THE OLYMPIC DAM EXPANSION
“Many of our food sources, traditional plants and trees are gone because of this mine. We worry for our water: it’s our main source of life. The mine causes many safety risks to our roads – transporting the uranium from the mine. It has stopped us from accessing our sacred sites and destroyed others. These can never be replaced. BHP never consulted me or my families, they select who they consult with. Many of our people have not had a voice. We want the mine stopped now, because it’s not good for anything.”
Eileen Wingfield, Kokatha elder
On the 10th October, 2011, the Federal and South Australian Governments approved the proposed new open-pit uranium mine at Olympic Dam. This would have made Olympic Dam the largest uranium mine in the world. Mike Rann’s public commitment to approving the project before his retirement suggests that approval may have been fast-tracked at the state level, sacrificing what should have been a thorough consideration of the implications of the project to the ambitions of a retiring politician.
BHP Billiton planned to supplement the existing underground copper and uranium mine near Roxby Downs with a massive open-cut mine. The open pit would have been 4 kilometres long by 3.5 kilometres wide and 1 kilometre deep. Export of uranium would have increased from an average of 4,000 tonnes per year to 19,000 tonnes per year, and the production of copper, gold and silver was also expected to increase.
19,000 tonnes of uranium per year is sufficient to fuel 95 power reactors which will produce 28.5 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste per year (in the form of spent nuclear fuel). That amount of spent fuel contains 28.5 tonnes of plutonium – enough for 2,850 nuclear weapons each year. BHP Billiton sells uranium to nuclear weapons states, states refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, states blocking progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, states with a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and states stockpiling “civil” plutonium.
For more information see Friends of the Earth Australia, “Submission to Joint Standing Committee on Treaties: Inquiry into Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.”
Under the mine expansion plan, the production of radioactive tailings, stored above ground, would have increased from the current 10 million tonnes per year, to 68 million tonnes per year. The tailings contain a toxic acidic soup of radionuclides and heavy metals. Once all tailings dams were commissioned they would have covered 4400 hectares. The approvals did not require BHP to bury the tailings in the open-pit at the mines closure as Energy Resources of Australia is required to do for the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. Instead, BHP proposed to cover the tailings dams with layers of rock, leaving them on the surface of the land, forever.
As with the current tailings dams, the proposed new dams are designed to leak radioactive waste into the underlying rock which lies between the surface and the aquifer. BHP estimated that up to 8 million litres of liquid radioactive waste would seep from the tailings dams every day for the first decade of the new mine, then 3 million litres per day for the next 30 years. In the Draft and Supplementary Environmental Impact Statements, BHP acknowledges that seepage from the tailings dams could result in elevated concentrations of contaminants, including uranium, in the groundwater.
See Olympic Dam Expansion Draft Environmental Impact Statement 2009, and Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement 2011, Chapter 12: Groundwater (in both documents).
The Roxby Downs Indenture Act
The existing mine operates under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act (1982), which provides for wide-ranging exemptions from several South Australian laws, including the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Natural Resources Management Act, which encompasses water management. It is essentially a contract between BHP and the SA Government, which over-rides key legislation in South Australia with the terms set out in the indenture agreement. These legal privileges have allowed the mine to operate without the same level of scrutiny and legal accountability as other corporations.
In 2011 the Indenture Act was amended to apply to the expansion, allowing what will be the largest uranium mine in the world, operated by a mining giant with a questionable social and environmental record, to operate under a legal contract it negotiated itself.
The scope of the new Indenture Agreement extends far beyond the Environmental Impact (EIS) and the project approval, presumably to avoid future Parliamentary scrutiny associated with further expansions. Although a further EIS may be required, once it comes into operation the Indenture Agreement is locked in for all future expansions.
The Indenture will apply to existing and future mining developments in the Olympic Dam Area, and any Special Mining Lease (SML) that may be granted within the “Additional Olympic Dam Area.” The “Additional Olympic Dam Area” refers to Wirrda Well, 20km south of ODM, where BHP is currently conducting a drilling program.
State and Federal approval of the project is for the production of 750 000 tonnes of copper per annum, based on the Environmental Impact Statements. Several clauses of the Indenture go beyond approval and the EIS to the requirements coinciding with 1500 000 tonnes per annum.
The Aboriginal Heritage Act is the key legislative instrument providing for the protection of Aboriginal heritage in South Australia. The exemptions provided by the Indenture Act to the Aboriginal Heritage Act are exemptions to a 1979 historical version of the Act which was never brought into operation and was effectively repealed by the Aboriginal heritage Act 1988. Despite this, the current mine has always operated under the 1979 version. In other words, not only does BHP operate with exemptions to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, but they are exemptions to an old version of the Act that never became law in South Australia, despite the fact that a new version of the Act has operated elsewhere in the state since 1988.
This has carried through to the new Indenture Act, along with the same exemptions to clauses relating to protected areas and the removal of artefacts. Land covered by the project approval may not be declared by the Minister to be a protected area in order to protect an Aboriginal Heritage site without the agreement of BHP, or unless the site has been identified by the company in the EIS. The company must also agree before a person may enter and excavate the land to remove an item of Aboriginal heritage, whereas in the Act authorisation is granted by the Minister.
The effect of these exemptions is that BHP has absolute discretion on what Aboriginal sites are recognised and protected. It is a clear conflict of interest to have a corporation with a commercial interest in a piece of land also making decisions regarding whether this same land has competing non-commercial values.
Although nothing has changed in this regard from the previous Indenture Act, if perhaps recognising the 1979 Aboriginal heritage Act could be justified in 1982, when the current indenture was signed (although it was not in operation even then), what reason for continuing to recognise this version of the Aboriginal Heritage Act in 2011, when new legislation has been in place since 1988.
When asked in Parliament to identify the key differences between the 1979 Act and the 1988 Act that makes the former more attractive to BHP, the Hon. G.E. Gago replied:
I have been advised that the 1979 act does not have a mandatory consultation provision equivalent to the 1988 act for determining sites and/or authorising damage, disturbance or interference. However, contemporary administrative law principles, particularly in relation to procedural fairness, necessitate the same or similar consultation.
(South Australian Parliament, Legislative Council, Hansard, 24th November 2011, p. 4707)
The application of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1979 extends beyond the current and expanded mining lease to cover the much larger geographic area of the “Stuart Shelf Area” – this covers most of the Stuart Shelf at an estimated 15 000 square kilometres. The Stuart Shelf has been identified by a representative of BHP Billiton as a “potential long-term basin of high value.”
The new mine would have required an additional 200 million litres of water per day. Water intake from the Great Artesian Basin was to increase from 35 million litres per day to around 42 million litres per day, with the remainder to come from a proposed coastal desalination plant at Point Lowly. That’s over 100,000 litres every minute – in the driest state on the driest continent on earth.
The GAB feeds the mound springs scattered throughout the Lake Eyre region just North of the mine. The springs are integral to the desert ecosystem and sacred to the Arabunna people. There is already some indication that several of the springs are drying up. Anecdotal evidence from the Arabunna is corroborated by BHP’s Great Artesian Basin Wellfields Reports, which show reduced flow rates for several springs, particularly those monitored from the mid-1980’s, when the mine was established.
The proposed desalination plant was inappropriately sited in the ecologically sensitive Upper Spencer Gulf. The highly saline brine output of the plant would have potentially damaged the marine ecosystem, threatening the prawn and scale fish fisheries. The reef habitat near the proposed site hosts the only known breeding aggregation of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish in the world. The brine would have potentially impacted the hatching rates of cuttlefish eggs, where it dispersed into the breeding ground. Certain characteristics of the Upper Spencer Gulf marine environment, such as dodge tides, which are distinguished by limited tidal movement, mean that BHP could not guarantee that such dispersal would not occur. Cuttlefish lay their eggs and die shortly after. If their eggs do not hatch they do not return to breed again.
For more information on the Mound Springs see G. Mudd, “The long term sustainability of Mound Springs in South Australia: implications for Olympic Dam.”
And on the Cuttlefish:
Open pit mining is energy intensive. BHP’s proposal to dig the largest open-pit mine in the world would have blown out South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 12 per cent, undermining any efforts by South Australia to reduce emissions. By 2020, when the mine was projected to reach full operation, it would have accounted for about 20 per cent of the state’s electricity supply. Diesel use would have risen from 26 million litres a year to 372 million litres a year for the five year construction period, peaking at a total of 516 million litres a year at full production (including transport). The diesel needed just to dig the world’s largest open pit to access the ore body would have created emissions equal to the total emissions of the underground mine.
For more information: http://www.acfonline.org.au/articles/news.asp?news_id=2462
EXPANSION CHANGES COURSE
In 2012 the proposal was shelved, and BHP Billiton received a four year extension for proceeding with an expansion under approvals given for the shelved proposal. The company has until October 2016. An expansion formally announced before this time would trigger the new Indenture Act, which would then be locked in for any further expansions after that.
Since the expansion was shelved, BHP Billiton has announced its intention to investigate heap leach mining as an alternative, cheaper method of processing mined ore.
In July 2014 the company projected that pending government approvals, construction of a heap leach demonstration plant would begin in the second half of 2015, with a 36 month trial period beginning late 2016. In August 2014 the company received Federal approval for a heap leach demonstration plant. It is yet to receive state approval, and reports suggest that it is yet to be sought, with recent comments in the media by SA Premier Jay Weatherill suggesting that even the state government is unclear about the company’s intentions regarding this project.
It’s been reported that the company has been conducting laboratory trials at Wingfield, South Australia, and that they have been so successful that BHP may skip the demonstration plant stage and progress straight to a full scale facility.
Even though heap leach processing was not considered under its original Environmental Impact Statement, the Federal government approved the trial without requiring any further environmental assessment.