Glencore under fire for zinc and lead mining pollution

Heavy metal pollution in the MacArthur River has prompted Borroloola clan elders and local residents to protest and submit their own management plan to NT and federal government regulators.

Yesterday the Independent Mine Monitor’s report was released which confirmed long-held fears about heavy metal contamination in edible fish species, caused by the Glencore-operated McArthur River zinc mine, located in the Northern Territory gulf region.

The report described the risk of acid, saline and metalliferous drainage as the most significant environmental issue at the MacArthur River mine due to the identification of acid forming and problematic waste rock content on site, which was a source of toxic run-off into the MacArthur River.

Locals have become concerned that with the approach of wet season the waste rock and tailings dam will be a source of increased levels of pollution.

It has been identified that the tailings dam wall was built from reactive waste rock.

According to Environment Centre NT, Glencore’s current strategy for managing reactive waste rock is to spread it over a flood plain on top of non-reactive waste rock, and cap it with clay to prevent the material from smouldering and causing air pollution.

A protest rally led by elders from four local clan groups marched to the MRM Independent Mine Monitor’s meeting held in Boroloola yesterday, to present an open letter to the federal and Northern Territory governments.

The tribal elders have called on government to compel Glencore to reveal their current environmental management plan, and to implement a new plan which would give greater influence over environmental management to the local indigenous community.

The plan requests a moratorium on production at the mine while acidic and heavy metal-laced runoff continues to cause water pollution problems, and to transfer compliance functions from the Department of Mines and Energy to the NT Environmental Protection Agency to regulate mining and environmental problems.

It also calls for establishment of a local community health monitoring program to detect pollution impacts on humans, and a community based mine monitoring program which would have access to data from the mine.

Of major concern was the resulting concentrations of heavy metal in the river’s fish stocks, which until several years ago were a source of food for local residents, who stopped eating the fish because of health concerns.

So far no health warnings have been issued regarding contaminated fish stocks.

Glencore have been engaged in monitoring of heavy metal levels in fish stocks, but until 2014 have not monitored edible fish species, meaning earlier data on edible fish species is not available.

Environment Centre NT said that a flyer distributed to residents by mine operator Glencore last week “contained misleading claims that only one fish was identified with a lead concentration in its liver exceeding Australia and New Zealand Food Standards (2009).”

Environment Centre NT’s Lauren Mellor accused Glencore of sidestepping environmental monitoring requirements.

“Glencore Xstrata has no proven plan for stopping highly acidic water laced with heavy metals being washed out of the massive waste rock pile and into the McArthur River,” she said.

“The Northern Territory Government must take immediate steps to protect the long-term viability of the Gulf region and ensure that its many smaller, sustainable industries like fishing, pastoralism and tourism are not sacrificed for the profits of an international mining giant.”

“The Northern Territory government and its mining regulatory body consistently confuse MRM’s corporate interests with the public interest. The mine is proven to be in breach of its operating conditions and yet the Mines Minister has failed to act to breach the mine, despite the significant public health and environmental risks posed by the reckless actions of Glencore Xstrata.”

Glencore have been approached for comment.

Images: Monica Napper

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