Please note: Friends of the Earth previously understood that Kokatha people were the uncontested traditional owners of the Roxby Downs region and that view is reflected in some papers on this website. However we now understand traditional ownership is contested.
Note: the most up-to-date information on the Olympic Dam is the material written by David Noonan — please see this separate webpage: https://nuclear.foe.org.au/olympic-dam/
BHP’s Roxby Downs Act condemned by the Federal “A Way Forward” Report (short briefing paper by David Noonan, November 2021)
Greenhouse emissions – Olympic Dam mine expansion (PDF) – technical paper by Dr Gavin Mudd, Monash University
WMC’s racism in the 1990s – Jan Whyte and Ila Marks look at how WMC’s activities divide Aboriginal people. Also: 1995 ABC Radio National Background Briefing story about the outbreak of violence in Marree and its connection to the Roxby Downs mine.
Detailed report on Mound Springs and the Roxby mine’s impacts on them (PDF) By Daniel Keane, 1997
SA Parliamentary Inquiry Into The Tailings System Leakage – In 1994, WMC reported that up to 5 million cubic metres of liquid had leaked from it’s Tailings Retention System at Olympic Dam. According to WMC the leak had been happening for at least 2 years but only became fully understood in January 1994.
BHP’s OLYMPIC DAM – SUMMARY OF MAJOR CONCERNS
Olympic Dam is a state within a state; it operates under a unique set of laws enshrined in the amended Roxby Downs Indenture Act. That would be unobjectionable except that the Indenture Act allows Olympic Dam wide-ranging exemptions from environmental laws, water management laws, Aboriginal Heritage laws, and it curtails the application of the Freedom of Information Act.
Then SA Liberal Party industry spokesperson Martin Hamilton-Smith said “every word of the [Indenture] agreement favours BHP, not South Australians.” It beggars belief that the SA Labor government would agree to such one-sided terms; and it beggars belief that Mr Hamilton-Smith and his Liberal colleagues waved it through Parliament with no amendments.
The only politician to insist on some scrutiny of the amended Indenture Act was SA Greens MLC Mark Parnell. He was accused of holding the state’s economy to ransom. Yet the transcripts of his late-night Parliamentary questioning of the Labor government ought to be required reading (see here and here). Time and time again the government spokesperson said that BHP wanted such-and-such a provision in the Indenture Act, and the government simply agreed without further consideration or consultation.
For example, Parnell asked why the Indenture Act retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. The government spokesperson said: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”
In a scathing assessment of the Olympic Dam royalties regime enshrined in the Indenture Act, journalist Paul Clearly wrote in The Australian on 21 October 2011 that the regime “has robbed the state’s citizens and all Australians of the opportunity to share in the profits of what will become the world’s biggest mine.” He added that the agreement “will unfortunately stand as a sad and enduring indictment of the weakness of our state governments when it comes to negotiating with powerful mining multinationals.”
Olympic Dam is a state within a state − and it has shades of a Stalinist state. When a mine worker provided the media with photos of multiple leaks in the tailings dams in 2009, BHP’s response was to threaten “disciplinary action” against any workers caught taking photos. The SA government was conspicuously silent. Have the leaks of toxic tailings liquid been fixed? Who knows. It would be naive to believe anything BHP or the state government has to say on the subject.
In 2010, another worker was sufficiently concerned about occupational health issues at Olympic Dam that he leaked information to the media. The leaked documents show that BHP uses manipulated averages and distorted sampling to ensure its official figures of worker radiation exposure slip under the maximum exposure levels set by government. Are those claims true? Who knows. It would be naive to believe anything BHP or the state government has to say on the subject.
The risks will escalate with plans for a massive expansion of the mine. The BHP whistleblower said. “Assertions of safety of workers made by BHP are not credible because they rely on assumptions rather than, for example, blood sampling and, crucially, an assumption that all workers wear a respirator when exposed to highly radioactive polonium dust in the smelter.” [Update – the planned mega-expansion was cancelled in 2012 but expansion plans are still being pursued.]
So there we have a couple of examples of serious concerns being raised by mine workers, with inadequate responses (or no response at all) by BHP and the SA government, and no way for any of us to get to the truth of the matter. Suffice it to mention one more. Mining consultants Advanced Geomechanics noted in a 2004 report that radioactive slurry was deposited “partially off” a lined area of a storage pond at Olympic Dam, contributing to greater seepage and rising ground water levels; that there is no agreed, accurate formula to determine the rate of evaporation of tailings and how much leaks into the ground; and that cells within a tailings pond covered an area more than three times greater than recommended, requiring “urgent remedial measures” (Michelle Wiese Bockmann, 10 March 2006, ‘Waste fears at uranium mine’, The Australian).
Have any of those problems been addressed? I doubt it. But we do know that the management of radioactive tailings has been an ongoing headache for decades and that the rate of production is set to go through the roof − from 10 million tonnes annually to 68 million tonnes. And we do know that BHP has responded to worker concerns about tailings mismanagement with intimidation instead of information.
The domestic problems with Australia’s uranium industry are compounded by serious international problems. Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapons states with no intention of meeting their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty disarmament obligations; countries with a history of secret nuclear weapons research; countries that refuse to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; undemocratic, and secretive states with appalling human rights records.
Both major parties now support the abandonment of previous policy of refusing uranium exports to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the federal government is planning to allow uranium sales to a Middle Eastern dictatorship − the United Arab Emirates. The last time Australia planned uranium sales to a Middle Eastern dictatorship was in late 1978 when the Fraser government was negotiating with the Shah of Iran − a few short months before his overthrow during the Iranian Revolution. You’d think we’d learn.
All of these uranium export agreements are accompanied by safeguards inspection regimes that are at best modest, sometimes tokenistic (e.g. China) and sometimes all but non-existent (e.g. Russia).
Australians are evenly divided on the topic of uranium mining; typically, polls find that a majority of Australians want existing uranium mines to be allowed to run their course but a majority want a ban on new uranium mines. A 2006 Newspoll found that a majority of Coalition voters − yes, Coalition voters − wanted a ban on new uranium mines, as did more than three-quarters of Labor voters. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Australians oppose uranium sales to nuclear weapons states and two-thirds oppose the plan to sell uranium to India − a country which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is engaged in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan and China.