By Peter Boyle
Environmentalists have cautiously welcomed the draft report of the Resource Assessment Commission into the effects of the proposed gold-platinum-palladium mine at Coronation Hill in Kakadu national park.
While the report, released on February 8, did not make a recommendation to mine or not, it recognised that the area had high environmental significance and that mining would be against the wishes of the Jawoyn people, who have traditional custody of the area.
However, the report also suggested that mining under strict environmental safeguards was unlikely to cause serious damage.
Justice Stewart, who heads the commission, said that the government faces this choice: "Either it can set aside the strongly held and expressed wishes of the Aboriginal community associated with the area and the risk to the natural environment, and opt for the economic gains that would follow from proceeding with the Coronation Hill project; or it can forgo these economic considerations in recognition of the potential losses to Aboriginal culture and the risk to the natural environment".
Michael Krockenberger of the Australian Conservation Foundation told Green Left that the RAC had provided a "fair summation of the issues". It had concluded that a mine at Coronation Hill might not pose a great risk of direct environmental damage, if a number of problems were resolved.
These were the effects of the mine's drawing upon underground waters and the danger of stockpiles of earth built up from mining washing away into the South Alligator River. Neither of these problems had been solved, he said.
"But the ACF has always said that it was the longer term indirect impacts of a mine in a national park that were the most important reasons why the mine should not go ahead."
Certainty of destruction
The Wilderness Society's Kakadu campaign director, A.J. Brown, said that "the information behind the report supported a ban on mining at Coronation Hill" but the commission did not draw this conclusion because it "glossed over the fact that there was no such thing as minimal impact mining".
"The Ranger uranium mine [also in Kakadu] was allowed to proceed on the proviso that the entire South Alligator River, the last intact part of Kakadu's wetland system, was protected. So when it comes to the South Alligator River [whose headwaters are 250
metres from the proposed mine site], there is no such thing as an acceptable level of risk.
"The mine, its buildings, blasting and roads have a 100% likelihood of destroying cultural, ecological and wilderness values in the Coronation Hill area — and downstream effects on the wetlands are certain even without major dam failures or spills."
Newmont Australia, which will manage the mine, criticised the report for finding that the Jawoyn people oppose mining and for placing the net income of the proposed operation at only $82 million instead of the $750 million the company has claimed. The report exposed attempts by the company to try to pressure a minority of the Jawoyn people to support mining.
The ACF sees these points as the best results from the commission. "We've always said that the mine has been overrated by the mining companies. The same income could easily come from other mining ventures which are not in a World Heritage area", said Krockenberger.
Newmont manager John Quin said that he did not believe that current Aboriginal opposition to mining would prevent the government from giving the mine the go-ahead. He also claimed that a ban on mining at Coronation Hill would dissuade mining corporations from investing in Australia.
However, Richard Ledgar of the Environment Centre in Darwin told Green Left that while the RAC interim report spoke of the possible loss of investor confidence, it did not "in any way address the loss in confidence in the national parks system the Australian population would experience if the mine is allowed to proceed ... To get a mine in the headwaters of a major river system in a park of World Heritage value makes every other park in Australia vulnerable."
While the report argued that there would be little adverse direct effect on the environment from the proposed mine site itself, it admitted that there were probably significant indirect effects. There was the danger that the flow rate of the South Alligator River might be affected, with serious consequences for aquatic flora and fauna.
The report also conceded that any further exploration in the area would cause serious environmental damage, said Ledgar.
"Any estimate of environmental effects of a mine that has yet to be built is bound to be speculative. What we do know is that exploration has already caused some damage to Kakadu."
Ledgar added that he was not satisfied that the danger of contamination of the environment with cyanide (used in the extractive process) was adequately addressed in the report. He also questioned the reliability of a report by the Australian Centre for Advanced Risk and Reliability, released on February 6, which claimed that the risk of cyanide spillage from tailings dams would be negligible.
"There are no rainfall records for Coronation Hill. The study used reports on rainfall figures collected by a caretaker at El Sharana (another prospective mine site in the conservation zone). Right now we are having one of the biggest wet seasons in years, and 3-4 inches of rain is falling in a couple of hours. This means that the sort of rainfall measuring equipment the caretaker had at El Sharana would have to be emptied several times a day."
The RAC was set up by the Hawke government to fend off pressure from the environmental movement in the lead-up to the 1990 federal election. It has to deliver its final report by April 26. It is expected that the Commission will not make a recommendation for or against mining but will present a number of options and their environmental, social and economic costs to the government.