Whatever BHP Billiton wants to expand operations at its huge Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine, Australian authorities are almost frantic to give it. Clear violations of environment laws are not even being allowed to stand in the way.
But where governments have shirked their responsibilities, eco-activists have stepped up to defend the environment. On April 3 and 4 a federal court in Adelaide heard a challenge to the mine expansion. A ruling is expected in coming weeks.
Prominent environmental campaigner Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, an elder of the Arabunna people of northern South Australia, lodged the challenge. He was assisted by the Environmental Defenders Office, an Adelaide public interest legal centre.
Lawyer Geoffrey Kennett, representing Buzzacott, said in court that federal environment minister Tony Burke acted unlawfully last October when he gave his approval to the Olympic Dam expansion. Burke, it was said, failed to properly consider various impacts of the mine as required under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Billions at stake
At Olympic Dam, BHP Billiton has the world’s largest known deposit of uranium, and the fourth-largest of copper. The deposit is among several such ore bodies in the region, of which at least one other is also of world-ranking size.
Since production began in 1988, Olympic Dam has been an underground mine. Much greater long-term revenues will be obtained if it is expanded using open pit methods, which allow larger quantities of ore to be extracted. If the expansion goes ahead, ore reserves are expected to bring in more than $1 trillion at current prices.
However, BHP Billiton still has not made a final decision on whether to develop the mine as an open pit. The up-front investment needed will be massive, at about $30 billion. In a fraught international financial environment, the firm is understood to be swallowing hard before committing itself.
The company’s directors have not been the only ones sweating. For South Australian business interests, billions of dollars in potential turnover hang on the expansion going ahead. Meanwhile, South Australia’s Labor government badly wants a boom in mining investment, led by Olympic Dam, to raise growth rates that have lagged in recent decades as the state’s manufacturing base has run down.
Competing with the conservatives for business support, Labor in South Australia vies with them to be seen as more strenuously pro-mining. Under former Premier Mike Rann, the party repeatedly cut corners on environmental protection to please mining interests.
Last October, the Rann government signed off on provisions to allow BHP Billiton to build a large seawater desalination plant on upper Spencer Gulf, despite opposition from environmentalists and prawn fishers.
The desalination plant is to provide water to the expanded Olympic Dam mine. At present, the mine is supplied with groundwater from bores in the vulnerable Great Artesian Basin.
The brine outlet from the desalination plant will be less than a kilometre from a unique spawning ground of the Australian giant cuttlefish. Environmentalists fear the cuttlefish will not withstand higher salinity in the shallow, confined gulf waters.
Federal and state permission for its plans at Olympic Dam seem assured, so BHP Billiton announced in October a “pre-commitment” investment of US$1.2 billion.
Now the environmentalists’ court challenge, together with the company’s own misgivings, will have brought an edgier mood to South Australia’s Parliament House and the nearby Adelaide Club.
The Olympic Dam pit is set to become the world’s largest mine of any description — four kilometres long, 3.5 kilometres wide and one kilometre deep. The waste rock dump would cover almost 70 square kilometres and reach a height of 150 metres.
Astonishingly, Burke allowed much of the environmental assessment and decision-making for the mine expansion to be left to plans and studies that still have not been presented or even prepared.
A proper mine closure plan was left to be developed at a later date. A briefing by supporters of the court challenge said this plan was required to detail “the environmental outcomes post mine closure, the criteria for assessing these outcomes (such as the clean-up of the site), and a safety assessment to determine the long term risk to the public and environment from the tailings storage facility and rock storage facility”.
Burke was clearly happy for BHP Billiton to go ahead and mine — and not to work out how to limit the damage until years or decades down the track.
The challenge also argued that Burke did not properly consider impacts on the environment in respect to water and the export of uranium.
The well-known perils of nuclear energy aside, the greatest dangers posed by the mine expansion almost certainly relate to the ore tailings dump. After mining, the ore is first ground to the consistency of talcum powder. Following chemical treatment to extract the metals concentrates, the tailings are then pumped in the form of slurry to ponds, from which the water evaporates or permeates through the subsoil.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said on ABC’s The Drum last October “that will leave behind roughly 1.3 cubic kilometres of radioactive waste, enough to bury Adelaide’s central business district 370 metres deep”.
Once filled, the ponds will be capped with more than ten metres of rock and soil. But until covered, the tailings will be open to the weather. As the water evaporates, radioactive dust will inevitably spread across the landscape.
Supporters of the mine argue that with most of the uranium removed, the tailings will not be much more radioactive than typical granites, and that any dust will add to natural background radiation only by very small amounts.
Radioactive dust, though, is dangerous not so much because of the overall quantities of radiation it emits, but because particles are ingested, lodge in lungs or intestines, and over many years irradiate tissues with which they are in immediate contact. Children living downwind of Olympic Dam would be advised not to play in the dirt.
In the monsoonal downpours of the greenhouse future, the above-ground caps on the tailings cells will erode relatively quickly. BHP Billiton and Burke are taking a punt that the cells will be monitored and repaired, essentially forever. If this does not happen, finely-ground radioactive materials from Olympic Dam will blow across vast areas of the southern hemisphere.
The mining company has a choice: it could put the tailings back in the hole, and cover them with a deep layer of compacted rock and soil. One reason why this is not planned may relate to the fact that the tailings contain large quantities of rare earth elements.
Needed for a wide variety of high-tech applications, rare earths command sky-high prices. In a July Business Spectator article, Monash University environmental engineer Gavin Mudd put the value of the rare earths in the Olympic Dam orebody at almost $4.2 trillion, about four times the value of all the materials BHP Billiton plans to mine.
For now, the company is thought to regard extracting the rare earths at Olympic Dam as uneconomic. But could it be hedging its bets?
The tailings ponds at Olympic Dam will also leak contaminated water. In his article for The Drum, Ludlam said: “By 2020, with operations in full swing, the company informs us around 8 million litres of contaminated water will be leaching into local groundwater from beneath the largely unlined tailings structures, every day.
“The company has sought to minimise costs by lining only a small area of each tailings cell. The minister has now agreed to require up to 4% of the Tailings Storage Facility to be lined.”
Less than reassuringly, BHP Billiton says that the contamination will only be local. It says the contaminated water will migrate toward the kilometre-deep pit. And the aquifers of the Stuart Shelf, on which Olympic Dam’s ores are situated, are thought not to be connected to the Great Artesian Basin.
The court challenge further argued that Burke acted unlawfully in failing to consider the environmental impact of uranium once it leaves Australia. In BHP Billiton’s preferred option, at least 60% of the ore concentrates will be shipped to China for processing.
Again, a key environmental concern is put off for future discussion. The challengers’ media briefing says: “The approval also assumes a bilateral agreement with China, to cover the proposed export of copper concentrate containing uranium.”
Ludlam says about 1.2 million tonnes of Olympic Dam mine wastes are to be dumped in China every year. Will the disposal methods be safe? That, Burke seems to think, is not a question for his department.
The Australian reported on October 11 that the Olympic Dam expansion is expected to bring Australia “25,000 jobs and a flow-on economic benefit of up to $65 billion over 30 years”.
Lost among the ringing of cash registers is the plea voiced by Uncle Kevin Buzzacott in a video circulated by supporters
Uncle Kevin Buzzacott in a video circulated by supporters: “I was born not far ... from the mine itself, 80-90 kilometres. I’ve got sacred places all round that area — some have already been destroyed. So the stakes are pretty high as far as we’re concerned.”