The McArthur River has long been the lifeblood of the Borroloola community, nestled in the Gulf Country of the Northern Territory.
For locals, the river and its banks are like a garden, having provided sustenance for generations.
It also has a strong spiritual significance for the local people.
Gudanji woman Josie Davey and her husband Jack Green, a Garawa man, used to fish along the banks of the river, not far from town.
Now the couple say they’re too worried to fish in their usual spots.
“All we know is that there could be something in this water,” Mr Green told The Point.
“We had a meeting here one time and they said you can eat the fish, but only as much of the size of your hand, because they reckon the fish does carry lead.”
The cause of the concern: the McArthur River Mine upstream.
The mine sits on Gudanji Country. As a Traditional Owner for the area, Ms Davey and her husband have been spearheading the fight against the lead and zinc mine, and its Swiss owners Glencore, for decades.
Ms Davey said she’s worried about what the mine means for the future of her community.
“What they’ve done is not right,” she told The Point.
“It’s my great-grandfather’s Country and it hurts so much that I can’t even take my kids back there...
“It hurts us that we can’t fish on the river anymore. It’s very important to us, the food, but we can’t go fishing anymore.
'It worries me for the future of my children, and my grandchildren and for our Country.'
The mine was approved in the 1990s, just before Native Title legislation was passed into law.
The Native Title Act contains a clause suppressing the rights of Traditional Owners in the mine area.
Traditional Owners have instead had to fight for a voice through the courts.
In 2006, the Northern Land Council challenged the Territory Government’s decision to approve the mine’s conversion from underground to open-cut, involving a reroute the river system.
The council's challenge succeeded, but the Northern Territory Government stepped in and rewrote the laws to override the court’s decision.
In any case, Mr Green said it was too late to save the river system by the time the challenge was won; the mine had been working on the diversion while the case was still in court.
The conversion to open-cut is something that many in Borroloola, including Garawa man and former mine worker Noel Dixon, are concerned about.
“People always go there, hunting and fishing down the river,” he said.
“I used to go down there with my Aunty from Devil Springs, and we (would) fish down there.
“But once it’s been open-cut, you’ve got no way to access (it), to get in there.”
Most recently, the Northern Land Council have launched a compensation case against the Territory Government on behalf of Traditional Owners, concerning the impact of the mine on the Native Title rights, and damage to sacred sites.
Garawa man Gadrian Hoosan lives in the town of Borroloola, and like many locals is part of the case.
“We live in the township in Borroloola, and the McArthur River runs right down the middle of the town,” he told The Point.
“That river is our livelihood and we believe we have a right to stand up and fight (for it).
“We have to stand together and fight alongside Gudanji people, stand with them... This mine is going to damage us.
“I believe that people power is the only way. People should unite together and stand together.”
A second legal case is also underway, against the NT government’s decision to slash the security bond for the eventual clean-up of the mine. It has been reduced from $519 million to $400 million.
Experts have warned that even after the mine closes, the site will have to be monitored for at least a thousand years.
Mr Green and Ms Davey are working with the Northern Territory Environment Centre and Environmental Defenders Office on the matter.
Kirsty Howie runs the NT Environment Centre. She says she is increasingly concerned about the mine’s environmental impact.
“The McArthur River mine is a festering sore on the Northern Territory’s landscape, and the mine is located on land which is owned by Traditional Owners under Australian law,” she told The Point.
“Despite this, it has been subject to an increasing number of environmental incidents that are causing contamination (and) that could potentially last for millenia.
“It will be the local Indigenous community’s lands and waters that will be impacted, not people sitting, making the decisions in Darwin or Canberra.”
When the mine was converted to open-cut, an independent monitor was installed to oversee the operation.
A recent review of the monitor’s work by the University of NSW found the regulatory processes have repeatedly failed to protect the environment and community.
The independent monitor is yet to publish its reports for the last two years, but there are concerns that even when it does report, no one is listening.
One cause for concern among the community is a massive pile of volatile waste rock, which sits very close to a sacred site.
The waste dump spontaneously combusted in December 2014, after pyrite iron sulfides were placed atop the refuse.
The independent monitor had been warning since 2008 that the waste rock had been misclassified and was in danger of combustion.
Jack Green said he could smell the smoke 60 kilometres away in Borroloola.
“It was really scary when we smelled that smell,” he said.
“We (were) worried about all that smell might get into the air and when it came down it would burn our body, that was in our mind.”
Ms Howie is highly critical of the poor regulation of the mine.
“The regulator in the Northern Territory and the mine itself knew that these problems were going to be an issue back when the open-cut approval was given and the river was diverted,” she said.
“We’ve managed to take that back to 2008, yet no action was taken by the regulator until the waste dump spectacularly burst into a smoking stack.
“What we’ve seen with this mine is a repeatedly failure of the regulator to act quickly to stop the damage that’s occurring.
“For the community of Borroloola or anyone who wants to be standing in solidarity with them, it is time to say enough is enough and draw a line in the sand.”
To fix this smoldering situation, the mine wants to almost double the size of the waste rock mound, from 80 metres to 140 metres pile, to stabilise it.
But Mr Green said he is worried this enlarged dump will impact on sacred sites, like the Barramundi Dreaming site, which will be just 30 metres from the mound when it’s completed.
The community is already upset that the sacred site can no longer be seen from the road.
“You can’t see that Barramundi Dreaming,” Mr Green said.
“Old people told them not to go high, so you could still see it but now you can’t see it.”
It’s one of 22 sacred sites inside or close to the mine site.
There’s also a registered heritage site nearby the waste rock dump - an ancient quarry site assessed as being of ‘moderate to high archaeological significance’.
The Northern Territory Heritage Department is currently assessing an application to destroy the quarry site to make way for the waste rock dump expansion.
The NT Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) CEO Benedict Scambary said he’s concerned not enough has been done to avoid impacting these sites.
“We’re concerned there isn’t a sufficient buffer around that site to protect it from anything that may be unanticipated with (the waste rock dump) if it collapses,” he said.
“At some point it may collapse into the sacred site. If there needs to be any kind of mitigating activity on the boundary of the overburden facility, there’s no buffer to really allow that.”
Two years ago, the AAPA rejected Glencore’s application for sacred sites certification, which is one of the requirements for approval for the waste rock dump expansion.
One of the reasons the application was rejected was AAPA felt their hadn’t been enough consultation with Traditional Owners to meet the criteria of the certification.
Glencore got the sign off from just six Aboriginal people in Borroloola.
The Point has seen this agreement and understands these six were given a new vehicle, food and fuel vouchers.
Mr Green is not one of the signatories but said he’s concerned not everyone who did sign off understood what the agreement could mean.
“We’re pretty kind-hearted, Aboriginal people,” he said.
“We’ve been kicked, we’ve been flogged, we’ve been everything throughout Aboriginal life.
“That’s why when you come up with something and talk to people, for myself or a lot of other people who don’t read or write, when they say ‘here’s an agreement for you to sign and we’ll do this or do that for you', we grab a pen and sign it.”
'Give our land back'
Glencore has appealed AAPA’s decision to reject their application to the NT Heritage Minister Chancey Paech, who must decide whether to support the company's application or uphold the AAPA’s decision.
Dr Scambary said Glencore seems to be going ahead with the expansion in the meantime.
“The minister needs to make a decision on the merits of the information before him,” he said.
“This is a large and functioning mine and the development of the overburden facility appears to be going ahead full steam.”
Josie Davey hopes the minister decides to back her community.
“I want them [Glencore] to pay back for the damage of what they have done and I want them to clean up that place and give our land back,” she said.
The Point has contacted Glencore for comment.