Australia - Petition calling for McArthur River Mine to be shut down presented to NT Environment Minister


By Steven Schubert, ABC News –

3 September 2015

A group of Indigenous people from around Borroloola have presented a petition calling for the owners of the McArthur River Mine (MRM) to be prosecuted for environmental damage and for the mine to be shut down.

The remote mine, 900 kilometres south-east of Darwin, is one of the world’s largest producers of lead, zinc and silver.

For more than a year Borroloola’s Indigenous clans have worried reactive waste rock from MRM and leaking tailings dams could be health risks, and have been asking the Giles Government to tell them whether it is safe to eat fish from nearby waterways.

Last week the ABC revealed MRM and the NT Health Department did not act on a recommendation to warn people living near the mine to not eat fish from certain locations.

It comes after 400 cattle that wandered onto the mine site were quarantined or destroyed amid concern about lead contamination.

The online petition had around 3,600 signatures on Wednesday evening and was handed to Environment Minister Gary Higgins on the steps of the Territory’s Parliament in Darwin on Thursday morning.

One of the petitioners, Gadrian Hoosan, said the pollution from the mine had significantly changed the lives of Indigenous people.

“They had no right to contaminate that river, because we live downstream,” he said.

“That’s the whole reason we’re fighting for it and want to shut it down.

“That river was our livelihood and they took that away from us. People used to fish from top to bottom, and no-one fishes there anymore.”

Mr Higgins received the petition and told the group he would table it in Parliament when it next sat.

He also watched while group members explained a painting, which they said represented how they felt about how the McArthur River was being polluted.

He invited the group of about half a dozen Indigenous people, as well as staff from the advocacy group Environment Centre NT, up to his office for a cup of tea to discuss their concerns.

In a statement the Swiss-based owner of the mine, Glencore, said it had made “considerable progress on addressing environmental issues” in a report by the mine’s independent monitor.

The company said its community reference group would meet in the coming weeks, and the concerns of the petitioners would be discussed.

The statement said Glencore was committed to running an environmentally responsible and sustainable operation.


Indigenous communities are losing out in the development of northern Australia

Seán Kerins, Australian National University –

3 September 2015

As the Australian Government pushes ahead with its Northern Development agenda “making it easier to use natural assets”, it’s important to ask how this may affect the Indigenous peoples in whose territories development will occur.

One way to see how this might play out in the future is to consider how northern development is already unfolding in the present. And one place to look is the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region of the Northern Territory, around the township of Borroloola, where development is in full swing.

Here, over the past few years, mining effort has increased, with the expansion of existing mines and the development of new ones. Added to this, vast areas throughout the region have been identified for shale gas extraction.

Unlocking the potential of the north is sold as good news to Australians living far away in the south, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott telling us that northern development “will benefit every single Australian”.

To speed up development, Australian governments have made red-tape reduction a priority.

While this may be good news to developers, it makes many Indigenous people in the region anxious.

For the past 30 years Garawa, Gudanji, Mara and Yanyuwa people have sought to both resist and accommodate development.

Many have fought to protect their sacred sites and food resources, while others have championed development in the hope that it would bring much needed employment to a place with few mainstream opportunities.

Balancing competing interests hasn’t always been easy, with tensions arising from time to time within families and across clan groups.

Today it’s much harder for Indigenous people to support development, as many are now able to see clearly how the costs and benefits associated with large-scale development in the region are distributed unequally.

While substantial benefits flow outside the region, it is the Indigenous people who bear the cost of development as they experience the contamination of their territories and food resources from mining activity.

Mishandled mines

In the southwest Gulf there are three mines and a large loading facility at Bing Bong from where the region’s minerals are exported.

Each of these developments has negative impacts on Indigenous livelihoods and wellbeing.

Western Desert Resources, an iron ore mine that opened in 2013 on the promise of jobs for local Indigenous people, went into administration less than a year after beginning mining.

This mine left a significant food-gathering and hunting area choked in red iron ore dust, while a 165 km long-haul road cut through the Limmen National Park to the port at Bing Bong is already eroding in places.

Redbank copper mine, which closed in the mid-1990s, left exposed to monsoon rains an estimated 54,000 tonnes of partially treated and acid-forming material and poorly sealed tailing facilities allowing poisoned waters to bleed into the region’s creeks and waterways to this day.

With water at the mine’s leaking pit having a pH level of 2-3, close to the level of battery acid, it’s little wonder that extending up to 7 km from the mine, copper sulphide leaching forms concentrations so high that there is no longer any aquatic life in the water.

The clean-up costs from this development were recently estimated to be between A$10 million and A$100 million.

There have also been concerns over Glencore Xstrata’s McArthur River Mine, one of the world’s largest lead, zinc and silver mines.

Late last year, the mine’s Independent Monitor, ERIAS Group, released a report detailing ongoing problems including emissions from combustion of rock in the waste pile, poorly managed tailing facilities, and a high risk of acid, saline and metalliferous drainage leaking into the region’s groundwater.

Fish in one creek on the mine site had also tested positive for lead, although the monitor could not resolve that this was definitely as a result of the mine’s activities.

Glencore responded to the report, stating that emissions from the waste pile had been controlled and that environmental impacts had been limited to the mine site.

Last week, more allegations emerged.

The Environmental Defenders Office NT alleged that hundreds of cattle on the station surrounding the mine (and owned by Glencore) had been slaughtered or quarantined after some tested positive for lead resulting from the McArthur River Mine.

Mine owner Glencore responded that it was continuing to work on its cattle management plan, which includes fencing and moving cattle from the site. But this claim was refuted by the Independent Monitor who reported seeing cattle grazing near the tailings facility at the mine only last month.

Other documents obtained by the Environmental Defenders Office in the same freedom of information release reveal that both Glencore and the NT Health Department had failed to warn locals of the danger of eating fish, mussels and oysters in several locations because of potential heavy metal contamination. Glencore has responded that the levels of contamination have improved since the data in the documents were collected.

Put Indigenous interests front and centre

The cost of development in the southwest Gulf region will be borne by Indigenous people for years to come as they lose access to vital food resources through contamination from poorly regulated mining.

If northern development is to succeed in a sustainable fashion then two things are urgently needed.

The first is more open government. The second is that Indigenous people need to be at the centre of development planning.

In doing this past mistakes are less likely to be repeated. And importantly, this will enable Indigenous peoples to set their own development agenda for their territories and peoples.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


NT Chief Minister threatens McArthur River Mine with closure unless it improves environmental practices

By Jane Bardon –

25 August 2015

The Northern Territory Chief Minister has threatened to close Glencore’s McArthur River Mine near Borroloola if it does not improve its environmental practices.

Planning Minister Dave Tollner has already indicated he was considering shutting down the world’s biggest exporter of bulk concentrate zinc if Glencore does not agree to increase the size of the financial bond it has placed with the NT Government for the site’s final remediation.

All miners in the Northern Territory are required to lodge a bond with the Government that would cover 100 per cent of their site’s final remediation cost at every stage of the mine’s life.

Chief Minister Adam Giles said the Government had been talking to the company for months about the need to come up with a long-term plan to control reactive waste rock on the site.

Last year Glencore was taken by surprise about the amount of reactive iron sulphide (a chemical which turns into sulphuric acid when it meets water) it was having to deal with on the site, and its waste rock pile spontaneously combusted for months, sending toxic plumes into the atmosphere.

Indigenous residents and green groups have been protesting for more than a year about smoke from the mine’s waste rock dump, the mine’s impact on McArthur River tributaries, heavy metals found in fish, and a contamination incident last year which resulted in cattle having to be destroyed.

The Environmental Defenders Office green group has called for a temporary closure of the mine to allow time to consider whether the issues can be satisfactorily resolved.

The Chief Minister then said if the company did not improve its practices he would order its closure.

“We have been working with the mine itself to increase its level and standards of environmental protection at the site,” Mr Giles said.

“We have been adamant that unless Glencore fixes its environmental procedures and practices we will close the mine.

“We will not stand for an environmental bond that does not support rehabilitation at the end of the mine life. We will not support procedures that put potentially high risk to the environment.

“We have sought to improve the mine management plan in the way it works in terms of logistics onsite. We’ve always sought to carefully manage the environment.

“In the last few months we have very firmly put out there that the environmental bond will be raised, and if there can’t be remedial measures put in place for some of the concerns that we’re seeing, which came about as a result of its initial approval back in 2006, I will close the mine.”

Mr Giles said his department had not released Freedom of Information documents expected to reveal the estimated total cost of remediating the mine, and the extent of environmental impacts, because of a request from the mine owner Glencore.

Glencore had until August 22 to appeal to the Information Commissioner to stop the Government releasing the documents to the Environmental Defenders Office.

Livelihoods of 700 workers at stake

But the general manager of the mine, Sam Strohmayr, said the company had instead contacted the Government.

“We’re aware that they have had a request for a release and we have written to the department, seeking clarification about that,” he said.

Mr Giles has described the company’s communication differently as “a form of injunction request from the company to be able to review the documents”.

Glencore and McArthur River Mining have said they are negotiating with the Northern Territory Government in good faith over the environmental bond and how to manage the waste rock.

“We’re 100 per cent committed to make sure that we come up with a good solution for the operation,” Mr Strohmayr said.

He said the company was mindful the livelihoods of at least 700 workers were at stake.

“There’s a large number of people working on the site and that’s why we are so committed to coming up with a good solution with the Government,” he said.


McArthur river pollution: Glencore yet to put up all warning signs a year after alert

Helen Davidson in Darwin –

27 August 2015

Glencore has yet to finish erecting signs warning of contaminated river life near a Northern Territory mine more than a year after the miner and the state government became aware of elevated levels of heavy metals.

Government documents have revealed inconsistencies in the information given to the public about potential lead contamination of fish near the company’s McArthur river mine, despite the NT government and mining giant being aware of recommendations for warnings since July 2014.

Glencore first-half profit tumbles amid commodities rout

Members of the four clans that control the lands in the remote Gulf region fish extensively from the river for food, and have previously expressed deep concern at the colour of the water downstream from the mine and potential contamination of fish.

Glencore said it was yet to finish erecting the signs about contaminated fish because it is waiting for regulatory approval from authorities.

Documents released this week show the Northern Territory government and Glencore were aware of elevated levels of heavy metals in fish, invertebrates and cattle around the McArthur river mine (MRM) in July 2014 but appeared not to immediately and fully inform residents and traditional owners of Borroloola, an Aboriginal community about 60km from the mine.

The documents were obtained under freedom of information laws by the NT Environmental Defenders Office.

A September 2014 briefing note prepared for the mines and energy minister noted an independent monitor’s report of “potential elevated levels of contaminants – in particular lead – in some fish samples in the Surprise and Barney creeks”. The two creeks are on the mineral lease and flow into the McArthur river.

Further testing from the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries was requested on 4 July, with a note that if contamination was detected an immediate warning not to eat species or to limit consumption of species must be issued.

In February 2015 another briefing document noted a “significant issue” of elevated levels of contaminants including lead in fish stock, zinc levels in oysters and lead levels in mussels in three different locations.

“The chief health officer and the Department of Health have an overall responsibility to safeguard the health of the public,” it said, recommending MRM be instructed to erect warning signs along the two rivers and around Bing Bong port “advising people not to eat fish or other species from these waters because it may pose a risk to public health”.

MRM has not yet demonstrated that appropriate signage has been erected.”

When questioned, Glencore told Guardian Australia on Thursday MRM had received the instruction to erect signs in November and had begun discussions with the chief health officer “regarding appropriate signage and the locations they should be placed”.

“An approach was agreed to by the chief health officer in February 2015 and work began to implement the plan. Most signs have been installed as agreed. Some cannot proceed until we have clearance from the relative authorities.”

Statements from the government and Glencore have been inconsistent on the extent of the contamination problem.

Despite Glencore detailing its plans to erect the recommended signs, a spokesman for the current mines and energy minister, Dave Tollner, told Guardian Australia elevated lead levels were nothing out of the ordinary, were common in the region, and not related to the mine.

Adam Giles: ‘emotional’ mine protesters need to have its benefits explained

Giles on Wednesday also said there was no link to the mine, and denied the government and Glencore had failed to warn residents, pointing to existing advice to eat less fish and shellfish from the area.

On Tuesday he threatened to order the mine’s closure if it did not improve its environmental practices and raise its environmental bond to cover eventual remedial costs.

In a statement provided to Guardian Australia, Glencore Zinc’s chief operating officer, Greg Ashe, pointed to 2014 findings which did not show evidence of “mine-derived lead” in McArthur river and Surprise creek, and only recorded elevated levels in “small non-eating fish deep within the mine itself”.

The company has previously acknowledged the Barney creek contamination in a location where fishing was not permitted, and said it could have been dust from trucks.

Ashe on Thursday said the information contained in the FOI reports was out of date.

“What we do have is a very small number of fish that were identified that contained elevated levels of lead, within the mine site on Barney Creek,” he told a Mining the Territory conference. “That is seasonal and we’ve done a lot of things there to see that,” he said.

David Morris, principal lawyer at the NT Environmental Defenders Office said the inconsistencies were “remarkable”.

“There is on the one hand a view being put by the government and MRM that everything is under control, that health issues and mine design issues are being addressed,” he told Guardian Australia.

“On the other hand the FOI docs demonstrate the government is far from satisfied about MRM’s ability to manage the site … and remains concerned about health risks and potentially catastrophic impacts on the environment.”

Environmental groups and residents of Borroloola have long protested about the potential adverse environmental impacts of the mine, demanding information on the contamination of waterways and a smouldering waste rock pile emitting potentially toxic fumes.

An independent environmental report last year found 90% of fish stock in a nearby creek had shown dangerously high lead levels.

At a minerals summit in Darwin in December, which residents picketed, the chief minister, the NT’s chief minister, Adam Giles, dismissed their concerns, saying “emotional” people opposed to projects just needed to be better educated about the benefits of mining.

The documents also detailed the potential contamination of cattle grazing on the mine site.

Last week, just days before the documents were released, the government sent out a media statement revealing the cattle contamination which began more than a year ago and saw a large number of animals shot, and hundreds more quarantined since.

Before the FOI release, a traditional owner, Jack Green, suspecting it was the McArthur river mine the government was referring to, called for answers as many Borroloola families ran cattle stations around and downstream from the mine.

“How can they guarantee the problem is fixed when cattle are still able to wander into Surprise creek and drink from the water because the surrounding stations are not fenced off properly?” he asked “We need to know if it is safe to hunt and drink the water there.”

Tollner’s spokesman said the issue was with cattle owned by MRM getting on to the mine site which sits on MRM’s pastoral lease, and there was no need for any other cattle owners to be informed.

The Environment Centre NT called on the mines and energy department head, Ron Kelly, to release information about the mine’s management plan, and the Environmental Defenders Office has called for a temporary closure while the contamination issues are sorted out.