Northern Territory Chief Minister Claire Martin has seriously upset her three indigenous caucus members after passing controversial retrospective legislation Thursday to allow expansion of a McArthur River zinc mine. The expansion had been stalled by a Supreme Court decision earlier last week. The indigenous Labor members were particularly angered by the insensitivity of the Government’s timing because the law was changed two days before the funeral of an Aboriginal elder who was a key leader in the campaign to save the McArthur River.
The elder, who for cultural reasons can only be identified as Mr Timothy, was buried at Borroloola on Saturday. He was a leader of the long fight by the Yanyuwa people against the expansion of the nearby McArthur River Mine. He died suddenly in Katherine, aged 43, two weeks before the Supreme Court handed down its judgement that declared the Territory’s approval of the mine expansion illegal. The man is believed to be the brother of Barbara McCarthy, one of the three Indigenous members who crossed the floor to vote against the Government.
The McArthur River Mine is 80km south of Borroloola. It is one of the largest zinc mines in the world. It was opened by MIM Holdings in 1995 and operated as an underground operation. It has a workforce of 350 people and contributes $350 million each year to the NT economy according to its own website. In its early years it yielded 320,000 tonnes of lead and zinc annually in bulk concentrate form.
Swiss based global mining giant Xstrata bought out MIM in 2003 and inherited the mine.
The underground operation is now aging and running out of rich ore. Last year the mine’s output shrunk to 135,000 tonnes of zinc. After lobbying from Xstrata, the NT Mines Minister Chris Natt authorised a $66 million mine expansion which would change the operation to open-cut in order extend the mine’s life by another 25 years. The change required a 5.5km diversion to the McArthur River.
The Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrawa and Gurdanji people are the traditional owners of the land. They came together with the Northern Land Council (NLC) to take the Government to court, concerned by the environmental impacts of the river diversion. They argued that approval of the mine expansion failed to follow proper procedures under the Mines Management Act. Last Monday the Supreme Court handed down its judgement and found in favour of the traditional owners. Justice David Angel found that the authorisation went beyond what McArthur River Mining had applied for. The authorisation did not specify an open cut mine and was, therefore, illegal. The Government complained the judgment was merely a narrow technicality but decided not to mount a challenge.
However the decision forced Xstrata to immediately stop work on the mine. Three days later, Martin rushed through a government bill to overrule the court decision and retrospectively validate the proposed redevelopment. The bill passed 17 votes to 5 late on Thursday night. The Opposition Country Liberal Party supported the bill. The five who voted against the bill were two independents and three indigenous Labor members, Alison Anderson, Karl Hampton and the local member Barbara McCarthy. McCarthy condemned the timing of the bill in parliament saying the local indigenous people were mourning the death of a prominent leader (her brother), and “to pass the Bill in the middle of sorry business is the worst sign of disrespect to them”.
Martin claimed it was necessary to push the bill through quickly to prevent hundreds of mine workers from being stood down. She was also concerned by government liability. Xstrata moved immediately on Friday to resume mining. According to Martin, the benefits will be substantial in the next few years of the mine operation. “We needed to get it back and running as quickly as possible,” she said.
The original expansion approval provoked national protest from environmentalists. The McArthur is a major tropical river. It begins at Anthony Lagoon then skirting the Barkly Tableland, through jungle and swampland for 250 km before emerging at Port McArthur to empty into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The river is a haven for dugongs and turtles. In 2001, an NGO called Environment Centre exposed the mine’s practice of dumping contaminated water into the river and communities have noticed sickness in dugongs and turtles downstream of the mining operation soon after the mine began operating.
The mine has proved to be an ongoing political disaster for the Territory’s Chief Minister. Her case was not helped by a leaked Treasury document which showed the mine has operated consistently as a loss and therefore never returned any mineral royalties to the Government. Instead the company gets a $5 million subsidy to cover electricity costs. The mining company has also consistently failed to negotiate an agreement with or pay royalties to the traditional owners who possess the land title.
The local Indigenous community are now examining their options. They have returned to the courts and issued a challenge in the Darwin Federal Court against the federal Environment Minister decision to approve the mine. Then minister, Ian Campbell signed off on the proposal after the NT Government approved it in October. NLC lawyer Neil Williams said Senator Campbell failed to consider public submissions as well as ignoring the effect the radical river diversion would have on the environment. Williams told the Federal Court “There was an obligation to comply with the assessment procedures under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and that was not done”.
Opponents have cited concerns such as acid mine drainage, sedimentation, heavy metal contamination, and the impacts of disturbance and pollution on 43 species of fish including the endangered freshwater sawfish. Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT) spokesperson Emma King says the flaws, information gaps and environmental risks submitted to the Environmental Protection Authority showed the mine could not be responsibly approved. “It appears that the brinkmanship of the mining company – effectively saying that if this plan is rejected it will close its operation - is winning out over scientific, environmental, economic and cultural concerns,” she said. The fight goes on.