MAC: Mines and Communities

Lessons from Mount Isa

Published by MAC on 2006-06-23

Lessons from Mount Isa

23rd June 2006

In her latest column, Townsville Green's spokesperson, Jenny Stirling, takes aim at how the Queensland Government nobbled its own Environmental Protection Agency over Mount Isa pollution and the implications for Townsville in anticipation of the Chalco alumina refinery decision announcement - expected just days from now. (Ed.)

How extraordinary! A senior manager of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) places his career on the line by alleging political interference in the operations of that agency's statutory responsibility to police lead emissions from the Xtrata smelters at Mt. Isa and all we get in the local paper is that "kids are to be tested in a new lead scare"; What about the political and environmental consequences?

Tim Powe, the EPA Senior Manager who has since resigned, said in the Australian article that in the early nineties, new environmental laws put pressure on MIM to control its lead emissions from its smelters. MIM followed up with a threat to go off shore with their operations. The industry is still there so it is safe to assume, as Mr Powe alleges, that a deal was struck which remains in place today for Xtrata.

Since that time, ensuing Qld governments have seen fit to side step the Goss government's world class Environmental Protection Act by issuing certain industries (worth over $30 million) 'licences to pollute' through the provisions of its Special Agreement Act. This is how the State government can establish industries like Sun Metals and the Canal estate/ Liner Terminal.

Effectively, what is illegal for yokels like you and me is not illegal for these developers. And what is more interesting is that under the provisions of these Special Agreements, our right, as citizens, to contest these proposals is legislated out of existence.

Personally, I was stunned by the former MIM employee, former Minister for Mines and Energy, Minister of Police, State Development and current Speaker of the House, Tony McGrady's comment about the possibility of high lead emissions not being an issue for people of Mt. Isa.

However, on reflection, I can see how that might be. The people there, like people in the coal industry, have become conditioned to danger, high wages and a history of abuse by mining companies- a toxic combination if ever there was one. One remembers the famous lockout at Mt. Isa in 1964.

In December 1964 MIM sacked their underground miners and closed the gates on the rest of their 4000 strong workforce.

A few months later Mt Isa Mines suspended all operations as a result of the industrial dispute and this saw the Queensland Government declare a state of emergency in the town.

In the melee that followed, the union movement was decimated by internal politics which pitted the Catholics against the communists. Yes, it was the time of the Cold War, the DLP was at the height of its political power and Mt. Isa was never the same again.

I am saddened by the whole issue of the lead emissions but the ramifications for the city of Townsville are too huge to ignore. As the countdown for the Chalco decision looms, people concerned with the health outcomes for this community and the environment need to be mindful of what has happened in Mt. Isa. Are we too going to become conditioned to a cycle of abusing worker's and resident's health and safety, high economic growth and a government which increasingly ignores our rights as citizens for the sake of developers? That, dear readers, is the real worry for then we have no recourse to any justice let alone social justice.

Jenny Stirling

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