With support from the South Australian Labor government and the federal ALP, pilot work is starting on the desalination plant that is to supply fresh water for BHP Billiton's planned expansion of its copper-gold-uranium mine at Olympic Dam.
But marine scientists and fishing industry representatives are outraged at the prospect that the desalination plant will pour huge quantities of hypersaline wastewater into the shallow, confined upper areas of Spencer Gulf.
The plant could turn the upper Spencer Gulf into "something like the Dead Sea", Flinders University marine ecologist Professor Peter Fairweather told the Australian in March. "It would become a very nasty place for a lot of organisms."
Shortly before, representatives of the Spencer Gulf prawn and sardine industries had warned that any desalination plant must not threaten spawning grounds near the top of the gulf.
An environmental impact statement is due to pronounce on the scheme in mid-year. But there are compelling signs that Premier Mike Rann and his cabinet have already shed any doubts that the plant should go ahead. Early in February, Rann pledged to contribute $160 million toward the cost of the facility, which would provide water to local users in the Upper Spencer Gulf and Eyre Peninsula regions as well as to Olympic Dam.
Within weeks, federal opposition leader Kevin Rudd declared that if Labor was elected at the federal level, the new government would contribute a further $160 million to the scheme from the Australian Water Fund.
These pledges have created consternation among observers, since projections in 2006 put the total cost of the desalination plant at only $300 million. In return for approximately one-third of the water, Labor would appear to have promised BHP Billiton more than the total cost of the plant.
For its own purposes, the company will have to spend an extra $400 million to build a pipeline to Olympic Dam. On April 2 the South Australian government granted planning approval for the building of pre-filtration equipment for the plant at BHP Billiton's preferred site of Port Bonython, on the western shore of Spencer Gulf near the city of Whyalla. The firm's readiness to begin preliminary work suggests it is convinced that government backing for full-scale construction is a foregone conclusion.
Any adverse finding in the environmental impact statement, it follows, is likely to be given short shrift.
With a likely completion date of 2012, the desalination plant will be the largest in the southern hemisphere. Reports as to the volume of its output are contradictory, but BHP Billiton maintains that an additional 120 megalitres of fresh water per day is needed for the Olympic Dam expansion. The Rann government speaks of using a third of the plant's output to meet local demand, indicating a daily total of 180 megalitres. A megalitre is about the volume of an Olympic swimming pool.
According to Rann, the scheme will make it possible to stop pumping 22 gigalitres of water per year from the Murray River to the upper Spencer Gulf region and Eyre Peninsula. To obtain the fresh water both for the mine and for local needs, BHP Billiton's figures indicate the plant will have to draw some 480 megalitres per day of salt water from the sea off Port Bonython. The brine stream of 300 megalitres per day that is returned to the gulf will have a salt content of about 65 grams per litre, roughly 50% more than the surrounding water.
In its publicity releases, the company states that the brine will be pumped out through diffusers that mix it with the local seawater. The marine scientists, however, are not impressed. The upper Spencer Gulf is only about 30 kilometres wide, and does not contain vast amounts of water. While tidal ranges are high, the area is hundreds of kilometres from the open ocean, and mixing with water from lower down the gulf proceeds only slowly. If brine is released into the upper Spencer Gulf, that is where it will stay, for lengthy periods.
Hypersaline water, moreover, does not dissipate readily and evenly into the water that surrounds it. Since it is denser than normal seawater, it sinks. For all BHP Billiton's diffusers, releasing the brine stream into the shallow waters of the upper Spencer Gulf will result in pools of unnaturally saline water spreading across the sea floor. There it will encounter the seagrass beds that are vital nurseries for numerous finfish and crustaceans.
In addition, Port Bonython is adjacent to Black Point, the main spawning area for the Spencer Gulf's spectacular giant cuttlefish. A thriving dive tourism industry has arisen in the region, as local businesses cater for people anxious to watch the cuttlefish change colour completely in the space of seconds.
How will the cuttlefish react to increased salinity? Perhaps the environmental impact statement will have some insights.
Curiously, there is a straightforward answer to the problems faced by BHP Billiton's desalination plans, provided the company is willing to divert some of its capital to pursuits less lucrative than uranium mining.
The brine stream could form the basis for a major evaporative salt industry. At current solar salt prices, the 7 million tonnes of salt contained in the brine would bring annual revenues of more than $400 million. Whyalla has a history of salt production, and suitable land is available.
This option, however, seems not to have been seriously considered by BHP Billiton's executives. Salt harvesting is a mature industry in which profit rates, even for efficient producers, are very ordinary. Rather than accept such slender pickings, BHP Billiton has opted for the cheap, brutal solution of polluting the local environment.
Meanwhile, there are ample reasons for the South Australian and federal governments to invest in developing desalination in the Upper Spencer Gulf region, quite apart from the "need" to entice BHP Billiton into expanding its mine.
Naturally, the energy requirements of desalination should be met from renewable sources. This is hardly a problem, since the hills behind Port Bonython are noted for their stiff, regular sea breezes. In addition, the Whyalla City Council has been working for years with the engineering department at the Australian National University to help further the ANU's promising "Solar Oasis" technology. Using parabolic mirrors of advanced design, the Solar Oasis produces both electricity and desalinated water.
Instead of backing such initiatives, the ALP has snapped into line with the response that successive state governments, both Labor and Liberal, have shown to the operators of the Olympic Dam mine since the 1980s.
Like primitive followers of a cargo cult, Rann and Rudd look to BHP Billiton's mine as the source of unexampled future prosperity, provided the company's demands can be scrupulously met, and provided it is cultivated with regular gifts. Environmentalists and fishers in South Australia are not so bedazzled.