Telling the story of sovereignty versus colonial corporatisation

February 15, 2023
Lake Mary, about 30 kilometres from Olympic Dam, is an important Kothaka mythological site. Photo: Susan Norrie

Last year two other artists and myself were commissioned by the Samstag Museum at South Australia University and the Adelaide Film Festival to make a new moving image.

A key focus is the disconnect of time scales: the relatively short-lived exploitative mining compared with Traditional Owners’ ancient connection to Country.

Colonialism has largely excluded First Nation peoples’ sovereignty. Intergenerational trauma has never been addressed, including after the British nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s in South Australia (SA).

Now, mining companies are demonstrating a new form of colonial corporatisation.

BHP is a big and profitable mining corporation, but its operations at Olympic Dam, with the largest uranium deposits in the world, are top secret. Workers there are exposed to the carcinogenic dust from mining uranium and the water used to process the ore is from the precious Great Artesian Basin.

Given BHP’s reluctance to participate in our project, information is being gleaned from BHP’s numerous papers and studies detailing aspects of its operations at Olympic Dam.

Overriding First Nations laws

The South Australian Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982, which outlines the legal framework for the Olympic Dam uranium mine and was created specifically for BHP, grants extensive privileges to BHP regarding the mine’s operation. These privileges override Aboriginal heritage laws, and other laws, until 2036.

According to the 2020 Productivity Commission Report on Resource Sector Regulation, The Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act 1982 (SA) overrides any inconsistent provisions of other laws, such as licensing, environment, heritage and freedom of information, in the town and mine.

This law allows BHP to make decisions independently and in consultation with the SA government. It also allows BHP to only make a limited disclosure of its profits from uranium.

In 1988, BHP was estimated to have made more than $8 billion, yet it has evaded taxes for years. There has not been any reassessment since the 1960s.

BHP reported $690 billion in one year and only paid $9 billion in tax over the past ten years, according to The Guardian.

While the SA Roxby Downs Act was amended in 2011, it retains exemptions from the Aboriginal Heritage Act SA. Traditional Owners continue to be marginalised.

More than 60% of mining takes place on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ land.

Native title laws do not give First Nations people rights (as the name implies) over pastoral and other agricultural and mining leases.

BHP’s Olympic Dam mine is covered by different laws to those covering the rest of the state: the corporation does not have to pay for the 35 million litres (or more) of water it extracts daily from the Great Artesian Basin.

Since 1988, Olympic Dam has extracted more than 440 billion litres of groundwater. If BHP were made to pay, it would amount to more than $1 trillion.

Toxic tailing dams

Since 1988, Olympic Dam has produced around 18 million tonnes of radioactive tailings. Its highly toxic tailing dams and evaporation pond waste is growing at 10 million tonnes a year.

Apart from the radioactive waste, which poses a significant long-term risk, its tailings are why many migratory birds and protected wetland species have died.

Tailings waste retains the radioactive decay chains of uranium, thorium and radium, which should be isolated from the environment for more 10,000 years.

The dying birds show up the most disastrous environmental impact of tailing dams. The birds affected include the banded stilt, red–necked avocet, whiskered tern, grey teal, black swan, hoary-headed grebe, little pied cormorant and the silver gull.

Lake Mary, about 30 kilometres from Olympic Dam, is an important Kothaka mythological site. The nomadic black swan (Connewarre), a large waterbird, has erratic migration patterns, dependant on climatic conditions.

For Traditional Owners and custodians, the arrival and departure of migratory birds is significant. The black swan is a symbol of what has been lost in this ancient country — traditional knowledge and customs.

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