Expansion of Olympic Dam: Not worth the risks

Transcript of interview by Mara Bonacci with David Noonan, independent environmental campaigner.

 

From the Radioactive Show on 3CR - https://www.3cr.org.au/radioactive/episode-202006131000/expansion-olympic-dam-not-worth-risks

 

One of Olympic Dam's huge tailings dams - expands into the horizon.

 

Mara – Presenter: Welcome to the radio active show produced at the studios of three CR Melbourne and heard nationally on the community radio network. Hi, my name's Mara this episode of the radioactive show was recorded and produced on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Kaurna people for three CR Melbourne BHP is once again, proposing to expand its operations at Olympic dam in South Australia, if approved the expansion would increase, BHPs already significant impacts on land, water, culture, and wildlife. On this week's show, we hear from independent environmental campaigner, David Noonan, who outlines the numerous flaws and potential impacts of the proposal. Hi David, thank you for joining us on the radioactive show today.

 

David Noonan:

I appreciate the opportunity.

 

Mara – Presenter: Great to have your BHP brain with us because you do a lot of work. Keeping your eyes on them. They're planning another expansion of Olympic dam in South Australia. Can you explain what the proposal is?

 

David Noonan:

Well BHP, the world's largest mining company operating Olympic dam by far the most influential mine in South Australia proposing a major underground mining expansion. They spent some years after buying the mine in 2005 proposing a massive open pit program. They abandoned that in 2012, it was simply cost ineffective and perhaps it was always impractical. They are still trying to lock Australia into decades of further uranium sales by increasing production at Olympic dam, perhaps up to 75%. Certainly in terms of copper, they're looking at that. Um, they certainly are looking at the project largely as in terms of copper economics with having, uh, through partly through their own fueling the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They crashed the running price around the world and it stayed that way. So they are primarily now looking at Olympic dam in terms of copper economics.

 

Mara – Presenter: It's a bit of a switch from uranium to copper, at least on paper.

 

David Noonan:

Well, both on paper and in the propaganda there, they're talking about this as compared of the futures. It's largely how they're talking about it, where they used to talk about uranium fuel for the future. And they've sort of abandoned some of those propaganda relations as well. It's important in a number of terms in that by the end of this year, South Australia will be the only state in Australia. That's actually conducting uranium mining with the closure of a ranger in the Northern territory. And with our colleagues in WA, having held off proposed new uranium projects there, uh, Australia's uranium responsibilities will come back nearly entirely principally to the BHP. They are the ones responsible then for uranium, going on to unresolved nuclear waste and nuclear risks and impacts around the world.

 

Mara – Presenter: What are the potential impacts of the proposal on the environment? And particularly in terms of water consumption?

 

David Noonan:

Well, BHP are proposing a massive expansion of their extraction. They've taken water from the Great Artisan basin. They're demanding rights to take 50 and average of 50 million liters a day, every day on average for the next 25 years, they want to lock in those rights ahead of time. They've applied through the South Australian government and the Commonwealth, the SA government gave the major project status back in February last February of last year. And they're now at the stage of the company, uh, having guidelines set by government and the company hasn't gone off to provide a draft environmental impact statement that could come back in a year's time for a 30 day public consultation. But those, these, uh, assumed rights to take water from the Great Artisan basin. Partly also follow from Olympic dam being operated under a 1982 indenture. So the legal privileges to the company that should be repealed,

Mara – Presenter: They should because it gives them all sorts of privileges that aren't extended to everybody else.

 

David Noonan:

Well, that indenture overrides virtually all of other South Australian legislation and it gives us standalone arrangements to be BHP's vested interests. And that's the case with water. It's the case with tailings management. In regard to water that the proposed extraction by BHP from the Great Artisan basin is a really significant threat to the ongoing viability of the Springs. These are recognized as an endangered ecological community listed under federal environment legislation. They are really significant cultural value to traditional owners. So it's a human rights issue for the people who are the custodians of that region that BHP's water take should be prevented.

 

Mara – Presenter: What say to the traditional owners have?

 

David Noonan:

Well I can't speak for Traditional Owners, there's a number of points I could make they should have an absolute right to what the UN declared in 2001, under a declaration of indigenous rights to free prior and informed consent. That should be the standard that applies in Australia. Back at the time, the Howard government in 2001 voted against indigenous rights at the UN and federal labor are yet to commit to free, prior and informed consent as to how they'll govern in Australia. If they return to office after the next federal election, we as an environment movement, we as civil society, we as allies with traditional owners across Australia, we should have the standard expectation on mining companies, such as BHP to provide free, prior and informed consent. That's certainly not what the BHP are doing. There are similarities to what Rio Tinto, did in WA in exploding those caves, cultural heritage site. Rio Tinto claimed a right under an earlier legal grant from 2013, well BHP are claiming rights on legal grounds from back as far as 1982, that override the Aboriginal heritage act in South Australia that give BHP the rights to decide what and how cultural heritage matters are protected as to what provisions apply to cultural heritage. Aboriginal people in your site regarding Olympic dam and an area referred to as the Stuart Shelf. It's some 12,000 square kilometers, perhaps 1% of the total area of South Australia. They don't have comparable Aboriginal heritage rights and process as other people have around the rest of the state, because BHP are holding onto these outdated legal privileges.

 

Mara – Presenter: The rights that are held by people that aren't affected by the indenture act, uh, minimal at best. So it's undermining, what's already a bit weak.

 

David Noonan:

And BHP are claiming that they're assuming that they have consent agreements with traditional owners that cover this mine expansion. And they're making that claim on the basis of matters from an earlier decade when they came, probably influenced that with some force you would expect to traditional owners around that, then open pit mine expansion. We actually are trying to use a grievance from the earlier decade. They're trying to use what are now four decade old legal terms, um, to impose on traditional owners instead set of terms for this mine expansion that certainly would not apply if free, prior and informed consent was to be granted. And there were specific issues to, there are a range of pastoral properties that the BHP had brought up around the mine area that should be given over as title at least, to traditional owners to decide themselves as to how they run them, whether they run some cattle production, environment protection practice, culture and country that should all be matters for the Kokatha local traditional owners to decide. And BHP should really have no part in that from there on

 

Mara – Presenter: Absolutely. Um, moving on from traditional owners a bit to the workers in the recent briefing papers that I will be putting up on our radioactive show web page. You mentioned risks to worker safety. Can you explain a bit about that?

 

David Noonan:

Well, BHP certainly are taking risks with worker safety at Olympic dam, and that's, that's twofold primarily, uh, you know, major context it's to do with the tailings dams. BHP had to declare it mid last year that of four extreme consequence tailings dams that they operate in Australia. Three of them were actually at Olympic dam. These are dams that, uh, have a failure potential that could potentially cause a loss of life of some 100 BHP employees that could cause irrecoverable environmental impacts. And that could cause losses and costs to BHP and to society in the order of $1 billion US. They're the criteria that the Australian large dam committee applies to the facilities that Olympic dam under this category of extreme consequence tailings dams. BHP had the experience in Brazil back in 2015, a major catastrophe at Samarco jointly conducted operation with BHP in Brazil.

 

David Noonan:

Um, they have not learned from that experience. They were very slow to make a declaration about their existing extreme consequence tailings dams in Australia and particularly at Olympic dam. And they've gone on to gain approval for a massive new extreme consequence tailings dam, tailing storage facility, number six, and these, these are extreme safety concerns for workers issues. BHP's had to acknowledge from mid last year that's three of the existing, uh, tailings dams at Olympic dam have the potential to cause fatality to some 100 BHP employees in a catastrophic failure event. Um, but more than that they've gone on, they knew that for some three years beforehand, they kept the matter secret. They didn't include that evidence in their applications to the Commonwealth government, for instance, in mid last year, you know, applying for a federal environmental approval for tailing storage facility six, um, and they've kept civil society from being able to have a proper appraisal of those issues, those threats to worker safety, and that prevented any comprehensive safety risk assessment of all of the, uh, tailings facilities at Olympic Dam, existing and proposed. So really they have used their influence for arrangements, um, with state and federal government so that they haven't faced scrutiny either on worker safety protection issues with the tailing dams and they haven't faced any public environmental impact assessment to date. They've even got the South Australian government to exclude coverage of tailings storage facility six from this major mine expansion impact assessment process is now underway in South Australia

 

Mara – Presenter: So in effect, is it essentially like they get to regulate themselves a little bit. They kind of get to set the rules because they've got so much influence.

 

David Noonan:

They have a very high level of influence and they have a, an explicit set of outdated untenable to be honest, legal privileges from 1982 that they use at the end of the state level in that context. But they have a very high level of influence obviously with the federal liberal government. And it was the case that the federal Environment Minister gave approval last year to the application for tailing storage facility six, without any public environmental impact assessment, and even without any conditions being set by the minister as to how the BHP had to operate that massive tailings facility.

 

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Mara – Presenter: You're listening to the radio active show broadcast nationally on the community radio network. We're speaking with independent environmental campaigner, David Noonan about BHPs latest plans to expand Olympic dam for yet another toxic tailings dam.

 

David Noonan:

It's proposed to be larger areas than the CBD the central business district of Adelaide. It's proposed to pile tailings up to a height of some 30 meters. That's equivalent to a part of perhaps a nine story building at the center of the pile. And these radioactive tailings are ground to powder. They need to be isolated from the environment for in the order of over 10,000 years, they retain some 80% of the radioactivity from the original ore that's mined at Olympic Dam, including a third of the uranium that goes out in the tails. There's some perhaps well over now, 190 million tons of tailings accumulated at Olympic dam. It's a near intractable environmental threat long term to the future of all generations, traditional owner, and other Australians. And they BHP have so far been able to get this approval for tailing storage facility six, without even facing a full safety impact assessment. It's quite extraordinary that state and federal governments allow the company that level of influence in our society.

 

Mara – Presenter: That's astonishing and irresponsible environmentally and disrespectful to the traditional owners.

 

David Noonan:

 

BHP had to acknowledge that the irrecoverable environmental impacts that could result from a catastrophic failure of the tailings facilities at Olympic Dam include that the tailings could move across the mine site, uh, across a backfill quarry actually flow onto and into the one of the required mine declines that are major access to the underground mining facility. And that's presumably where BHP consultants back in 2016, privately advised the company that the company faced this potential death rate of up to 100, their employees prior to that time, they'd operated Olympic Dam for a decade, without knowing that their own tailings facilities had that potential to cost the lives of a hundred of their employees. They had claimed that there could be no potential loss of life. As recently as constructing a major tailings facility in 2011. Yet in 2015, they have a disaster in Brazil. 2016 - they have a tailings review across the world and they have private reports to themselves. So we've got access to some through the South Australia greens under freedom of information that show the company knew for three full years, that Olympic dam was operating under the basis of these extreme consequence tailings dams before there was a first public disclosure in June of last year,

 

Mara – Presenter: Yet they still have this amazing influence over government and seem to be able to do whatever they like.

 

David Noonan:

Partly they're doing what they like now, when a bill of the Australian government has put to the parliament, it's a so called radiation protection control act. There's very little protection into control. Unfortunately, regarded Olympic Dam has reverted against just rolled over to the original 1982 indenture that the BHP have retained in their legal privileges at Olympic Dam. So this is the Australian government, the Minister for Environment David Spears, a good fellow in other contexts, putting a bill to parliament to change the legal arrangements that conduct for radiation control in SA. When the Indenture Act was bought in '82, there was a second Act. The radiation protection and control Act of '82 brought in to regulate uranium mining and mineral processing in SA primarily to do with Olympic Dam, that act has never been reformed and reviewed. So this is the first time that legislation is actually reached the parliament. And that's perhaps that those matters we'd resolved even as soon as June this year with the bill to go to debate in the South Australian upper house legislative council, next week,

 

Mara – Presenter: I know that the greens in SA will be bashing for appropriate changes. Are there any particular changes you would like to see made?

 

David Noonan:

Well, there's at least half a dozen, there are key concerns about worker safety in regard to outdated 1991 era in this case, radiation exposure limits, um, BHP employees that work underground Olympic dam already faced significant potentially increased cancer risks. Very major international epidemiological studies from 2015 on have shown that, um, uranium mine workers face - and nuclear industry workers in general - face radiation health impacts that are some double the risk, from cancer risk alone. So there is an increasing evidence, scientific evidence, new knowledge through epidemiological studies that, uh, Olympic dam is operating under long outdated radiation standards and radiation protection limits in regard to worker safety. Now you would assume that evidence would lead the SA government and the company to reform the standards and the limits, and to set new regulatory requirements, but quite the opposite is being done.

David Noonan:

This bill, before the South Australia parliament actually prohibits South Australia from applying a more stringent worker safety standard, more stringent protection exposure limits. Than what are exists currently, in outdated national codes. And they're well aware that there's a strong degree of inertia at international and national levels. So we're not expecting reform of these national codes anytime soon, but the legislation in SA tries to lock in existing arrangements to do with the 1982 indenture act up to 2036. So you've got a new act of parliament. The old act from 82 is to be done away with, we have a new act, but it will be unfit for the 2020s. And it will assume to lock in legal privileges to BHP right through to 2036, including to prevent South Australia from applying a safer, more stringent standards for worker safety. In terms of radiation exposure, given that we know they're now facing some double the risk, just from the risk in cancer alone. It's re ally quite unacceptable that the minister of the government are so far unwilling in the bill as presented to reform those significant matters of worker safety.

 

Mara – Presenter: It's astonishing and who put this bill forward, where has it come from?

 

David Noonan:

Well, the act should have been reformed a long time ago. That's a matter for South Australia labor to answer as to why they never actually achieved it. And that when they were in office from 2002 to through till 2018, it's the current liberal government in first term of office, South Australia's Environment Minister David Spears, radiation protection and control comes under the environment portfolio, uh, that this bill is supposed to bring in new state legislation, the 2020 act for radiation protection and control. And yet it has these long embedded legal privileges to be retained. Um, it prevents application of a strictest, more stringent safety standards. It does certainly that, in regard to the overall mining operations at Olympic Dam, in terms of radiation control, it actually prevents the minister from applying new conditions or strengthening existing conditions that are governing Olympic dam without BHP having the option to take difference with that.

 

David Noonan:

And to require that the minister, has to go to an external arbitrator over the proposed changes in the conditions under which BHP operate the mine and even goes so far as to say that the minister has to agree with the decision of this external arbitrator, if BHP take difference, take issue with any strengthening of safety or other radiation control provisions that the minister for environment might choose over time to apply to Olympic Dam. You think that that's giving up what we assume is the normal course of conducted Australia where ministerial executive government make decisions on behalf of the public interest in elected governments put in by the majority in an election, but in the case of Olympic dam, that's not proposed to be what happens in South Australia through to 2036, where BHP will have these untenable legal privileges and the right to take, effectively to take the minister to arbitration, to prevent any strengthening of standards under which they operate,

 

Mara – Presenter: Astonishing, given the impacts that this can potentially, and probably likely will have on people, culture and the environment. And this has happening at the same time as the federal environment act is being reviewed. Um, and there has been talk that there are people wanting to remove the nuclear trigger from the environment protection and biodiversity conservation act. What are the potential impacts here? If the nuclear trigger is removed?

 

David Noonan:

well on the one hand, uranium mining is listed on the federal legislation from 1999 as a matter of national environmental significance. Uh, that means that the protected matter under federal environment law is the environment it's defined as the whole environment. And that requires then environmental impact assessment on a whole of environment basis. Um, social, economic, environmental, radiation control, obviously, but it's one of the strongest measures for environmental protection and assessment that exists under Commonwealth law and suddenly the minerals council of Australia wants to do away with that. Um, so on the one hand, there are very strong measures in federal environmental legislation, but to be honest, that the law itself is fluid because it gives a discretion to the minister as to whether they apply those protections or not. And we've seen that in the current federal environment minister deciding to approve the BHP's massive new telling storage facility six without even setting any conditions under federal Environmental law and without requiring any public environmental impact assessment on the BHP's proposal.

 

David Noonan:

So on the one hand, the existing law carries some strong powers. It's certain that it's left up to ministerial discretion as to whether they are ever applied to protect the environment. And we have been business lovelies such as the minerals council of Australia, trying to downgrade that yet again, to make it a pretty little free for all for the mining companies to do more than what they already do in terms of what they please, and for States then to have far more than just the assessment role, but to have the decision role in what projects go ahead and under what terms and conditions when matters are acknowledged to, to affect national environmental significance.

 

Mara – Presenter: Mm it's all quite astonishing. What would you suggest is a better way forward for the proposed expansion of Olympic dam?

 

David Noonan:

Well if we could put quite a few and there are briefing papers conducted um, put together by the joint national environment groups, Australian conservation foundation, Friends of the Earth Australia and conservation SA from South Australia. And some of the matters are obvious, there should be a repeal of the 1982 indenture that what's called the radiation protection and the Roxby Downs indenture Ratification Act 1982, there should be very significant reform of the radiation protection control legislation in South Australia. And there should be clear requirement BHP to safeguard accreditation basin waters and the Springs that are ecological important and of really fundamental cultural value and significance to traditional owners. That's a part of the current assessment is that the BHP to conduct an assessment of all potential alternative mine water supply, and we'd want to see them have to take that very seriously so that their operations and other proposals to expand mining in South Australia continue to impact the Great Artisan basin and water and risk the Springs. They should have to conduct absolutely have to conduct a comprehensive, full safety risk assessment of tailing dams at Olympic Dam, uh, all of the existing facilities and the proposed expansions tailing storage facility six and whatever other tilings expansion that the company has in mind that might be revealed in the draft environmental impact statement to come out next year.

 

David Noonan:

More of that, again, there is opportunity here now that in the near future South Australia will be the only state in Australia actually conducting uranium mining. There is opportunity at Olympic Dam for them to retain all of the uranium on site and to become, you know, to conduct their business on top of sales with some gold and silver, there's no technical reason why they can't retain uranium on site. And that would hold Australia back from a further and very significant nuclear impacts around the globe. We've had the experience of Australian uranium for both Ranger and Roxby fueling the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A really significant social, life and environmental impact on the Japanese community. Um, we shouldn't be a part of that. And there is an opportunity for BHP to configure the Olympic dam operation through this mine expansion. So that they don't separate out and sell uranium

 

Mara – Presenter: Keep it in the ground, the best option. Um, well that all sounds very, very logical and it's astonishing that the government just lets BHP do whatever they like, but this is we have, is there anything that people who are opposed to this proposal can do

 

David Noonan:

Well in the near term the South Australian ALP should give a commitment for there to be a committee of inquiry on the bill that the liberal government in SA has put forward in terms of radiation control and SA ALP should commit to a whole suite of amendments to that legislation that are certainly needed to bring it into the 2020s. We can't have unsafe worker safety, worker standard applied in terms of radiation, exposure, limits, and standards. And we can't have this continued proliferation of extreme consequence tailings dams at Olympic Dam. Um, there are really significant, uh, questions of BHP, and both South Australian and federal governments to answer as to how they've been addressing the public interest in these matters across environmental protection, cultural heritage, Aboriginal heritage protection, um, not just to do, including to do with the Springs, but to do with cultural heritage across the whole of the Olympic Dam operation, uh, worker safety, transparency and accountability are really fundamental.

 

David Noonan:

matters that civil society should expect in terms of what the companies - mining companies - claim to have a social license to operate, well, civil society need to pull that back and put it in proper terms. It should be for instance, in terms of free prior and informed consent for traditional owners. And there should be a really significant assessment of alternate mine supply to protect the Great Artesian Basin and the Springs. They should have to take this opportunity to design Olympic dam without uranium sells. Otherwise BHP are going to have to wear all of the significant impacts of Australians uranium sales deals and they're expanding, they are due to expand around the world. Um, successive federal governments have given sales agreements to sell uranium on to India, which is now in a nuclear stand up with Pakistan, to send uranium to the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf, a volatile region in the middle East. We've seen attacks on power facilities in Saudi Arabia recently that went unanswered. Why should Australian uranium be fueling nuclear reactors in the Gulf and the middle East, and that uranium would have to come in the future from the BHP, that'd be the only uranium operation going in Australia in the short term from soon on.

 

Mara – Presenter: Is there anything else that you'd like to mention that we haven't covered?

 

David Noonan:

Well, I think it's a fundamental challenge to civil society that the mining companies are trying to get away with these, these set of privileges. We've seen Rio Tinto blowing up Aboriginal heritage in WA, we're seeing the BHP try to get away with multi decade outdated standards in terms of environmental regulation, radiation control, and even work and safety in terms of, um, radiation exposure limits. Someone has to reign this back in, um, and it's largely going to have to come to civil society to do so. Given the contemporary failures of particularly the federal liberal government terms of environment legislation

 

Mara – Presenter: Luckily in Australia, the anti nuclear movement has had quite a few wins and a lot of persistence over the years. So hopefully we'll get some good outcomes and BHP can at least improve their behavior. And if not get shut down, David Noonan, thank you so very much for your time today. We really appreciate your time and insights. I know you keep a very close watch on BHP shenanigans in South Australia. So it's great to have your insights about the situation and we'll talk to you in the future to keep updated as things develop.

 

Mara – Presenter: Thank you so much, David. Thanks so much to David Noonan for taking us through BHPs current proposal to expand operations at Olympic dam, he has written some excellent briefing papers that you can find on our website, along with the joint environment group submission and recommendations. There is also information available at nuclear.foe.org.au/olympic-dam. We'll also post a link to information about the South Australian radiation protection and control bill that is currently before state parliament. Thanks for listening to the radio active show. You can download the podcast to this program at 3CR.org.au/radioactive we'll post relevant links on our Facebook page. If you'd like to get in contact, you can email us on radioactive show.3cr at gmail.com. The radio active show was produced with the support of friends of the earth ACE nuclear free collective on Wurundjeri and Kaurna land for 3CR Melbourne and is broadcast nationally on the community radio network. Thanks for listening and tune in again next week for more news and views on nuclear, peace and energy issues.

 

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