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NT’s mine regulator lagging years behind on key environmental issues at McArthur River Mine

NT’s mine regulator lagging years behind on key environmental issues at McArthur River Mine – new report by UNSW Global Water Institute and ECNT shows the scale of regulatory failure at the remote NT mine site

The Environment Centre NT (ECNT) is pleased to partner with experts at the UNSW Global Water Institute (GWI) on a new report that shines a light on regulatory failure on the part of the Northern Territory Government at the remote McArthur River Mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The report, “Monitoring the monitor: a temporal synthesis of the McArthur River Mine Independent Monitor reports” is authored by eminent academics from the internationally renowned UNSW Global Water Institute, and shows that, despite the oversight of an Independent Monitor to assess the environmental impacts at the controversial mine annually and report to the public, the regulatory process has failed to protect the interests of the mine and the community.

The report shows that regulatory and mine action is lagging – in many cases by years – behind the identification of significant environmental risks by the Independent Monitor. It uses three examples to demonstrate these failures:

  • the acidification of tailings storage and waste rock misclassification;
  • ongoing seepage from the tailings storage facility reporting to Surprise Creek; and
  • risks to sacred sites.

ECNT’s Co-Director Kirsty Howey says, “This report confirms what the Northern Territory public has known to be true for many years. The Northern Territory’s mining regulator isn’t up to the job of regulating this environmentally disastrous mine. This is nothing short of regulatory failure, with catastrophic impacts for the people and country of the Gulf.”

“One of the key environmental problems identified back in 2008 by the Independent Monitor was the incorrect classification of waste rock in the dump at the mine site. We now know that instead of 25% of the waste rock having the potential to leach heavy metals and acid into water systems for millennia, it was more like 90%. Instead of taking action there and then, the regulator sat on its hands, allowed the mine to more than double in size, and waiting until the waste rock dump spontaneously combusted in 2013 to do something. Even now, the final approvals to fix this problem are still outstanding. It is unacceptable that it has now been over 12 years since the problem was first identified, and we still don’t have a solution.”

“Given the issues at the mine site, it is extraordinary that Minister Manison signed off on the expansion of the mine in November 2020, and quietly reduced the security bond by $100million while she did so. It’s the latest in a series of decisions by the Northern Territory Government which will result in unacceptable risks to the Northern Territory environment and the downstream community of Borroloola, not to mention Territory taxpayers who will be forced to foot the bill.”

ECNT is concerned that the problems identified by the Independent Monitor at the mine site are worsening in scale and severity.

Most recently, in 2018 the Independent Monitor categorised as "extreme", the risk that the McArthur River could effectively redivert along its old course, causing the collapse of the mine levee wall and irreversible damage to the McArthur River and other water systems. The Independent Monitor's categorisation of the risk as "extreme" is defined in the report as requiring "Immediate intervention required to eliminate or reduce risk at a Senior Management/ Government level". However, this risk does not appear to be addressed in the latest mining documents approved by Minister Nicole Manison.

“Minister Manison has approved documents that appear to be many years out of date”, said Ms Howey. “If the mine wall collapses, then this will mean irreversible destruction of the McArthur River and the livelihoods of those who rely on it.”

“ECNT is concerned that the Independent Monitor – the only independent watchdog we have - has been missing in action for at least the last two years. The conditions for the mine’s operations require annual reports, but there is no report yet available for 2019 or 2020. We understand that the Northern Territory Government has recently appointed a new Independent Monitor, even though this appointment breaches the requirements of MRM's monitoring conditions, which require the Department to provide the community with an opportunity to provide submissions on the appointment of the Independent Monitor.”

ECNT calls for a public inquiry into this mine and its shocking mismanagement over many years.

Contact: Kirsty Howey 0488928811

Read the full report here. 

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