Elder Nancy Yukuwal McDinny stands alongside several protestors in gas masks and protective gear in the Sydney CBD, slinging raw fish into barrels labelled ‘Glencore’.
Nancy travelled overnight from Borroloola, 10 hours south-east of Darwin, to protest outside the Anglo-Swiss multinational company Glencore’s Australian headquarters on Thursday.
“This is your mess, not ours! You clean it up!” she says over the microphone to cheers from the few dozen protestors.
She is speaking about Glencore’s McArthur River mine in the Northern Territory - one of the world’s biggest zinc, lead and silver mines - sitting 60 kilometres south-west of Borroloola on the land of four clan groups - Gudinji, Gawarra, Yanyula and Mara.
She wants the mine - which has been plagued by environmental problems over the past few years - to close down immediately, with Glencore picking up the cost of the damage to the land so far.
“We want the Federal Government and the Northern Territory Government, please, to close the mine up - we don't want it, you’re polluting our river, your poisoning our people,” she says.
This protest is just one of several protests against Glencore’s mining activities around the world on Thursday including London, Peru, Bangladesh, South Africa, coinciding with Glencore’s AGM in Switzerland.
The Borroloola clans have been raising concerns for over a year that the waste rock dump and tailings dam on the mine site are leaching acid, metals and salts into the McArthur river system which they use for fishing.
“We have to go 100 kilometres east to eat fresh fish,” says Nancy.
“That river is polluted and we are worried about our people’s health.”
An independent report in 2014 found that 90 percent of the fish in nearby Barney Creek had elevated levels of lead beyond the maximum permitted in Australian food standards.
However, Glencore claim that the affected fish are localised within the mine site where fishing is not allowed, and the poisoning has not spread downstream to the local communities.
Waste rock disposal unresolved
In 2013 the NT Government approved the expansion of the mine double its size and an extension to the life of the mine to 2038.
However, within months the waste rock dump on the mine began to emit plumes of toxic sulphur dioxide over the Gulf of Carpentaria, which continued for over a year before the company extinguished the dump fire in 2015.
The amount of reactive rock in the mining waste reached 90 percent, significantly higher than the 12 percent assessed and approved by the Northern Territory Government in 2012.
The dump problems were referred to the Environment Protection Authority 2014, with Glencore asked to submit a new Environmental Impact Survey which will be handed down later this year.
But representatives from the Mineral Policy Institute say the Northern Territory Government is undermining that process.
“The Northern Territory Government recently gave Glencore permission to build a new waste rock dump on site,” says Legacy Mines Project Coodinator Laruen Mellor.
“Instead of having a solution that they can demonstrate for the current waste rock problem, they’ve allowed them to ... continue mining and make the problem bigger.”
She says the 200 million tonnes of reactive waste rock produced so far needs to be put back into the open pit and sealed off, if there is to be any chance of stopping the acid leaching and rehabilitating the land.
She’s calling on the federal and state government to ensure that happens.
“The Federal Government and the Northern Territory Government needs to step in now and say this is actually an emergency, this isn’t business as usual and Glencore ought not to be given permission to make the problem worse.”
With concerns that the cost of cleaning up the area may one day be left in the Territory government’s hands, Chief Minister Adam Giles threatened to close the mine last year unless Glencore paid a larger security bond to the territory government.
An agreement of an undisclosed sum was reached in October last year.