McArthur River diversion, Northern Territory – Mining Impacts
In December 2006, Traditional Owners, represented by the EDO Northern Territory, successfully challenged the Minister for Mines and Energy’s decision to approve a proposal to change from an underground to an open cut mine and divert the McArthur River, one of the largest rivers in northern Australia. The Gurdanji people are Traditional Owners of the mine site. The Mara, Garrawa and Yanyuwa people are Traditional Owners downriver from the site.
The McArthur river is of immense cultural and spiritual importance to the local Aboriginal people of the Gulf region and a complex set of cultural responsibilities and obligations underpin this relationship. Some of these duties include; maintenance of sacred sites, performance of songs and ceremonies and the burning of country. Harry Lansen, a senior Traditional Owner of the Gurdanji group, believes the diversion of the river is a breach of his duties to protect the area. He said: “If they’re going to make it a big river down there, big dam, they’re doing to kill me, my spirits still there you know, my song and my spirit ...I’ll be sick if they cut the place you know because my spirit’s there, all my songs for crossing the river... I don’t want to see this thing happen there in that McArthur River”. Aside from spiritual responsibilities, the river and coast are vitally important to local Aboriginal people for hunting and fishing.
The project was proposed by McArthur River Mining, which operated the existing underground silver, lead and zinc mine, 45 km from Borroloola, a town of 1,000 people and the largest in the remote Gulf Region. The nearest town is Katherine, 665 km away. The mine site contains a lead, zinc and silver deposit which is potentially the biggest of its type in the world with an estimated 220 million tonnes of ore.
The project was strongly supported by the N.T. and Federal government with then Prime Minister John Howard writing a letter to the Chief Minister praising the economic benefits of the new mine. However the N.T. Environment Minister had major concerns including the “significant and long term risks of contaminants entering the river and ground water.’ The final proposal had failed to resolve the NT EPA’s chief concern that the mine was located “within the primary channel of a major tropical river”’.
The Traditional Owners challenged the N.T. Minister’s decision to approve the change from under- ground to open cut mining through an amended Mine Management Plan rather than varying or revoking the existing mining authorisation. The court found the original authorisation did not approve open cut mining and therefore ruled the approval invalid.
However in May 2007, two days after the Supreme Court judgment, the N.T. government introduced special legislation to allow the open cut mine to proceed. Despite this, the Traditional Owners continued to fight and took legal action in the Federal Court against the Federal Environment Minister’s approval of the mine. The Full Federal Court, on 17 December 2008, ruled the approval was invalid and had to be reconsidered by the Federal Environment Minister, who subsequently approved the project. This case placed the national spotlight on the mine, environmental regulation and empowered the local community to voice its objections, which were vindicated by the Court.
McArthur River N.T. photo by Carol MacKinney via Wikimedia Commons