(by Boshra Yazahmeidi)
A report released this week by the Mineral Policy Institute calls on the operator of the McArthur River Mine to halt operations until a public commission of inquiry has examined how the mine intends to ensure the safety of its operations, and at what financial cost.
As one of the world’s largest zinc, lead, and silver mines, the McArthur River Mine in the Northern Territory of Australia has had a stained history of environmental, technical and social issues since its beginnings in the 1990s. Not only was the mine responsible for diverting the McArthur River, but also for the contamination of fish with lead – a food source of the indigenous peoples of the area – and the extraction of waste rock that has been releasing toxic fumes.
The report highlights the discrepancy between the 2005 environmental impact assessment that estimated the dangerous acid-forming rock comprised 11% of the waste product, and an independent study in 2015 that identified the dangerous rock as comprising more than 90% of the waste. Glencore, the company that operates the mine, had been requested to provide information on the exact amounts of waste rock produced, but has not complied to date.
A main concern of the report is how the company plans to rehabilitate the site after the mine ceases operations, refusing to accept the company’s current plan of leaving a massive open pit and a giant pile of toxic fume-releasing rocks alongside it. If left out in the open, the acid-forming rock could leach acid into the environment for centuries.
The report proposes backfill as the only viable solution and estimates a cost of $1bn for this and to properly rehabilitate the site. In Australia, very few mining sites have been properly backfilled and the unique size of the McArthur River mine makes it more challenging than most.
Rehabilitation of mine sites remains a key concern in Australia, with environmental bonds historically often proving insufficient to cover the cost of rehabilitating sites, and examples of companies avoiding obligations by selling toxic sites to buyers with insufficient capital to address the environmental problems.