Bird deaths at Olympic Dam

Evaporation ponds at BHP’s Olympic Dam mine are killing hundreds of birds

Hundreds of birds are dying each year after mistaking Olympic Dam’s evaporation ponds for wetlands. Environment campaigners want the miner to stop using them.

Clare Peddie, Science Reporter, The Advertiser

July 10, 2019

Conservationists want BHP to stop using evaporation ponds at Olympic Dam that kill hundreds of birds, including threatened species.

They want BHP to cancel plans for a new pond and phase out 146ha of existing ponds, which are used for the disposal of acidic waste water.

It’s the second time in a month that concerns raised by conservationists have threatened to block a major infrastructure project.

In June, Birdlife Australia said the planned electricity interconnector between SA and NSW would destroy remaining habitat for the critically endangered black-eared miner bird.

Scientist and environment campaigner David Noonan says it’s shocking that birds are drowned, choked or scalded by BHP’s highly acidic, toxic wastewater.

“They see this as a wetland in an arid region as they’re travelling through,” he said. “They’re typically poisoned by contact, they die on site or they’re poisoned and die later.”

BHP found 224 dead birds during weekly monitoring in the 2017-18 financial year and that included 39 banded stilts, a vulnerable species in SA.

The number of dead birds found annually has hardly changed since 2011-12, when the banded stilt, red-necked avocet, whiskered tern, grey teal, black swan, hoary-headed grebe, little pied cormorant and silver gull were affected.

A BHP spokesman said methods to deter them such as wiring, gas guns and flashing lights haven’t worked but the company continues to explore new deterrent options.

“Extensive monitoring of birdlife in the Roxby Downs region shows the vast majority of birds visiting the area go to water sources other than Olympic Dam’s tailings and evaporation facilities,” he said.

“Notably, the average number of birds observed at Olympic Dam has remained relatively low for the past several years, and short-term increases have been linked to environmental conditions such as heavy rainfall rather than …new facilities.”

Plans for a huge open cut mine that were shelved in 2012 would have required a phase-out of evaporation ponds, but BHP says that condition is no longer relevant or applicable to current growth and expansion of the underground mine.

BHP is preparing to make a submission to both state and federal governments for a sixth evaporation pond.

A separate submission on a the new tailings storage facility – about the size of the Adelaide CBD and ten storeys high – has already been made, triggering an Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act referral, as in the case of the endangered bird in the path of the interconnector.