by both what they were hearing and what was happening to their beloved country.
People began demanding that the mine and the NT Government stop mining and fix the problems, while others wailed for their country.
Mr Browne told the audience that the problems were not the fault of the Glencore Xstrata alone but also the NT Government’s Department of Mines and Energy who urgently needed to pick up their lacklustre performance.
Browne told the audience that two audit reports in 2012 and 2013 of the Department of Mines and Energy that were reviewed by his team took over six months to be published. Such a slow pace rendered the audits useless because by the time McArthur River Mine received the audits they were on to the next one.
Browne went on to say that the Independent Monitors, who are trained in the language of mining, found the McArthur River Mine Management Plan “big and hard to read and difficult to audit”.
It’s little wonder that Aboriginal people have struggled for years to understand what’s really going on at the mine.
A few days before the Independent Monitoring report was released, McArthur River Mine were distributing “Fact Sheets” throughout the Gulf region telling the scattered communities that McArthur River Mine enjoys a close relationship with them and that their relationship is “built on the basis of open communication and transparency”.
This angered Aboriginalland owners who want to know why, if the mine purports to have a close relationship with them, did it take over a year for it to become publicly known that that their fish had been poisoned by the mine?
“Why didn’t the Government or the mining company tell us as soon as they knew? We don’t know what’s safe to eat now. They have taken our food and said nothing about compensating us for what they have destroyed” said Mr Green.
In a clear demonstration of their anger Aboriginal people burnt the mine’s “Fact Sheets”.
Mr Hoosan told NT Government representatives that there were Two Laws in the Gulf country, black and white and that the government had to respect this.
“We don’t want the mine and you mob going round talking to one or two of our people and then telling us all you consulted with us Aboriginal people. You got to talk to all of us together, we all tied into that place under ceremony and Law,” he said to the support of the crowd.
Many Aboriginal people spoke privately to me about being scared to protest about the pollution coming from the mine. They told me they feared that the mine’s Community Benefit Trust might cut off their funding.
“No more dialysis machine at the clinic and that kind of stuff. We might lose that. We got to be careful”, said one woman watching the meeting unfold.
McArthur River Mine staff skirted the meeting and refused to speak to both the audience and the media further angering Aboriginal people who saw this snub as a sign of great disrespect.
McArthur River Mine isn’t the only mine in the Gulf region causing significant environmental problems. Not far to the east sits Redbank Mine, also slowly leaking toxic waste into the waters of the Gulf killing the aquatic live and riparian habitats.
Like many people in the Gulf we all hope that cowboy mining operations won’t become the new face of ‘Northern Development’.
The Independent Monitoring Consultants report can be found here www.eriasgroup.com
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