Pressure ramps up to expand McArthur River mine

March 8, 2006

Jon Lamb, Darwin

The February 23 decision by NT environment minister Marion Scrymgour to reject the expansion of the McArthur River lead and zinc mine on environmental grounds has prompted a huge campaign by businesses and the mining lobby to get the decision reversed.

A full-page ad in the NT news on February 24 was followed by a series of editorials and articles arguing that the decision was an economic disaster for NT mining and its associated service industries. The campaign seems to be working because the NT minister for mines, Kon Vatskalis, is now saying he will decide over the next few weeks whether the mine expansion can go ahead.

The mining group Xstrata claims that if it cannot convert the below-ground mine to an open-cut operation, extending operations for another 25 years, the mine will close within a few years.

Xstrata wants to redirect McArthur River, located near the existing mine, for 5.5 kilometres and develop a pit in the river channel. The March 3 NT News editorial claimed that the decision to reject the mine's expansion was influenced by Environment Protection Agency officers, whom it described as "greenies, philosophically opposed" to the mine.

The NT News editorial also questioned the reliability of the independent hydrological study by University of Newcastle tropical rivers expert Professor Wayne Erskine because he did not visit the mine site. However, as Environment Centre of the NT (ECNT) co-ordinator Peter Robertson informed Green Left Weekly, given that Erskine had studied the McArthur River and other major NT rivers, "it was not necessary for him to visit it again to make his assessment of its proposed diversion".

Environmentalists and traditional owners addressed a 70-strong public meeting on the proposed mine expansion organised by the ECNT on March 2. Representatives from the mine and the NT government, who were invited to speak, did not show.

Dr Gary Scott, a freshwater campaigner for the ECNT, outlined the main reasons why the expansion had been rejected, including that Xstrata's own environmental impact study had failed to address the impact of changing the natural course of the river and nearby Barney Creek. This included a failure to take into account the impact of major flooding episodes, which can happen every five years.

Traditional owner Steven Johnston from the nearby Sir Edward Pellew Islands described the Yanyuwa people's concerns, including what happened after the big floods of 2001. "There were thousands of dead fish, and crabs and juvenile prawns disappeared." He said there had not been any monitoring of the mine's impact on the downstream McArthur wetlands or the waters surrounding the ecologically important Sir Edward Pellew Islands.

Johnston also refuted claims that the mine brought economic benefits to the Borroloola township, 40 kilometres from the mine: "The mine doesn't do any business in Borroloola and very little money from the mine benefits the town. So it wouldn't make any difference if the mine closed."

From Green Left Weekly, March 8, 2006.
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