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Issue # 1401      4 March 2009

Long-running MacArthur River mine battle continues

The federal government will approve a massive, highly controversial extension of the MacArthur River mine at Boroloola in the Northern Territory.

The decision marks another step in a three-year legal battle over the proposed extension, but the battle is far from over.

In 2006 the Swiss mining giant Xstrata applied to the Northern Territory government to approve the mine extension, which would involve converting mining operations from underground to open-cut, and diverting about 5 kilometres of the river, in order to access ore-bearing deposits in or near the river bed.

The approval of the federal government was also required, because of environmental considerations which included impacts on migratory birds, but also major impacts on the local wildlife and fishing.

The proposed works have the potential to increase the mine’s annual output of lead and zinc bearing concentrate from 320 to 430,000 tonnes, i.e. an increase of about 34 percent. However, the proposal also carries the risk of seepage from the mine tailings contaminating the 300 kilometres-long river.

In 2006 the Territory government approved the application. Following a subsequent appeal by the traditional Yanyuwa owners, the Supreme Court deemed that the approval process was flawed. However, the Northern Territory government then passed special legislation to allow the Boroloola project to proceed.

The Yanyuwa elders again went to court, appealing against the new legislation. The Full Bench of the Court upheld the legislation, but forced the company to pay the elders’ legal costs.

The new Territory legislation only covered the Boroloola case, so Xstrata decided to appeal against the former Supreme Court decision, because they claimed it would set a precedent for their future mining applications. However, the Court of Appeal ruled against them, even refusing to hear their legal arguments.

The Commonwealth steps in

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth had approved the mine extension proposal. In 2007 the Yanyuwa elders appealed against the Commonwealth decision. By then the company had already begun to clear the site, even though the government had not yet appointed an independent environmental monitor for the works.

Last December the Federal Court found that the former Howard government’s approval process for the works was flawed. Mining operations at the mine site ceased. However, the responsibility as to whether mine operations would recommence still rested with the federal government, and in January, after a remarkably short period of reconsideration, Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett announced that he intended to approve recommencement of mining operations, subject to new environmental monitoring requirements.

Kim Hill, Chief Executive of the Northern Lands Council (NLC) stated “There has never been a negotiated agreement between the company and traditional owners, and a workable outcome would be the development of an agreement that would provide tangible benefits to local aboriginal people.

“The NLC calls on McArthur River Mining to negotiate an agreement with traditional owners, and calls on the Northern Territory government to mandate provisions to ensure all mining companies make public their management plan, so that the environmental impact of mining operations is known to the local community.”

Greens Senator Rachael Stewart commented: “The extended environmental conditions imposed by Minister Garrett will not do anything to help those communities that rely on the McArthur River for fishing and traditional practices. The Greens are calling on Minister Garrett to overturn his decision and require the mining company to restore the river, and repair the damage they have done.”

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