NT's major rivers under threat

July 23, 2003


DARWIN — Two of the Northern Territory's major rivers face serious threats from development proposals.

Australians are already struggling to comprehend the billions of dollars that will be required just to keep the Murray-Darling River flowing for the next decade. Despite this alarming precedent, the NT ALP government seems determined to disregard environmental concerns, and sacrifice the Daly and McArthur rivers for the sake of some short-term economic activity.

Landclearing planned in the Douglas-Daly region threatens to degrade the clear, clean waters of the Daly River. Already, more than 7000 hectares of vegetation clearing permits have been granted this year. These permits are being issued ahead of the release of the regional conservation, development and water management plans. Draft documents suggest that activity so far represents just a small fraction of the vast clearing planned for the catchment.

Most clearing applications so far have been to grow improved pasture for live cattle export. This can cause habitat loss, weed infestation, soil erosion and agrochemical pollution. These applications may be merely the thin edge of a wedge — thirsty horticultural developments may appear on the cleared land. Thirstier crops would draw upon limited groundwater reserves, which are essential for the dry-season recharge of the river.

The long-awaited water management plan is expected to draw heavily from a recent report by the federal Office of the Supervising Scientist. There appears to be no environmental basis for the OSS recommendations, which reinforce the status quo of allocating 20% of surface and ground water to irrigation. This figure contradicts the detailed scientific research that the OSS report was supposed to be summarising.

If the government fails to introduce better benchmarks and controls, over-allocation of ground water may reduce the river's dry-season flow, damaging the river's ability to support native species. The Daly River currently provides habitat to the vulnerable pig-nosed turtle.

The territory government is promoting plans to divert the McArthur River, in order to access the zinc deposits below it. This plan would convert an existing, huge underground operation into an even larger open-cut pit. McArthur River is a renowned recreational fishery with significant conservation and biodiversity value. Plans to expand the mine and divert the river represent a serious impact upon local and downstream environments.

Not only is the plan to divert a wild river that annually floods across a 35 kilometre-wide floodplain, the mining company plans to dam the nearby Glyde River as well, in order to supply the large volumes of water demanded by a new processing plant. This will require massive amounts of new energy. Even with the NT ALP government's enthusiasm for exploiting East Timor's gas reserves, the mining company will not rule out the option of burning coal to run the required 400 megawatt processing plant.

Whether it's gas or coal, this level of fossil fuel use would represent a dramatic leap in greenhouse gas emissions for the NT. Furthermore, the larger mine will demand a larger tailings dam, produce more waste and leave the mining company with significantly more toxic leachates to manage.

The Environmental Impact Assessment for this project is underway, however, a recent take-over by Swiss coal mining company X-Strata has opened up the project to further review.

Given the unbridled enthusiasm with which Chief Minister Clare Martin's ALP government has promoted this mine expansion, territorians are left wondering what level of protection the NT government will provide to the threatened McArthur River system.

[Justin Tutty is a member of the NT Greens.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
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