Australian news, and some related international items

BHP Billiton held accountable for environmental impacts of uranium mine expansion plan

Call on BHP to answer over Olympic Dam impacts, Australian Conservation Foundation,  David Noonan, 16 Oct 10

    BHP must present feasible alternatives to prevent or reduce the impacts of the proposed Olympic Dam open cut mine in the next phase of the Environmental Impact Statement process, including: considering copper mining alone – without uranium exports; properly managing radioactive liquid wastes and tailings; using renewable energy for its large new electricity demands; and protecting the fragile gulf environment from impacts from the mine’s proposed water supply.

    The debate over BHP Billiton’s proposed open cut mine is entering a new phase as the company faces upcoming AGMs in London and Perth, and prepares to release a Supplement to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in response to over 4000 public submissions.

    The Australian Conservation Foundation calls on BHP to answer key public interest and environmental questions on the impacts of the proposed mine in the new EIS, addressing the five issues highlighted in this brief.

    1. Avoid nuclear risks by processing copper and retaining uranium on site

Uranium sales represent less than one per cent of BHP profits. Olympic Dam could trade profitably as one of the world’s largest copper ventures and leave the uranium that makes up part of the ore on site. Processing copper on site would also boost local jobs.

Australia should stop contributing to nuclear risks and unresolved nuclear waste problems across the world, and phase out uranium exports. This should be paramount above narrow commercial uranium interests. BHP can choose to avoid contributing to these problems.

ACF call on BHP to leave all uranium and other radioactive wastes at the Olympic Dam mine site, and to only proceed with a new open pit if all copper production is processed on site and if strict environmental preconditions are met.

BHP propose precedent sale of uranium in copper concentrates to China. This is not sanctioned under Australia’s nuclear treaties – to date Australia only exports uranium as yellowcake. It would compromise our safeguards and environmental responsibilities, and dump some 1.2 million tonnes of long-lived radioactive mine wastes in China every year.

China’s failure to observe human rights and their practice of jailing nuclear whistle blowers are sufficient reasons to disqualify China from receiving Australian uranium.


2 Prevent leakage of liquid wastes and isolate rather than dump radioactive tailings

    Is this mining project only ‘economic’ because BHP will not responsibly manage their radioactive wastes?

    BHP has designed the new Olympic Dam mine to leak an average 3 million litres of liquid radioactive wastes a day up to 2050. BHP plan to only line some 15 per cent of tailings piles. BHP propose to dump radioactive mine tailings on the surface and to leave them there for ever rather than to dispose of their wastes. BHP do not intend to rehabilitate the proposed open pit, intending instead to leave a toxic lake as a radioactive scar on the landscape.

    BHP should be required to prevent leakage of liquid radioactive wastes from mine operations and isolate radioactive mine tailings from the environment. They should meet at least the same minimum 10 000 year regulatory standard required by the Commonwealth at the Ranger uranium mine. The EIS process must assess the disposal of tailings into the void of the open pit in line with the required standard at the Ranger uranium mine.

    3. Use renewable energy and do not provide public subsidies for diesel

    South Australia’s efforts to reduce pollution should not be undone by one big polluting company. BHP should be required to assess rather than to dismiss the use of renewable energy to provide the full proposed increase in electricity supply. This key step would halve this project’s untenable proposed 12 to 14 per cent increase in South Australia’s total current greenhouse gas pollution.

    The public expectation that desalination plants be powered by renewable energy should be extended to the full electricity supply to the wider mine expansion.

BHP should not receive public subsidies for increased diesel fuel use. Public subsidies to BHP of some $70 million a year (at projected diesel usage of some 400 million litres a year) are proposed throughout construction of the open pit and decades of ongoing mine operations.


4. Prevent ecological impacts from BHP’s proposed mine water supply

BHP propose to supply the mine with water from a desalination plant that will discharge brine into the Upper Spencer Gulf and to the unique breeding ground of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, recently featured on David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth.” This gulf is particularly susceptible to damage as it has a low level of flushing with new ocean water.

BHP should be required to prevent adverse ecological impacts to this fragile environment. They should respect the broad-based fishing industry, scientists and community alliance to “keep the gulf clean” and relocate the proposed global scale desalination plant to a site with ocean flushing characteristics which would effectively disperse the brine discharge.


    5. Public Consultation on feasible alternatives and on the real scale of impacts

    ACF calls on the Commonwealth and SA governments to direct BHP to assess a number of key feasible alternatives to prevent or significantly lessen the impact of BHP’s plans.

    Key environmental impacts across greenhouse gas emissions, water supply and tailings waste production will be significantly higher than assessed in the draft EIS, which only addressed at most a three quarter scale expansion of up to 750 000 tonnes of copper product per year.

    The 2005 project application was to enable a production rate of up to 1 million tonnes of copper product per year and BHP has now cited plans for near 1.4 million tonnes a year.

    The public has a right to know the full impacts of BHP’s plans and how those impacts may be prevented or mitigated. The public should be provided with a proper round of consultation on key project alternatives and the full project scale should be assessed in this EIS process.

For more information, please contact ACF Nuclear Free Campaigner

David Noonan, Ph: 08-82116838, Mobile: 0408 821 058, Email:

October 16, 2010 - Posted by | environment, South Australia, uranium | , , , , , , ,

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