McArthur River mine threatens the gulf

Wednesday, June 1, 1994

By Ilana Eldridge

The Gulf of Carpentaria country contains wilderness areas of world heritage quality and is the major hunting area for the north Australian prawn fishery. It also comprises the tribal homelands of the Yanyuwa people. Their land and sea contains the beautiful Sir Edward Pellew group of islands and a large coastal area on the mainland. Yanyuwa people call this coastal area, which extends from West Island through Limmen Bight to the Roper River, Wurrunburrun. Part of it is also known as Bing Bong station, a cattle property owned by Mount Isa Mines. MIM also owns McArthur River Station, further inland, which is where the McArthur River lead/zinc mine is currently under construction.

Although the mine itself is not on Yanyuwa land, a barge loading facility to transport high grade lead and zinc to container ships waiting offshore is planned for Wudul-wiji, a traditional Yanyuwa dry season camping area. In 1976, 200 Yanyuwa camped there for nearly six months in protest to try to get their country back.

They asked the minister for Aboriginal affairs to buy them the Bing Bong pastoral property, which was for sale at the time. Instead, the federal government allowed a subsidiary of MIM to purchase this land. Some time later, it was transferred to MIM's Australian holdings and another pastoral property (McArthur River Station) was added to the company's assets.

Silver and lead were first discovered on the McArthur River in 1888. This mining project has been on the drawing board since the 1950s. Small scale exploration and construction occurred in 1975-77, and many local Aboriginal men worked at the site. After 1977, not much work occurred on site, and locals were sceptical that mining would ever happen.

But in August 1992 Paul Keating announced the concept of fast-tracking. This seeks to promote rapid economic development by streamlining and facilitating assessment and approval processes, removing bureaucratic delays and duplications between departments and the states/commonwealth). MIM's McArthur River Mine was the first project to receive these favours.

The McArthur lead/zinc mine is approximately 40 km from the small township of Borroloola, on McArthur River Station. This station covers part of the traditional country of the Kurdanji people. The Kurdanji have relinquished their native title rights in exchange for another pastoral station, Bauhinia Downs, which was bought by the federal government for this purpose.

During exploration work, MIM destroyed two Kurdanji sacred sites, for which the Kurdanji were compensated with two Toyota four wheel drives. It was the best the Kurdanji could hope for. They had no chance under either the federal Native Title Act or NT Land Rights Act for return of their land.

Borroloola is a town of about 600 people, with a further 400-500 living on nearby out-stations and surrounding districts; 90% of the population are Aboriginal. Most are from the Yanyuwa, Garrwa and Kurdanji tribes. This place is among the most isolated and poorly resourced communities in the Northern Territory, if not Australia. The economy is almost totally dominated by non-Aboriginal people, and the businesses operating in town are dependent on the welfare dollar.

Non-native fresh fruit and vegetables are impossible to get, and Aboriginal people rely on a book-up system in which they buy groceries on credit and pay their debts on cheque days. The high cost of shop items keeps people in an endless cycle of debt. Fortunately, there is still plenty of bush tucker available for those with the means to collect it.

Health problems in Borroloola, although not quite epidemic, are exacerbated by a hopelessly inadequate sewerage system and bad nutrition. Hepatitis A and other hygiene-related problems are rife. Alcoholism is a major problem.

This situation is already worsening with the presence of mine construction workers. These workers are predominantly white, single men with little or no knowledge of, or respect for, Aboriginal customs and lifestyle. Borroloola Aboriginal elders are frightened that rapes and family breakdowns will occur, as young, local women are seduced by the considerable disposable income of mine workers.

The Yanyuwa people had a long history of trading with Macassan trepang fishermen. Large tamarind trees along the coast show where Macassans spent months each year catching, boiling and drying trepang and trading tools, tobacco and other items for Yanyuwa labour. This early contact, trading experience and the isolation and remoteness of their country meant the Yanyuwa were relatively unaffected by the white invasion until as recently as the early 1900s.

The opposite side of that coin is that these people remain confused and often bemused by white ways. They are people of the sea, taking pride in their prowess as dugong hunters and their culture, which is rich and colourful.

Garrwa and Kurdanji people fared quite differently. In the early days of pastoral expansion, Aboriginal people retaliated against the invasion of their country, spearing the cattle that muddied and soured their waterholes, and attacking white pioneers. Massacres of Aboriginal people were commonplace, as hired guns, financed by wealthy British landowners, systematically murdered whole family groups in dawn raids at traditional camping places.

From all historical accounts, Borroloola has always been a rough and lawless place, abounding in cattle stealing, sly grog establishments and related alcohol-induced crimes.

The onset of the welfare period came with the establishment of a branch of the Aborigines Inland Mission in 1949. Today in Borroloola local people use the church as a convenient and comfortable meeting place, away from the rigours of grog, to sing, swap stories and clothes and get tea and biscuits. They have never relinquished their culture. Back then, the AIM became something of an employment agency, finding work for many as labourers, stockmen and domestic servants in white enterprises, mostly cattle stations.

The term "walkabout" comes from the holiday time (always the wet because it is impossible to muster cattle then). This is when Aboriginal people were released from their duties and were able to visit their traditional homelands. Every year at this time, Yanyuwa people would go back to their islands and coastal country and teach their children hunting, ceremonies and the dreamtime stories.

The Yanyuwa tried again to get their land back in 1992. The Wunarr Wunarr-Barranyi land claim was heard by lands commissioner Peter Grey, who, after hearing the Yanyuwa give evidence, stated that it was the best land claim he had ever heard. This was because every Yanyuwa who gave evidence bad extremely detailed knowledge of their country, their culture, the stories of the land and the in-depth knowledge that can come only from thousands of years of unbroken habitation.

Justice Grey also expressed horror at the thought of the barge loading facility and port development at Wudul-wiji. He was heard to exclaim, "Where's Greenpeace? Why aren't the greenies here?".

Justice Grey's recommendations will be banded down this year, and Yanyuwa people are hopeful that most of their country will be returned to them. But in the meantime, there are a multitude of threats to their country, including over-fishing, unchecked tourism and, of course, the big one, the McArthur River mine.

When it was announced that mining was to proceed, Borroloola was deluged by a veritable army of government officials, public servants, political representatives (of every possible persuasion), mining company executives and Northern Land Council representatives. Meeting after meeting was held, until the very mention of another one would be met with sighs and rolling eyes.

Worse than the boredom of dreary and incomprehensible meetings was the influx of new and often conflicting information from so many sources. An atmosphere of confusion developed, and as the knowledge and awareness of the implications of such a huge development grew, coupled with the haste of the mining company and the government to get this project under way, people began to worry about what effect it would have. They have very good cause to be worried.

A very large lead/zinc/silver ore body exists near and partly under the McArthur River. The mine will be underground, extracting 1.2 million tonnes per year. The nature of the ore requires it to be crushed to an exceptionally fine size (10 microns which is about the size of a particle of spray from an aerosol can) to produce a concentrate.

The concentrate is then intended to be transported by road train to Bing Bong, stockpiled and periodically transported by large barges to a bulk ore-carrier anchored offshore. It is an operation fraught with difficulties and risks in an area which has not even been adequately surveyed to find baseline information on the flora and fauna and the region's ecology.

In order to build the barge loading facility, approximately 3 km of ocean floor will need to be dredged, and in places where the floor is rock and too shallow for the barges, it will be blasted.

Much of the area to be dredged includes a large expanse of seagrass beds. A criticism of the environmental impact assessment by the Environment Centre (NT) Inc is that, despite their obvious importance in the coastal and oceanic ecosystem of the Gulf, no detailed description is given of the current nature of the seagrass beds — species diversity, productivity and density in the vicinity of the loading site.

It also does not describe a baseline study or monitoring of distribution and species composition, despite the acknowledgment that dredging and increased water turbidity "may have some effect". The environmental impact assessment merely relies on the information that only a small percentage of the pre-1985 seagrass beds will be destroyed, and that seagrasses are "used to" high sediment loads and smothering.

Dugong and green turtles feed on seagrass. Their grazing behaviour, particularly that of dugongs, makes them prone to incidentally ingest sediment. Dugongs are also known to be disturbed by boat traffic.

It is known that seagrasses absorb metals from sediment and/or water. It is also well known that seagrasses are bioaccumulators and bioconcentrators of metals. The EIS avoids the crucial issue of whether organisms such as dugongs eating large quantities of seagrass (plus ingesting sediment) will be particularly susceptible to heavy metal pollution. This is of particular importance where such organisms are a staple food source of the Yanyuwa people.

MIM has proposed an extremely inadequate monitoring system of using Aboriginal hunters of dugongs to survey and sample any toxic effects of spillage of lead/zinc concentrate. Their sampling is only "linked to local Aboriginal hunting", even though it has been proven that dugong and turtle can be caught alive, tested and then released.

In trying to buy off Yanyuwa concerns about the barge loading facility, an attempt was made to coerce them into entering a joint venture with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation and Burns Philp Shipping to run the barge operation of transporting the ore to bulk carriers. Some Yanyuwa elders were tricked into signing permission, without knowing what they were signing, for a tender to be put in on their behalf for the barging contract.

At a recent meeting of Yanyuwa people in Borroloola, the situation was explained clearly, and the Yanyuwa people decided, as a group, to state their opposition to any involvement in the barge loading facility. Their involvement would have meant they would then have little or no grounds to protect their country from possible pollution. Furthermore, if Yanyuwa people had the responsibility of transporting the ore themselves and a spill occurred, it would be seen as the fault of Yanyuwa barge operators, rather than the mining company.

The Yanyuwa people have sent a letter to Robert Tickner, minister for Aboriginal affairs, stating their opposition to the project and asking for his assistance to run a native title claim and legal action to stop the marine loading facility. They have also written to the Northern Land Council asking for assistance in their struggle. Another letter was sent to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Commercial Development Corporation, withdrawing from any involvement in any joint ventures associated with the mine.

The Northern Land Council has refused assistance. Tickner has not responded to Yanyuwa calls for assistance.

Most of the Yanyuwa people have opposed this development right from the start. They have been consistently told by the mining company and the Northern Land Council that there is nothing they can do to stop it. Their permission was not sought until very recently and then only because they threatened a Mabo-style claim to prove their rights to their country. They are extremely disheartened, and exhausted by the barrage of government and mining representatives pressuring them to allow the development. As traditional owner Annie Karrakyn says, "Our hearts are crying for our country, and we don't know what to do".

Frank Walker, special minister assisting the prime minister, was recently in Borroloola to hand over Bauhinia Downs to the Kurdanji people. While there, some of the Yanyuwa people were talked into signing away their native title rights to the Wurrunburrun, Wudul-wiji area. Those who signed did so because they are heartily sick of the pressure they have been under, and because, they were told, if they didn't, they could receive no compensation if damage did occur, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Two of the principle owners of this country, Billy Miller and Wailo McKinnon, refused to sign, and are continuing to try to fight the barge loading facility. They ask, "Why can't the mining company truck the ore to Darwin or Mt Isa instead of taking it through our country?".

Yanyuwa people and environmentalist supporters are preparing to blockade work on the Bing Bong site. The NT Environment Centre Inc is attempting legal action against the federal government for negligence in allowing the mining proposal to proceed. The Australian Conservation Foundation is opposing the barge facility on environmental grounds.

The Yanyuwa people need the support of the people of Australia to help save their country from the lead/zinc contamination which is likely to result from this development on their land.

The culture and livelihood of Aboriginal people are at risk. In addition, a fragile and pristine ocean ecology, including the habitat of dugongs, green turtles and countless other species, are endangered. So too, is the fishing industry. The gulf hosts the most significant prawn and barramundi fishery in northern Australia, with seagrass beds a crucial element for successful spawning of prawns. Tourism potential is threatened, as is any possibility of an aquaculture industry.

Any potential for sustainable industries will be lost if this development proceeds. There are currently two more proposals for lead/zinc developments further up in the gulf, including CRA's Century mine near Doomagee, on the NT-Queensland border.

The life of the McArthur River mine is estimated at 40 years. The life span of the Yanyuwa people and the ocean ecology cannot be measured.

[Ilana Eldridge is the Greens candidate for Milner in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly election. To join the campaign against the barge loading facility, contact the NT Environment Centre on 812 532.]