FOI documents say sacred sites at risk of ‘damage, desecration’ at major mine, port

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Multiple sacred sites at a major Australian mine and nearby port are at risk of “damage” and “desecration” from current works and a proposed expansion, the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) has warned in correspondence obtained by the ABC.

In the letter — which was sent to the Glencore-owned McArthur River Mine (MRM) in April last year — AAPA also raised concerns that the mine may have been operating “outside the scope” of its existing sacred site certificates, which are required to conduct work near places of cultural significance.

AAPA’s assertions, which are denied by Glencore, come at a time when the mining giant is trying to proceed with an expansion of its zinc, lead and silver mine, 700 kilometres south-east of Darwin near Borroloola.

The expansion was controversially given conditional approval by the Northern Territory government last year, pending certification from AAPA, which is yet to grant new sacred site permits for the mine.

An aerial image of the waste rock dump -a large rectangle body of water - at the McArthur River Mine. An aerial image of the waste rock dump -a large rectangle body of water - at the McArthur River Mine.
Glencore says its own review found McArthur River Mine was in full compliance with its sacred site obligations.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

In the letter, which was obtained through Freedom of Information, AAPA told Glencore that it “disputes statements made [by the company] to the effect MRM remains in full compliance with existing Authority Certificates”.

“For the avoidance of any doubt”, AAPA listed the risks posed to at least nine sacred sites “in respect of both current, and proposed, future works by MRM”.

Sacred water holes, trees and hill ‘at risk’

In relation to the mine’s massive waste rock dump, which Glencore wants to raise in height from 80 metres to 140 metres, AAPA expressed concern about the impact on a nearby sacred hill known as Damangani or Barramundi Dreaming. 

The authority said Damangani could be negatively affected by any embankment failure, erosion or encroachment from the waste rock dump, which spontaneously combusted over several months in 2013.

AAPA also said seepage from the waste rock dump into surface and groundwater could impact the sacred sites of Donagan’s Lagoon and a waterhole known as Nanbadini.

A road sign on the side of a highway points toward the McArthur River Mine. A road sign on the side of a highway points toward the McArthur River Mine.
The mine is about 700 kilometres south-east of Darwin, near the remote community of Borroloola. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Five sacred trees, as well as Donagan’s Lagoon, were also threatened by reduced water quality and quantity associated with the company’s current and proposed works at the mine’s open pit, AAPA said.

A sacred rocky area known as Yukuwala, or Stinking Turtle, was also at risk from potential collapse, stress release or lateral ground movement at the open pit, it said.

AAPA’s concerns echo previous issues raised about some of the sacred sites by the NT Environment Protection Authority.

However, the sacred site authority also questioned the validity of the mine’s existing sacred site permit for the open pit, which is 420 metres deep.

It said the open pit was now 150 metres longer and 100 metres wider than the dimensions specified in the mine’s Authority Certificate, which was issued in 2004.

Aboriginal elder urges caution

A close up image of Garawa man Jack Green looking directly at the camera.A close up image of Garawa man Jack Green looking directly at the camera.
Garawa man Jack Green says he is concerned about the impact of the McArthur River Mine on sacred sites. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Garawa man Jack Green, who lives in nearby Borroloola, said it was vital that sacred sites at the mine were protected.

“We have names of what dreaming comes in that area.”

Mr Green’s concerns about the mine were included in the recent Senate Inquiry into the destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

He said the mine’s previous diversion of the McArthur River had caused pain to local clan groups, and he warned against further disturbance at the mine.

“There are boundaries [on the sacred sites at McArthur River Mine],” he said.

“But they are squeezing that boundary in. They need to pull up.”

Watchdog seeks better protection at port

In its letter to Glencore, AAPA also raised concerns about ocean dredging and the dumping of spoil at the mine’s port facility at Bing Bong on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“There are a number of recorded and unrecorded sacred sites on and in the vicinity of this area that may be at risk of damage and/or desecration as a consequence of the ongoing works and use,” AAPA stated.

The letter also suggested Glencore did not hold a sacred site permit for its work at the Bing Bong port.

An aerial image of a port on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria near Borroloola. An aerial image of a port on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria near Borroloola.
Several registered and unregistered sacred sites are in the vicinity of the Bing Bong port.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

However, in a response to questions from the ABC, AAPA said it has since determined that a valid Authority Certificate dating back to 1992 does exist.

“Given the age of this certificate, it does not reflect contemporary standards of sacred site protection,” AAPA said in a statement.

“The authority encourages MRM to apply to update this certificate to provide certainty for custodians of sacred sites and MRM in the ongoing use of the Bing Bong port facility.”

Mine denies claims of non-compliance

Glencore told the ABC it took the concerns raised last year by AAPA “very seriously” and subsequently launched a detailed review of its operations, monitoring and survey data.

“This review found that we are fully compliant with all authority certificates,” the company said.

Glencore holds almost two dozen sacred site certificates for its operations at its McArthur River Mine.

However, for its expansion plan, AAPA’s letter said the company had only applied for a variation of the certificate that relates to the waste rock dump.

A road train travels along a tree-lined road from the McArthur River Mine to the Bing Bong port. A road train travels along a tree-lined road from the McArthur River Mine to the Bing Bong port. 
Road trains transport zinc ore from the McArthur River Mine to the Bing Bong port. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

That application was rejected by AAPA because the company had only secured the support of six custodians, not the 180 custodians AAPA said Glencore should have consulted with.

The company appealed the decision to the Heritage Minister, Chansey Paech, who is expected to make a determination in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Glencore has started the process of negotiating an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Northern Land Council on behalf of native title holders.

If approved, the ILUA could allow Glencore to get its required sacred site certification.

AAPA has urged the company to ensure such an agreement includes reference to all sacred sites that could be impacted.