Uncle Kevin Buzzacott is an Elder of the Triabunna people, whose country is the Lake Eyre region of far northern South Australia.
The Arabunna are the Traditional Custodians of the mound springs that occur across hundreds of kilometres near the western edge of the Great Artesian Basin.
“Some of the mound springs have gone,” Buzzacott explained. “When I was a kid we used to play in them, swim in them. Now they’re just bulldust.”
Many hundreds of bores sunk since the late nineteenth century to service the pastoral industry are largely responsible for drying up the flow in the springs.
Since the 1980s, the Australian mining industry has further drained the basin’s water resources.
The Olympic Dam copper, gold and uranium mine, currently owned by BHP, pumps a reported 35 megalitres of water per day from the basin for use in ore processing.
And, while BHP is sucking water out of the basin in South Australia, Buzzacott noted, other firms are poisoning the water where it flows in — the basin’s recharge zones, located mainly in Queensland and New South Wales.
In particular, he pointed out, the Adelaide-based oil and gas firm Santos won federal and NSW government approval last year for its huge Narrabri coal seam gas project.
Located in north-western NSW, the project aims to sink 850 new gas wells in an area that includes much of the iconic Pilliga Forest.
To reach the coal seams, the wells would be drilled through the Pilliga sandstone, a recharge aquifer for the Great Artesian Basin.
Leaks and spills during gas production could contaminate the aquifer with salty wastewater, including with uranium and other toxic heavy metals.
Santos is also a major player in the projected development of the vast Beetaloo Basin shale gas prospect in the Northern Territory.
According to a spokesperson for the Lock the Gate Alliance, developing the Territory’s gas resources would “unleash a carbon disaster,” and would be “the pollution equivalent of building and operating at least 50 new coal-fired power stations”.
Buzzacott emphasised that at Narrabri and in the Beetaloo Basin, gas development has been a source of anguish for First Nations communities.
In the Northern Territory, energy interests applied pressure and provided inadequate information so as to obtain consent. In the case of Narrabri the Gomeroi Traditional Owners, who flatly oppose Santos’s plans, deny being consulted by any authority.
For Buzzacott, who has long-standing links with the Gomeroi, governments and corporations’ disrespect and manipulation have hit First Nations peoples hard.
“They’re what I call professional invaders,” he said. “They know every trick there is.”
Part of the manipulation, Buzzacott observed, has been attempts by mining corporations to win favour by providing aid to Indigenous sporting clubs. “Up there [in the Narrabri], they sponsor the football teams.”
For that matter, sporting events can be used to influence the views of a much broader public, not just Indigenous peoples.
For Buzzacott, it is especially ironic that Santos, at the same time as it invests massively in fossil fuel development, sponsors the world-level “Santos Tour Down Under” cycle race, held each summer in Adelaide and the surrounding region.
Cycling may be clean, green and emissions-free, but Santos definitely is not. If the cycling people want a sponsor, Buzzacott said, they should look somewhere else. “It’s time for Santos to get off its bike.”