MAC: Mines and Communities

Australian gold mines' tarnished glitter

Published by MAC on 2012-01-23
Source: Northern Territory News, SMH, ABC News

An Australian mining company proposes to re-open one of the most toxic sites in the country - employing cyanide in the process, as well as expanding the existing waste dump ten-fold.

In South Australia, Aboriginal owners have blocked a separate gold exploration licence, after taking a test case to the country's Supreme Court.

Miner wants to re-open Mount Todd

By Alison Bevege

Northern Territory News

5 January 2012

VISTA Gold intends to reopen the Mount Todd gold mine - but it would have to pay for the environmental clean-up of the site where millions of litres of floodwater last week spilt from a polluted pond into the Edith River.

Contaminated ponds on Mount Todd site
Contaminated ponds on Mount Todd site.
Source: Brad Fleet, Northern Territory News

The Mount Todd site contains 1.4 million ounces of proven gold reserves at the Batman deposit.

A preliminary feasibility study found that it would cost at least US$67.8 million to close the mine and US$36.6 million in water treatment costs assuming an exchange rate of 85c.

In Australian dollars it is $79.8 million and $43 million - or a total of $122.8 million for the total clean-up, according to the feasibility study.

The NT Government is at present responsible for the costs. Vista Gold has no obligation for pre-existing environmental conditions that were left by former miners Pegasus Gold Australia, the study said.

In April last year, it submitted a notice of intent to mine.

The mine would be expected to have a life of 15 years and employ at least 400 people in construction.

But Territory businesses downstream, including mango orchards, an organic farm, a cattle station and fishing tourism operators, are concerned about acid water containing copper and cadmium leaching into the river.

They want the site cleaned up.

But the notice of intent shows if Vista mines Mount Todd it will use cyanide and will extend the waste rock dump from the existing 16Mt to 214Mt - more than 10 times as big.

The dump will grow from 70ha to 200ha. The waste rock dump has been regarded as the source of the contaminated water. When rain falls on the rock it becomes acidic, causing heavy metals to leach into the river.

Danger lurks in Territory's most toxic waters

By Alison Bevege

Northern Territory News

14 January 2012

THIS looks like a pristine lake. The clear waters lie nestled in bushland that is home to nine threatened species of native fauna and which boast a nearby breeding ground for Gouldian finches.

Downstream lies the barramundi fishing heaven of the Daly River, a popular destination for tourists.

Compared with the brown waters of the Edith River, this bright blue pool could entice almost anyone in for a swim, or birds to drink.

If they do, they're dead meat.

This is the retaining pond at the old Mt Todd gold mine and it's poison. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the NT Department of Business, Industry and Resource Development, the retaining pond - known as RP1 - is so acidic that just one drop added to 100 drops of river water reduces the Edith's pH level from 6.5 to 4.8.

Vinegar has a pH count of 3.0. The one-gigalitre pond - equivalent to 400 Olympic-sized swiming pools - is only slightly less acidic at 3.8.

The study, called "Toxicity and metal speciation characterisation of waste water from an abandoned gold mine in tropical northern Australia" tested aquatic life in the Edith River.

It found the retaining pond was so poisonous that 1 per cent of RP1 water added to 99 per cent of Edith River water killed all the northern trout gudgeon-fish in the sample.

It sterilised the freshwater snails and crustaceans so they couldn't breed.

The report concluded that each litre of contaminated water must be diluted by 20,000 litres of river water to protect the life of the Edith River.

This is why the mine is only allowed to discharge water when the river is at a minimum height of 0.81m under the terms of its waste discharge licence. It's to allow sufficient dilution.

The retaining pond contains dissolved copper, aluminium, zinc and nickel - benign metals that are toxic in high concentrations.

It also contains various heavy metals including cadmium, lead and cobalt. The Federal Government's national pollutant inventory says there is evidence cadmium causes prostate and kidney cancer, reproductive damage and birth defects.

It is highly persistent in the environment and concentrates in fish over time, particularly predator species like barramundi, black bream and shark.

The pollution has been festering at six ponds and a heap leach pad at Mt Todd since 1997 when owners Pegasus Gold Australia went bankrupt.

The NT Government has been responsible for the environmental clean-up ever since, with the Department of Resources in charge of regulation on the mining lease.

The then-CLP Government only secured a $900,000 environmental bond from the company but clean-up costs are now estimated at $122 million.

The NT Government has so far spent $6 million on the site, including $1 million in the past financial year on earthworks to divert rainwater from RP1 and the polluted tailings dam.

They are now racing to build a large drainage trench to divert excess water away from RP1 which is full to the brim, and to raise the level of the spillway.

The river level is now too low to release water - but there is nowhere else for it to go.

The main problem at the site is water management. When rain falls on the 70ha waste rock dump, it converts to sulphuric acid and leaches into the retaining pond carrying heavy metals with it.

Resource Department Director of Mining Performance Russell Ball said the dump was being reshaped and would be coated with a thin skin of clay to reduce the ingress of water.

River residents are angry that the NT Government has not fixed the site given 15 years of responsibility.

Three weeks ago, RP1 flooded down the spillway into the Edith River at a rate of 1700 cubic metres per hour.

Millions of litres flowed in the days after December 27 before trickling to a halt on January 2.

Both the NT Government and US-based mining company Vista Gold, which owns the lease on the site, were quick to point out that the contamination was heavily diluted by the rains and the flooding Edith River.

Water-quality tests showed metal levels were below Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, and were not likely to be a health concern.

But in a preliminary feasibility study, Vista Gold said the mine had been releasing water for nearly a decade, breaching the terms of their waste discharge licence several times during each of the wet seasons from 2002 to 2009.

And studies suggest the river has been harmed.

Metals have accumulated in the sediments of the Edith River downstream from the mine.

The Mt Todd Fish Surveys 2008 & 2009 report shows downstream fish had metal concentrations that exceeded human consumption guideline levels.

"This indicates a very high likelihood of the influence of the mine on metal concentrations in fish tissues and this was reflected in sediment metal concentrations," the report said.

Residents of the Aboriginal community of Nauiyu on the Daly are outraged nobody told them of the potential contamination in the livers of the fish and sharks they eat.

Fishos who catch 100cm barramundi on the Daly have been left wondering if they are eating heavy metals in their fillets, as the bigger and older the fish, the greater the risk.

Fishing expert Matt Flynn said while not many people fished the Edith River, the barramundi moved upstream in the Wet as newly born fish, then back down to the Daly where they could be caught by anglers.

"In the Edith River, there would be landlocked holes in the dry season where they could accumulate heavy metals from the food chain," he said.

And now there is the prospect of a new and bigger mine on the site of the old one.

New Mine for Old

VISTA Gold has put in a Notice of Intent to re-open Mt Todd mine, 50km north of Katherine.

Some with an interest in the health of the river, including Chris Makepeace of the Amateur Fishermen's Association of the NT, want the new mine to go ahead so a large investment is made to fix the problem.

"It's the best way to clean up the site," he said.

The Notice of Intent says the proposed mining would last for 15 years, using cyanide to extract the gold.

The existing waste rock dump would be increased from 16Mt to 214Mt, and grow from 70ha to 200ha.

The dump is now 24m high but if mining goes ahead it will grow up to 170m high, according to the Notice of Intent.

Thickened tailings would be generated from the ore processing plant at a rate of 30,000 tonnes a day.

It is almost certain groundwater would be contaminated by acid metal drainage outside the mineral lease, the company said, but it said it would upgrade the ponds and tailings dams to limit this potential.

Vista Gold would treat the metal-contaminated acid water then pump it into Batman Creek and the Edith River.

"Once a new mine is operational there will be a greater capacity to limit water discharge because of the investment that is contemplated in a water treatment facility and other water management infrastructure," said Vista Gold spokeswoman Tracy Jones.

Vista Gold already commissioned a water treatment plant for the site in 2009. It can remove almost all the cadmium, aluminium, copper and zinc from the retaining pond at a rate of 193 cubic metres per hour.

But it has not cleaned any water in the past 12 months. Ms Jones said this was because the company had not been allowed to pump the treated water into the river, so it needed to move it from one pond on site to another - and there wasn't any room.

If Vista Gold submits a mine management plan to the NT Government to mine Mount Todd, it will trigger a transfer of legal responsibility for the clean-up costs, which it estimates at $122 million.

The Resource Department said the Government would collect a 100 per cent security bond in the event the company does mine the site.

Resources Department spokesman Matt Henger said the cost of the environmental bond would depend on the details contained in the mine management plan but expected it would likely be tens of millions of dollars - a figure that would appear to be smaller than the Vista Gold estimate.

Some local people do not trust the NT Government to police the mining company properly should it mine the site.

Apart from failing to fix or prosecute the repeated spills, the Government initially refused to release test results showing the contamination levels of the retaining pond before the floods washed it out.

"People have a right to know," said Gary Higgins, a CLP candidate and mango farmer on the Daly River who drinks the river in the Dry season and uses it for irrigation.

John Etty, who owns the Wilderness Farms organic citrus and mango orchard on the Edith River, said he believed an inquiry would be launched into the matter.

"It will have to be a Federal inquiry or it will be a whitewash," he said.

"On previous occasions when we've had fish kills, samples were collected and given to the Government but the analysis of those dead fish was never published."

Nauiyu resident Miriam-Rose Baumann said she wanted to know what was in the fish, especially the bull-shark livers which are eaten as a delicacy.

"We want proper figures - not just hiding," she said.

"They've got the technology to find out what is in the fish and we want the proper story."

Argonaut slams SA veto powers after mining blocked

By Barry Fitzgerald

Sydney Morning Herald

17 January 2012

SOUTH Australia's claim to be a mining-friendly state has come under attack from ASX-listed exploration group Argonaut Resources.

It says that more work at its highly rated Torrens copper/gold exploration project has been stopped by Aboriginal heritage issues overriding its approvals to proceed under the state's best-interest considerations.

Argonaut told the ASX yesterday its approval from the SA government to continue exploration at the Torrens prospect in joint venture with Straits Resources had been overturned following an appeal to the full Supreme Court of South Australia by a group of individuals.

The court held that under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the relevant minister must delegate his power if requested to do so by duly identified traditional owners. Argonaut said that effectively created a mechanism to veto exploration and mining.

''It would appear this power of veto can equally be applied to non-mining activities such as public infrastructure projects, including those in the metropolitan area,'' Argonaut said.

''Significantly, this delegation power rules out the minister being able to assess applications in the broader interests of the state.''

Argonaut chairman Patrick Elliott said in a statement to the ASX that the court decision was ''obviously a very disappointing outcome''.

''South Australia is the only jurisdiction in Australia with legislation that provides for the mandatory delegation of ministerial powers to traditional owners, thus providing an effective right of veto over any activity,'' he said.

"In our case, a site card was lodged and then amended following its initial submission to cover an increased area, including the proposed drill targets at Torrens.''

He was referring to the method by which a drilling program by Argonaut/Straits was stopped in its tracks after the completion of three holes by late 2008.

Argonaut said the government had until January 19 to apply for special leave to appeal to the High Court against the Supreme Court decision.

The Torrens joint venture is in a part of SA's outback known for copper/gold deposits such as Olympic Dam (BHP Billiton) and OZ Minerals' Prominent Hill and Carapateena.

Aboriginal leader hits back at mining claim

ABC News

16 January 2011

An Aboriginal leader in South Australia's far north has rejected claims by explorer Argonaut Resources that the state's Aboriginal Heritage Act is anti-mining.

In 2010, the Government granted Argonaut a licence to explore 6300 hectares of land near Lake Torrens in a joint venture with Straits Resources.

Traditional Owners appealed against that decision, taking their case to the South Australian Supreme Court.

Their appeal was upheld, prompting Argonaut to claim the Act gives too much power to Traditional Owners to veto mining.

Argonaut Resources director Lindsay Owler says lawyers for Traditional Owners targeted his company's project as a way of testing the law.

He says the Act should be changed because of the potential for mischievous use.

"It is something we'd absolutely like to see amended for the benefit of the mining industry in particular," he said.

"It's something that we know that certain members of the State Government are alive to and there have been- we understand- there have been moves already during 2011 to amend this section of the Act but they didn't get through Cabinet."

But the chair of the Andyamathanha Traditional Land Association, Vince Coulthard, says the aim of the Supreme Court challenge was not to block mining, but to challenge Government process.

He says Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi is legally required to consult with Traditional Owners before making a decision on exploration.

But Mr Coulthard - who received the Premier's NAIDOC award last year for work in his community- says that process never occurred.

"There's no way that the Supreme Court blocked mining," he said.

"There never was an intent to block the mining companies. It's how the Minister's gone about using the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

"There's no piece of legislation in Australia that provides Aboriginal people with the veto of mining.

"So we've got to be able to work with what powers we do have and in the case of Lake Torrens, this was against the Minister using the Aboriginal Heritage Act - the very piece of legislation that was put in place to protect Aboriginal sites through South Australia- against Aboriginal people."

He says Traditional Owners are not opposed to the mining exploration per se.

"There are people who are opposed to mining and there are people who are pro-mining... There's a lot of Aboriginal people who work in that industry," he said.

"There's a lot of cases around South Australia and Australia wide where mining is occurring but they're working in conjunction with Aboriginal people.

"To go out and say that we've been mischievous about the use of legislation I think is outrageous... In no way have we done that."

The South Australian Government has until Thursday to appeal to the High Court against the Supreme Court's decision.

The Government is already facing a legal challenge from Marathon Resources over the ban in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

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