MAC: Mines and Communities

Urgent Action: Help Stop Xstrata From Building An Open Cut Mine In The Majestic Macarthur River

Published by MAC on 2006-09-18
Source: Mineral Policy Centre


[From Mineral Policy Centre, Australia, September 18 2006]

The Yanyuwa people in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia are calling for help. Having endured 29 years of struggles to get their island homes back, they now are threatened with having their river taken away.


UK-Swiss Mining Giant, Xstrata is proposing to divert over five kilometers of the MacArthur River in the Northern Territory of Australia to enable them to operate an open cut mine in the river bed.

The river and the river mouth are in the Gulf of Carpentaria, remote and wild country that is homeland of Aboriginal peoples who maintain strong traditional connections to their country and who rely upon the river and the adjoining coast for livelihood and food.

The communities in the coastal zone have already noticed sickness in dugongs and turtles downstream of the mining operation, and fear that these problems will greatly increase. The project to mine in the river was initially rejected by the Northern Territory government's environment minister, but now is set to get the go ahead from the government to proceed.

Aboriginal Concern over the Proposal: The river and adjoining coastal environment is a major source of food for local Aboriginal people, who maintain strong traditional links to their region and the river, which holds economic, cultural and spiritual significance for various Aboriginal nations. Yanyuwa Traditional Owner, Stephen Johnston whose country is downstream of the mine in the coastal area has called for support to help stop the proposal. He wrote to the Enivornment Centre of the Northern Territory: "The Traditional Owners of the Sir Edward Pellew Islands and the MacArthur River seek your support on the most urgent of matters. I am a Yanyuwa Traditional Owner. My people have fought relentlessly for nearly 3 decades for the return of their island country in the Sir Edward Pellew Group. Just weeks before this landmark event (Xstrata) MacArthur River Mining wants to contaminate our river and our islands with heavy metals and silt."

The Yanyuwa people are strongly opposed to the mine. They fear flooding could result in zinc and cadmium polluting waterways and seagrass beds, as well as affecting turtle and dugong populations. They view the health of their environment as a vital basis for a sustainable basis for the future, with plans for fishing and tourism enterprises. Many of the area's traditional owners feel there has been too little consultation about the proposal. In 2003, Harry Lansen, a senior traditional owner for the mine site opposed the expansion on ABC television's Stateline program saying "It is no good. I will be sick if they cut the place, because my spirit is there. All my songs are across the river. I don't want to see that thing happen in the McArthur River."

Environmental Significance: Long-term impacts on the McArthur River will be associated with the re-routing of the river and construction of artificial watercourses. The McArthur River has high biodiversity, recreation and cultural values. The river contains important species including listed threatened species, the Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis Microdon), and listed migratory species known to inhabit the river. The river connects to internationally significant coastal and marine environment and endangered dugong and turtle species. The Borroloola and the Sir Edward Pellow Islands region supports sea turtles and one of the most important dugong populations in the world. The Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act lists dugongs as a species of national environmental significance and the International Conservation Union (IUCN) lists them as a vulnerable species.

Subsidies and Economics: The existing mine operated by Xstrata has paid no royalties whatsoever to the Northern Territory government, despite operating for 10 years. It has also been exposed that the mine has a 5million dollar energy subsidy provided by the government. Even in a short term economic analysis the benefits of this project are marginal at best.

The Project has already been rejected by the Government Environment Minister:

The proposal to divert the river and open cut mine has already been advised against by the Northern Territories Environmental Protection Agency and was rejected by Northern Territory Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour in February 2006 because of major environmental concerns. The Mines Minister Kon Vatskalis invited the company to come back with a new proposal, however the fatal flaws that make the project unacceptable still exist, including:

• The diverting of the McArthur River along a 5.5km stretch

• A massive open cut mine pit in the bed of the river:1.5km long, 750m wide and 220m deep.

• Leaving the open pit as a void in the river when the mine closes in 25 years time.

• Inadequate consultation with Aboriginal people living downstream of the mine.

For more information see


Write a letter to Ms Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory of Australia asking her to protect the Mac:Arthur River and not to allow Xstrata to mine it.

You can email Chief Minister Martin at


Dear Chief Minister Martin,

We write humbly to you to express our concern about the possible approval of the McArthur River Mine open cut project, and to ask you to prevent this project from proceeding with what remain fatal flaws in its design.

There were many sound scientific reasons why the EPA Program and the Minister for Environment rejected this proposal back in February including:

- inadequate baseline and monitoring studies conducted by the company thus far.

- strong concerns about the stability of the proposed diversion channels for both the McArthur River and Barney Creek, particularly concerns about erosion and the difficulties of revegetating the new channel.

- potential impacts on the endangered Freshwater sawfish and migratory bird species such as the White-browed robin.

- concerns about the ongoing leakage of contaminants into surrounding waterways from the tailings dam and waste rock dump.

- the long-term risk posed by the mine when mining ends 25 years from now.

The massive open pit will be left as a void in the middle of the current river channel, which is itself located on a floodplain. The fatal problems identified in earlier reports and submissions that recommended against the original mine plan HAVE NOT CHANGED TO ANY SIGNIFICANT DEGREE in the amended proposal!

The mining company has also acknowledged that its consultation process with Aboriginal Traditional Owners living downstream from the mine and in the Sir Edward Pellew Islands has been inadequate. Many Aboriginal people in the Borroloola area including the Traditional Owner of the MacArthur River remain opposed to the open cut project.

The Northern Territory people stand little to gain from this development, having received no royalties to date for the existing operation by Xstrata.

The risks of the project impacting important environmental values and affecting the ability of local Aboriginal communities to develop sustainable economies are of great concern.

We urge you not to give favour to short term economic considerations, which are themselves marginal over the long term wellbeing of the environment and the people who rely on it for survival.

For all of these reasons, I strongly urge the NT Government to not allow Xstrata to proceed with the open cut project.

There is far too much at stake for this vital river and marine environment and for the communities that rely on it.

Thank you for your consideration,

Yours Sincerely,


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