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Heavy metals found in waterways surrounding McArthur River Mine

Recent testing has revealed increased levels of heavy metals in the water systems surrounding the McArthur River Mine, located in the Northern Territory (NT).  The results come in the wake of increasing concerns surrounding the effect the mining operations are having on the environment, notably in relation to the giant smoke plumes that have been billowing from the mine’s smouldering waste pile since December last year.

Despite being globally recognised as one of the world’s largest suppliers of zinc, providing for 70 per cent of the global demand for high-grade bulk zinc-lead-silver concentrate, the McArthur River Mine has faced growing criticism over the years in regard to the standard of its environmental protective measures. Most recently, the mine has come under fire over its failure to put out its waste pile which spontaneously began combusting and releasing large plumes of smoke into the air in December 2013.  Despite persisting community outrage, the Glencore owned mine has yet to remedy the ongoing problem.

Mounting fears of the risk McArthur River Mine poses to the environment have not been aided by the recent testing undertaken by Charles Darwin University which has indicated increased levels of cobalt, lead and zinc in the surrounding waterways, notably the McArthur River. In the face of such findings, Glencore has maintained that the levels reported are below those approved by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council water quality guidelines. However, Glencore has admitted to recording heightened levels of heavy metals present in fish sampled from the surrounding waterways yet emphasise that the collection of fish sampled was limited, and sourced from a restricted location on the mine site where fishing by the general public is not permitted. The NT Health Minister Robyn Lambley has sought to alleviate concerns by reiterating that the levels reported do not pose any threat to human health.

Despite such reassurances, the question that remains on many lips is what is being done to remedy the situation? While Glencore has committed to putting out their waste pile, which now has been combusting for nine months, there is no estimation of when this will be achieved. Glencore have sought to manage the problem by coating the waste rock with lime and clay, and while this has allowed for the combustion of new pyrite waste rock to be stopped, NT Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chairman Dr William Freeland has expressed concern regarding the long term viability of this solution.

The EPA has also requested Glencore provide a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) addressing the issue. The EIS is expected to set out mechanisms to prevent further groundwater contamination as well as provide a remedial action plan to rectify any damage that has already accrued. While such a report is recognised as an important step in moving towards increased protection of the environment surrounding the mine, it is expected to be at least two years before any such report is submitted.

The mounting fear and outrage of the Traditional Owners of the region has not yet been allayed. Notably concerns are building in respect of the likely consequences if chemicals from the McArthur River Mine wash down into the creeks and rivers during the wet season, such as the potential for iron sulphide from the mine to react with water to form corrosive sulphuric acid. Additionally, Traditional Owners have expression apprehension regarding the potential for the heavy metals currently being identified in the water and fish to accumulate over time and thus begin impacting upon the health of the community. In response to these concerns, the potential for establishing an independent community run water testing program has been suggested by some of those aggrieved.

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Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: September 26, 2018.

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