• Clouds of sulphur dioxide being emitted from the gigantic waste rock pile at McArthur River Mine 2014. David Morris EDONT (The Conversation)Source: The Conversation
The Northern Territory government has announced the expansion of the McArthur River zinc mine, despite the authority responsible for the protection of Aboriginal sacred sites rejecting the company's application.
Shahni Wellington

20 Nov 2020 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 20 Nov 2020 - 1:49 PM

The Northern Territory's Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) is concerned about the potential damage to sacred sites after it was announced a major mine expansion would go ahead.

Mining company, Glencore, has been given the green light by the Northern Territory government to double the size of the mining pit and waste rock dump at McArthur River Mine, in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria - 970 km southeast of Darwin.

The mine is on the traditional lands of the Gudanji and Yanyuwa people and studies have identified 21 sacred sites in around the current leased area. Those sites are protected and registered with the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.

In a statement, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) called on McArthur River Mine (MRM) to properly engage with custodians. 

"In November 2017, an Authority Certificate application by MRM relating to their plans to expand the Northern Overburden Emplacement Facility was rejected by AAPA, with a request that MRM undertake consultation with Traditional Owners.

"MRM chose instead to appeal the decision with Government. That decision is still pending," said the statement.

Borroloola Elder Jack Green, said custodians are still waiting for MRM to properly consult with traditional owners.

"If a site is destroyed, it destroys culture. It means people can't teach the law. There will be no dancing. No story. No life.

"What MRM proposes is serious. Custodians have not been properly consulted," he said.

Senior Nunggubuyu man and chairman of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, Bobby Nunggamajbarr, told the ABC that the news was a shock.

"The announcement was very sad for us — we have given [Glencore] a lot of chances to work with us but they haven't done it," Bobby Nunggamajbarr said.

"The Northern Territory Government should have listened to our traditional owners. They should have got a certificate from our board."

Mr Nunggamajbarr said Aboriginal heritage sites need to be protected.

"Juukan Gorge does not need to be repeated here in the NT," he said.

NT Government go ahead

On Thursday, the expansion of the McArthur River Mine was touted as a win for jobs by the Minister for Mining and Industry, Nicole Manison.

Ms Manison said the approval will allow the mine to continue to operate "in an environmentally safe and responsible manner," as well as keep more than a thousand employees and contractors in a job.

The announcement includes allowing Glencore to almost double the size of its waste rock dump, from 80 to 140 metres high, for which AAPA has not given approval.

Despite the concerns of the authority, Minister Manison told the ABC that some of the works could go ahead without one.

"For some of those developments to go forward, some of this development is conditional on AAPA clearance.

"We are putting conditions there that say that they must get those clearances in order to go forward and do the development," Ms Manison said.

The contentious decision comes weeks after Borroloola traditional owner, Conrad Rory, escaped criminal damage to property charges for a protest against the McArthur River Mine and fracking in the Northern Territory.

In 2019, Mr Rory was part of an anti-fracking protest which involved using a bobcat to dig holes in the grass outside Northern Territory Parliament House.

Outside Darwin Local Court last month, Mr Rory told media he decided to stage the protest because he believed that the concerns of Indigenous people on the matter were being disregarded by government officials.

"No one cares what happens out there, (but) once you put a bobcat on parliament lawn, everyone goes berserk,” said Mr Rory.

Both Mr Rory and Ms Mellor were associated with the environmental group, Protect Country Alliance, when they organised the 2019 protest demonstration.

When Mr Rory took to the witness stand, the court was told that metal contamination from the McArthur River Mine had already negatively impacted the livelihood of the local Indigenous community and he had been concerned that fracking would contaminate the water further.