Information provided by Friends of the Earth, Adelaide
The Federal and South Australian Governments are currently considering the final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed expansion of the Olympic Dam mine. This is the last stage of the approval process, with South Australia premier Mike Rann’s recent comments emphasising his commitment to approving the project before his retirement indicating that approval may be fast-tracked at the state level, sacrificing what should be a thorough consideration of the implications of the project to the ambitions of a retiring politician.
BHP Billiton plans to supplement the existing underground copper and uranium mine near Roxby Downs with a massive open-cut mine. The open pit will be 4 kilometres long by 3.5 kilometres wide and 1 kilometre deep. Export of uranium is expected to increase from an average of 4,000 tonnes per year to 19,000 tonnes per year, and the production of copper, gold and silver is also expected to increase.
19,000 tonnes of uranium per year is sufficient to fuel 95 power reactors which will produce 28.5 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste per year (in the form of spent nuclear fuel). That amount of spent fuel contains 28.5 tonnes of plutonium – enough for 2,850 nuclear weapons each year. BHP Billiton sells uranium to nuclear weapons states, states refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, states blocking progress on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, states with a history of secret nuclear weapons research, and states stockpiling “civil” plutonium.
Under the mine expansion plan, the production of radioactive tailings, stored above ground, will increase from the current 10 million tonnes per year, to 68 million tonnes per year. The tailings contain a toxic acidic soup of radionuclides and heavy metals. It is estimated that by the mines closure, these tailings will total nearly nine billion tonnes, equivalent to nine times the volume of Sydney Harbour, which BHP intends to leave on the surface of the land, forever.
As with the current tailings dams, the proposed new dams are designed to leak radioactive waste into the underlying rock. BHP estimates that 8 million litres of liquid radioactive waste will seep from the tailings dams every day for the first decade of the new mine, then 3 million litres per day for the next 30 years.  BHP acknowledges that seepage from the tailings dams could result in elevated concentrations of contaminants, including uranium, in the groundwater.
The mine operates under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act, which provides exemptions from the South Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act, the key legislative instrument providing for the protection of Aboriginal heritage in South Australia. BHP Billiton is in a legal position to determine what consultation occurs with Traditional Owners, who is consulted, and the nature of any consultation. The company decides the level of protection that Aboriginal Heritage sites receive and which sites are recognised. It is a clear conflict of interest to have a corporation with a commercial interest in a piece of land also making decisions regarding whether this same land has competing non-commercial values.
“Many of our food sources, traditional plants and trees are gone because of this mine. We worry for our water: it’s our main source of life. The mine causes many safety risks to our roads – transporting the uranium from the mine. It has stopped us from accessing our sacred sites and destroyed others. These can never be replaced. BHP never consulted me or my families, they select who they consult with. Many of our people have not had a voice. We want the mine stopped now, because it’s not good for anything.” – Eileen Wingfield, Kokatha elder
The Roxby Downs Indenture Act allows wide-ranging exemptions from key South Australian laws, such as the SA Environmental Protection Act (1993), Freedom of Information Act (1991), and the Natural Resources Management Act (2004), which encompasses water management. These legal privileges allow the mine to operate without the same level of scrutiny and legal accountability as other corporations.
BHP is currently seeking amendments to the Act to extend these legal privileges to the new mine. If these amendments are passed, SA will host the largest uranium mine in the world, operated by a mining giant with a questionable international social and environmental record, which will be shrouded in secrecy and exempt from key laws designed to regulate the environmental practices of exactly these types of developments.
BHP Billiton proposes to increase its water consumption by an additional 200 million litres per day. Water intake from the Great Artesian Basin will increase from 35 million litres per day to up to 42 million litres per day, with the remainder to come from a proposed coastal desalination plant at Point Lowly. That’s over 100,000 litres every minute – in the driest state on the driest continent on earth. The water intake from the Great Artesian Basin has already had adverse impacts on the unique Mound Springs found near Lake Eyre, which are fed by the underlying Artesian Basin, and are sacred to the Arabunna people, the traditional owners of the area. Under the Indenture Act, BHP Billiton pays nothing for its massive water intake for the Olympic Dam mine, despite recording a total net profit of US$23. 95 billion in 2011, nearly double its 2010 figure of US$13.01 billion.
The proposed desalination plant has been inappropriately sited in the ecologically sensitive Upper Spencer Gulf. The highly saline brine output of the plant has the potential to damage the marine ecosystem, threatening the prawn and scale fish fisheries. The reef habitat near the proposed site hosts the only known breeding aggregation of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish in the world. There is potential for the brine to impact the hatching rates of cuttlefish eggs, where it disperses into the breeding ground. Certain characteristics of the Upper Spencer Gulf marine environment, such as dodge tides, which are distinguished by limited tidal movement, mean that BHP cannot guarantee that such dispersal will not occur. Cuttlefish lay their eggs and die shortly after. If their eggs do not hatch they do not return to breed again.
Open pit mining is energy intensive. BHP’s proposal to dig the largest open-pit mine in the world will blow out South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 12 per cent, undermining any efforts by South Australia to reduce emissions. By 2020, when the mine could reach full operation, it would use about 20 per cent of the state’s electricity supply. Diesel use will rise from 26 million litres a year to 372 million litres a year for the five year construction period, peaking at a total of 516 million litres a year at full production (including transport). The diesel needed just to dig the world’s largest open pit to access the ore body will create emissions equal to the total emissions of the underground mine.
Peter Burdon, ‘Above the law? Roxby Downs and BHP Billiton’s Legal Privileges’,