Under heavy public pressure, the South Australian government of Labor Premier Mike Rann appears to be wavering in its support for mining uranium in the Arkaroola wilderness in the state’s north.
On February 18, the Adelaide Advertiser gave front-page headlines to reports that Arkaroola, a privately-held nature sanctuary and ecotourism site in the Flinders Ranges about 600 kilometres north of the state capital, could be declared a national park.
On February 22, Rann told parliament that no decision had been made. Nevertheless, he admitted, the Arkaroola region was “iconic”. All options, he said, “including a definitive ban on mining”, were on the table.
Before a decision was taken, consultations would be held with key stakeholders. These are understood to include the sanctuary’s pastoral leaseholders, the Sprigg family; the mining company Marathon Resources; and the traditional owners, the Adnyamathanha people.
The 610-square-kilometre Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in the arid North Flinders region. Home to numerous rare and threatened species, including the yellow-footed rock wallaby, the region is also noted for its fascinating geology.
Included in the landscape is the world’s oldest known fossil reef, from more than 700 million years ago.
Uranium was first discovered in the North Flinders in 1910, and small mines functioned intermittently during the last century.
Systematic exploration, centred on Mt Gee in the sanctuary area, has been carried out by Marathon Resources since 2004.
Marathon claims to have found an “inferred and indicated resource” of 31,400 tonnes of uranium oxide, described as the sixth largest known uranium deposit in Australia and with a potential value of almost $5 billion.
The firm proposes to extract the ore via underground workings over a period of nine years. In a fragile environment, the effects of mining would be far-reaching.
Apart from damage to the landscape from the mine workings and from access roads, ore trucks would disturb wildlife in a way that tourist vehicles would never match.
Some of the worst effects would be on the region’s scant groundwater resources.
One of the sanctuary’s operators, Marg Sprigg, told ABC News on February 23 that Marathon anticipated using five million litres of water a day for mining and processing. “That’s a heck of a lot of water in a very dry environment,” she said.
Large-scale groundwater extraction could damage the region’s hot springs, with their unique biota.
Until recent weeks, none of these objections had made much impact on the Rann government.
As the Premier insisted on February 22, Labor in South Australia is “unashamedly pro-mining”, billing itself as better able than the Liberal opposition to develop the state’s mineral resources.
Unlike its counterpart in Western Australia, Labor in SA abandoned opposition to uranium mining long ago.
As insurance against lingering environmentalism among government ministers, Marathon — one of whose largest shareholders is the Chinese mining group CITIC — has brought a suite of former Labor politicians on board.
The firm’s directors include former Senator Chris Schacht and its registered lobbyist is another former Labor senator, John Quirke.
According to the February 18 Advertiser, Marathon also has the backing of current SA Senator and ALP powerbroker Don Farrell.
The firm also draws support in the ALP from the Australian Workers Union (AWU).
The AWU is on record as supporting “responsible” mining at Arkaroola on the grounds that it would create jobs. The May 14, 2010 Advertiser quoted AWU national secretary Paul Howes as saying he had been convinced of the merits of mining during talks with Marathon officials.
Unfortunately for Marathon and its Labor champions, South Australians have taken Arkaroola to their hearts.
Well-known geologist Dr Reg Sprigg and his wife Griselda purchased the Arkaroola pastoral lease in 1968.
Ending sheep-grazing on the property, the Spriggs developed Arkaroola as a wildlife sanctuary and pioneered eco-tourism. In 1996, they succeeded in having the area declared a sanctuary under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
For generations, South Australians have holidayed in the Flinders. For many of them, mining key scenic areas there has all the appeal of quarrying Uluru or dredging the Great Barrier Reef.
A poll conducted recently for the Adelaide Sunday Mail found that 72% of those interviewed — and 79% of Labor voters — wanted mining in Arkaroola banned.
These sentiments extend into the state’s richest and most conservative circles.
For residents of Adelaide’s leafy eastern suburbs, Arkaroola, remote but stunning, has become very much the place to be seen in one’s SUV.
Prominent Liberals who strongly oppose mining in the sanctuary reportedly include leading economic “dry” Senator Nick Minchin, state shadow treasurer Iain Evans and former state environment spokesperson Michele Lensink.
Needless to say, the Liberals — as the political home of the state’s mining industry — are not united on the issue.
The February 4 Sunday Mail said the SA Liberals said last year that they may support mining at Arkaroola under certain conditions.
On September 14, the Advertiser quoted state Liberal leader Isobel Redmond saying that in office, the Liberals would amend development laws to safeguard the area.
But when Greens MP Mark Parnell sought the same day to protect Arkaroola by moving two amendments to government mining legislation, Liberal MPs joined with Labor to vote it down.
To thread their way through environmental protection laws and keep Marathon investing, supporters of mining in the sanctuary have performed a range of unedifying gymnastics.
For years, Labor has joined with Marathon in a flagrant misreading of the SA Development Plan.
The area of the Mt Gee deposit is defined in the plan as an “Environmental Class A Zone”. In such zones, mining development is banned unless it is considered to be “in the highest national or State interest”, and “alternative deposits are not available on other land in the locality”.
The clear truth is that even people who regard uranium as vital to South Australia have no need to defile Arkaroola to get it.
The state’s Olympic Dam mine has by far the world’s largest single uranium deposit.
The Mt Gee ore body, the December 26, 2009 Advertiser said, has just 2.5% of South Australia’s known and inferred uranium reserves.
Compared with other deposits it would be difficult and expensive to mine. Invested in simpler workings, the capital required would yield more to state revenues.
To the dismay of its backers, Marathon damaged its chances of unambiguous government support years ago when it cut corners with exploration regulations.
Found buried illegally in trenches in the Mt Gee region in January 2008 were 20 drums and 22,800 bags containing drilling core samples and a variety of drilling waste. Marathon’s exploration licence was suspended.
The licence was restored on February 7, with some extra restrictions.
Outrage erupted, with the Sunday Mail on February 13 predicting “one of the biggest environmental battles since the Franklin River protests in Tasmania in the 1980s”.
Offside with a large majority of voters, the government is now ducking and weaving on the issue. The speculation that a national park might be declared at Arkaroola may have resulted from a deliberate leak designed to test public reaction.
So far, the response from well-known environmentalists to the national park proposal has been sceptical. As Parnell pointed out on February 18, there is a long record of mining being permitted in national parks.
Matthew Turner of the Wilderness Society told ABC News on February 23: “Many in the community would be unaware that 83% of the area of our national parks is actually open to mining and mining exploration.”
Meanwhile, national park status for Arkaroola would imply heavy restrictions on the sustainable ecotourism that has helped build public support for preserving the region.
The government needs to make unequivocally clear that mining in the Arkaroola wilderness will not be allowed to go ahead, whatever the area’s legal status.
Already, a proper reading of the SA Development Plan would seem to block mining at Mt Gee. Special legislation should be introduced to make the whole of the sanctuary off limits to mining development.
For this to happen, SA Labor will need to break up with its mining industry bedfellows. Should it refuse, the Franklin River campaign provides a model for environmentalists on how to take the fight forward.