The following is an open letter (April 2016) addressed to the Department of Environment, ahead of their assessment of Mod 3 under the EPBC Act – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. Submissions close today (17/08/2016).
To whom this concerns,
I wish to provide information and commentary in support of the Department of Environment’s assessment of the possible impacts of the Dargues Gold Mine: Modification 3 on threatened species.
I welcome this assessment and consider it of utmost importance in arriving at the right determination on this modification. If the priority of the Department’s assessment is indeed the welfare of threatened species potentially or inevitably harmed by the mine in its expanded form, then the Department can and should exercise its authority of refusal in this case.
An assessment of the mine’s impact on threatened species should be of the finest grade and most comprehensive in scope, as it deals with the most sensitive living aspect of the receiving environment. It is impossible to properly assess the known and potential harm to threatened species by taking the project at face value (as it appears in the Environmental Assessment and other Proponent-funded reports), to assume that the mine will function as promised, or by focusing exclusively on the project site & immediate surrounds. I have therefore not limited this letter to those parameters.
1. This Assessment Will Determine the Security of Threatened Species for Generations
As the Department is aware, the Dargues Gold Mine cannot proceed without Modification 3. The current approval expires in August 2018, and resource extraction and processing have not yet commenced. If mining commenced today, Unity Mining could not possibly turn a profit before their licence expired: ‘The Proponent anticipates that between 5 and 6 years will be required for mining operations. In addition, the Proponent anticipates that between 1 and 2 years will be required for initial financing and construction operations prior to the commencement of mining operations,’ (Response to Submissions, November 2015, p. 8). Without the 6+ year extension sought by the proponent to the last day of 2024, it must withdraw from the valley, along with every declared, understated and concealed harm it will otherwise bring to every water-dependent life form between the project site and the sea. [Update: the Planning Assessment Commission, in its ‘rubber stamp’ approval of Mod 3, seeks to extend the mining licence by yet another 6 months to June 30, 2025]
As the mine is not viable without Modification 3, the Department’s determination will not merely be against the Modification. It will be against the mine’s existence, and the package-deal certainty of further expansion and proliferation of mining operations in the Deua River catchment.
Although the potential harm to threatened species is indeed compounded with Modification 3 as compared with the existing approval, I encourage the Department to take the broader view that without Mod 3 the impact is reduced to zero. In other words, the gravity of this assessment far exceeds the difference between the project as approved, and as modified. It is a choice between the impacts of the project as modified, and the habitat freed of the threat entirely.
The Proponent’s use of the phrase, ‘no longer relevant’, which is their favoured response to any criticism of approved activities (see their Response to Submissions on Mod 3), is frankly no longer relevant, as the Department of Environment now has the clear and present option of reversing their mistakes thus far. This opportunity will not come again.
The habitat I refer to is not merely the mine site, nor the limits of the project boundary, nor the extent of the proponent’s hydrological model (a mere 3.5km downstream – Environmental Assessment: Mod 3, p. 75). I refer emphatically to the entire watercourse extending from the mine to the ocean; from Spring Creek, to Majors Creek, to the Deua and Moruya River, to the Batemans Marine Park, the full length of which is threatened by the mine and its expansion with Modification 3. This riparian corridor supports an aquatic, amphibian, mammalian, and avian ecosystem that contains a far greater variety of threatened and iconic species than are found in the (joke) impact zone recognised by the proponent.
To this I would add the 30 – 100,000 people (depending on the season), representing most of the Eurobodalla Shire, who drink and otherwise depend on the same water for every conceivable endeavour and recreational or sanitary need. It may be ourselves, or our future generations, who require listing under the EPBC Act should mining be allowed to penetrate, and in time dominate, our headwaters.
2: Greater Diversity of Threatened Species Downstream of the Project Site
I wish to emphasise that the flora and fauna of the entire water catchment, not merely of the area to which the proponent draws attention, is crucial in any truthful assessment of the mine’s potential and/or inevitable impacts on threatened species. When we incorporate the full length of the Deua River, through the Valley which it carved over the millennia, through the National Park whose life it quenches, down to the Moruya River & Estuary, the numbers of ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’, and ‘critically endangered’ species proliferates well beyond those acknowledged by the proponent.
A software-generated ‘EPBC Protected Matters Report’ that encompasses the full length of the Deua River, to the Moruya Estuary within a 1km buffer, reveals a far greater array of known and potentially occurring threatened species than an equivalent Report that is limited to the project site and its immediate vicinity and watercourse. The former report is attached; please take it into consideration. It identifies 4 threatened ecological communities, 61 threatened species (including birds, fish, frogs, reptiles, mammals and plants), and 44 threatened migratory species (aquatic, avian, and terrestrial).
Note: this does not include the Batemans Marine Park, where the number of listed species would proliferate.
3 (a): Extended Downstream Impacts: Source to Sea
The Proponent limits its ‘Assessment of Impacts’ on threatened species (as listed in the TBC Act and EPBC Act) to within the project site boundary, against species known or likely to occur within a 5km radius of the project site (Environmental Assessment, p. 117 – 118).
The Proponent neglects the Deua National Park and the entire Eurobodalla Shire (as well as human life) in its Assessment. These glaring oversights must not be allowed to set the parameters for the Department’s own investigations. I hold it as self-evident that water descends with gravity from source to sea, and that it becomes a vector for any sufficient quantity of contaminant or fine sediment for the full course of its descent. In case this is not universally accepted, I have provided examples in part 3 (b).
In the Response to Submissions for Modification 3, the Unity Mining is forced to acknowledge its potential to cause harm as far downstream as the Deua River, but does so with complete inadequacy: ‘The Proponent notes that adverse impacts downslope/downstream of the Project Site could reasonably be expected to occur only in the event of discharge to surface water or groundwater… such impacts would be limited to the riparian corridor associated with the Majors and Araluen Creeks and the Deua River. The Proponent therefore disagrees that widespread impacts could be expected downstream of the Project Site,’ (RTS, p. 96, my emphasis).
There are three problems with this statement:
Firstly, why are these admittedly foreseeable impacts not accounted for in the Environmental Assessment, which identifies neither the species found downstream, nor the extent or severity of adverse impacts there?
Secondly, the above ‘only if’ scenarios are not merely potential, but certain. Discharge to surface water has already occurred in the form of sediment-laden runoff, with the Proponent convicted by the Environmental Protection Agency for three separate pollution events. Meanwhile, the Department of Primary Industries (Fisheries), calculates that ‘erosion and sediment controls would be overwhelmed on average once every 12 months on average,’ and includes the Batemans Marine Park in the aquatic habitats to be affected (DPI: Dargues Reef Gold Project: Modification 3: Comment on Response to Submissions, p. 1-2). And with Modification 3, the proponent proposes to remove, not renew or expand, their commitments pertaining to sediment and erosion control (Revised Statement of Commitments, Appendix 2, RTS, p. 12-14). The offsetting of the mine’s water draw-down with stagnant and/or contaminated and/or chemically treated water taken from dams and old mine shafts, is also a certainty under Mod 3 (Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority, Review of Dargues Reef Gold Project, p. 1). Groundwater pollution is also inevitable, through a range of mechanisms: the acknowledged permeability of the Tailing Storage Facility Liner (EA: Mod 3, p. 60); the degradation of that liner over time (GHD, Modification 3: Comments on Response by Proponent, p. 8); the stuffing of disused stopes with ‘paste fill’, which is approximately 630,000 tonnes of flotation tail (RTS, p. 7) composed of heavy metals including carcinogens, neuro toxins and reproductive toxins (EA, p. 57 versus Australian Drinking Water Guidelines).
Thirdly, the Proponent suggests that, because pollution would be ‘limited’ to the riparian corridor downstream, that its impacts would not be ‘widespread’ (RTS, p. 96). With this, the proponent reveals its ignorance towards the ecological & human significance of the creeks and rivers above which it seeks to mine. If I inject a foreign substance into my radial artery, whether toxic or simply not a part of my natural constitution, and that substance is invisible from without, is it not ‘widespread’ as it dissipates through every artery, vein, and vessel? And as that substance goes to work on my entire organism, are those effects not ‘widespread’ as far as my whole being is concerned? For the Deua River is the main artery of the Valley that it carved, and its water the lifeblood of every species, threatened and common, by which it is inhabited or frequented.
The Proponent may attempt to qualify its ‘no widespread impacts’ statement to mean that polluting a freshwater system does equate to geographically widespread harm. But this is equally untrue, for even the narrow river runs far, and every contaminated organism cycles pollutants through the food chain. Pollutants travel up the riverbanks with every mammal that drinks the water, every fish caught by diving bird or human line, or into the greater ocean with fish or bird that ventures there. As seen in the attached EPBC report, the riparian corridor to which the Proponent refers (RTS, p. 96) includes a great variety of migratory species, who having been permeated with heavy metals (in the case of tailings discharge or birds bathing directly in the open-air Tailings Storage Facility), will carry contaminants to be disseminated elsewhere. The effects may not be traceable, but neither are the sources of the cancers with which animal and human life ails in our industrial age. The contaminated creature, flying, swimming, crawling or walking from the river, becomes just another part of the broader chemical cacophony for which no-one, let alone Unity Mining, will ever be made to accept responsibility.
The Department of Environment’s assessment should including field investigations that extend to the Moruya Estuary and beyond. That is the trajectory of pollution, whether by the normal-function mechanisms above, or by unplanned scenarios such as TSF overtopping or catastrophic failure
I also wish to encourage the Department, if they have not already done so, to broaden their consultations to from the mining company to other well-informed parties, with no pecuniary interests, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, The Coastwatchers Association, and the Dargues Gold Mine Community Consultative Committee.
3 (b): Extended Downstream Impacts: Tailings
Every year, tailings produced by metal-mining operations contaminate vital fresh water sources water for hundreds of kilometres downstream from the point of origin, as can be seen by a cursory glance at a few recent examples. The recurring scenarios are TSF wall embankment failure, overtopping due to precipitation, or discharge and leaching from disused tailings storage facilities, shafts and cuts.
Note: the year indicates when the spill(s) occurred, but contamination in each case is ongoing and its duration is indeterminate. An asterisk* indicates Australian involvement, double asterisk** indicates a connection to the Dargues Reef Gold Mine:
Hillgrove Mine, Macleay River, NSW (Australia, 1880 – 2009, 2010, 2011 – present)*: Historical mine, disused in around 1900. Mining recommences in 1969 with New England Antimony Mines, who operate until 2001. The mine is subsequently handed between various owners: Antimony Resources (until 2004), Straights Resources (until 2013), Bracken Resources (present). Regular tailings discharge due to rainfall and inadequate containment facilities, contaminating the Macleay River and its floodplains with toxic levels of antimony and arsenic. Like the Deua River, the Macleay supports its own array of native and threatened species, and is drinking water to the people whose farms line the banks.
“The dispersion train from the Hillgrove Sb – Au [antimony and arsenic] mining area to the Pacific Ocean is over 300 km in length […] Historic (pre-1970) mine-waste disposal practices have resulted in high to extreme contamination of stream sediments and waters by Sb and As for ∼50 km downstream, with high Au values in the sediments.” (Antimony and arsenic dispersion in the Macleay River catchment, New South Wales: a study of the environmental geochemical consequences)
Ok Tedi (Phillipines, 1984 – present)*: Original tailings dam collapses during construction, but copper-mining operations continue. Okteddi Mining Ltd and Australia’s BHP Billiton discharge tailings directly into river system until 2013, when the PNG government seizes ownership of the mine and continues to do the same. Riverside communities devastated, fisheries destroyed & contaminated, massive loss of human and animal life. Mining is scheduled to continue until 2025, after which a 300-year clean up time is estimated.
Note that Unity Mining now intends to process Dargues ore in Parkes, at a facility previously owned and operated by BHP as part of the London-Victoria Gold Mine (Unity Mining: ASX Release, 2/12/2016).
Baia Mare (Romania, 2000)*: Tailings spill due to ruptured dam, jointly owned by the Romanian Government and Australia’s Esmerelda Explorations. Total loss of aquatic life, possible extinction of several species, millions of people deprived of drinking water. Cyanide and heavy metal contamination extends over 1,000km through the Some, Tiza, and Danube Rivers, to the Black Sea. See: BBC: Death of a River.
Rapu Rapu, (Phillipines, 2005 – 2007)**: In 2005, Australia’s Lafayette Inc. begins mining operations on the island of Rapu Rapu, before completion of waste containment infrastructure and without regard for local climate. Rainfall triggers multiple cyanide and heavy-metal laden tailings spills, which join the sea. The effect of the cyanide is immediate; locals awake to thousands of dead fish washing up on their shores. The effects of heavy metal contamination in the marine ecosystem and human population remain to be seen.
The CEO and managing director of Lafayette left the company in 2006, soon after the cyanide/tailings spills (which he denies ever happened: read Batemans Bay Post below). Some five years later, he took the helm of Unity Mining, with whom he developed the Dargues Reef Gold Mine and its Modifications. He resigned from Unity after a failed attempt to introduce cyanide processing into the local shires’ drinking water catchment (September 2015).
You can also find videos and local (Phillipino) documentaries on YouTube of the poisoned fish washing up on Rapu Rapu shores, attributed to Lafayette.
Mt Polley (Canada, 2014)**: Tailings spill due to Tailings Storage Facility wall embankment failure. Total destruction of Hazleton Creek and its salmon run, and fouling of the formerly pristine Quesnel Lake. Contamination of aquatic, avian and mammalian ecosystems and human drinking water downstream (some 700km) from the lake, through the full course of the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers. Long-term impacts still to be determined.
The failed Mt Polley TSF was designed by Knight Piésold, the engineering firm contracted by Unity Mining to design the TSF at Majors Creek. It is Knight Piésold’s design upon which the security of the Eurobodalla Shire’s most important freshwater source will largely depend if the mine is allowed to proceed (i.e., if Modification 3 is approved).
Note: Knight Piésold was Complicit in the Mt Polley Disaster: In addition to designing the Mt Polley TSF, Knight Piésold were also the engineers on record from 1989 to 2011. They began withdrawing from the project in 2010, when ‘the embankments and overall tailings impoundment [were] getting large’, (Knight Piésold Fact Sheet: Mt Polley Tailings Storage Facility, 2015).
Knight Piésold denies all responsibility for the disaster of August 4, 2014. They blame subsequent engineers and the owner-operator Imperial Metals, claiming that they raised the wall embankment at too steep an angle (1.3 Horizontal: 1 Vertical, compared to Knight Piésold’s 2H:1V – Knight Piésold Fact Sheet). While the over-steepness of the walls is acknowledged as a factor by the official Mt Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Panel, they concluded that the underlying cause was actually ‘foundational failure’, without which the over-steep wall would have continued to stand.
A separate investigation by the Ministry of Energy and Mines confirms that foundational weakness was the first causal factor in the collapse: ‘The mechanism of failure was the embankment sliding on a weak layer of clay located approximately 10m deep in the foundation of the dam… the dam slumped (dropped in elevation) approximately 5m, which led to overtopping and erosion of the dam,’ (p. 158).
Knight Piésold continue to deny any responsibility despite their documented and apparent failure (detailed in the MEM report on pages 20-21, 43-45, and 139) to properly assess the geological foundations of the facility throughout their involvement, namely the depth and nature of a soft layer of glaciolacustrine (also referred to as GLU or glacial till). ‘A root cause of the failure was an inadequate interpretation of the foundation geology, which was influenced by an inadequate site characterisation… the glacial history of the dam foundation was not adequately understood.’ (MEM, p. 158). In other words, no Tailings Storage Facility should ever have been built on Mt Polley.
Knight Piésold cannot learn from what they deny. Indeed, Dr Beck of GHD identifies similar negligence in their assessment of the Dargues foundations: ‘While some investigations were undertaken as part of the original approval there was no detailed soil property assessment […] Further the Knight Piésold report 2015, clearly states that the TSF soil liner design was based on assumed rather than measured soil properties,‘ (GHD, Proposed Dargues Reef Mine, Modification 3: Comments on Response by Proponent, p. 10).
Gold Ridge Mine (Solomon Islands, 2016): Tailings facility at critical capacity following heavy rain. Australian gold mining company St Barbara** sells the mine in 2014, including all legal and rehabilitation liability, to local Solomon landholders for $100, and withdraws from the country. The government pre-emptively declares the catchment a disaster zone.
April, 2016: the TSF overflows with rain, to the order of tens of millions of litres. The new owners, Gold Ridge Community Investments Ltd, are then forced to pump tailings-contaminated water into their river to prevent structural collapse of the TSF. The government warns downstream communities not to use the water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. Toxicity reports forthcoming. Arsenic, mercury, and cyanide involved. TSF still at critical capacity.
Gold King Mine, Animas River, Colorado (USA, 2015): Tailings from a gold mine abandoned in 1923 are accidentally released into the Animas River 92 years later (August 2015). Tailings still prove toxic. The Animas turns yellow.
Bento Rodrigues (Brazil, 2015)**: An overburdened Tailings Storage Facility (the ‘Funao dam’) containing some 25,000 Olympic swimming pools of iron ore, collapses. Toxic sludge destroys the town of Bento Rodrigues in the state of Minas Gerais, killing at least 16 people in the initial deluge. The tailings, laden with heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, chromium, manganese, etc.), stretches some 800km through the Rio Doce to the coast, creating a bright orange tailings plume that fans out into the ocean and washes up on the beaches of the state of Espirito Santo. Some quarter million people are deprived of drinking water, which is heavily contaminated. Decimation of aquatic life along the dispersion train, probable extinction of several species, legacy expected to include the bioaccumulation of heavy metals throughout the food chain.
Aerial Surveys immediately following the disaster indicate that two more TSF’s, the ‘Santerem’, and the ‘Germano’, are also at risk of collapse. The mine and facilities are owned by Vale and BHP Billiton of Australia, who together operate under the name Samarco.
Note: Following these disasters, the tendency of industry and government is not to cease mining operations, but to recommence mining as quickly as possible with reduced environmental controls. The companies responsible are eager to recoup financial losses from ‘rehabilitation’ bonds, pollutions fines, and loss of share value. From the government’s perspective, the resumption of mining promises to ‘subsidise’ the waste of state funds, which are made to compensates for the companies’ invariably insufficient contributions to cleaning up (despite massive expenditure, clean-up is ultimately impossible, and rehabilitation the prerogative of time on a geological scale: decades, centuries, and millennia). The rationale is that, having already defaced the land, contaminated the water, and decimated the ecosystem, there is nothing left to protect. So we go on recouping lost profit, turning out tailings, while the carcinogenic sludge lines the riverbanks, working its way from sludge to water to fish to human cell.
This environmentally bankrupt logic is also applied to historical mines that modern companies intend to re-open. The Hillgrove Mine, in Northern New South Wales, has polluted the Macleay River with antimony and arsenic since about 1880, is to be re-opened: ‘Why are even more antimony as well as gold, copper, and silver mines being planned in the Macleay catchment […] when previous pollution hasn’t or can’t be cleaned up?’ (Hillgrove Gold and Antimony Mine: Save Our Macleay River, p. 4). In the case of historical mines, long since abandoned, the proponent cites the pre-existing damage as a reason to approve further mining.
3 (c): Extended Downstream Impacts: High Water
Contain this: Batemans Bay Post: Moruya flood 1925
3 (d): Extended Downstream Impacts: Low Water
The Dargues Gold Project will lower the water table, reducing flows from the mine site to where the Moruya River is claimed by the tide. At typical flows, the upstream versions of the Moruya River (the Deua River, Araluen Creek, Majors Creek and Spring Creek) comprise a very low-volume system. Winding down through the Deua National Park, the river is characterised by a series of swimming holes separated by small rapids that trickle over the ankle. But in dry times, the rocks of those dividing rapids are dry, the swimming holes approach stagnancy, and the folk living in the valley have to think twice about pumping water into their tanks. The quality of the aquatic habitat is also reduced. At such times, the only flow that helps the river resist complete stagnation is subterranean.
Groundwater is typically discussed separately from surface water, but they are connected via springs (swimming in the Deua as a boy, I spotted though my goggles streams of bubbles issuing from the riverbed). The riverbed is cracked and porous – lower the water table, and you lower the river. This humble system already gives all it can while remaining in motion; providing water for valley-dwellers (hundreds), small-scale agriculture, and water for 75% of the Eurobodalla Shire (tens of thousands) via two massive blue pipes that plunge into a Deua River pool from a pumping station by the Araluen Road, a few kilometres upstream of Moruya. Not to mention all of the flora and fauna along the entire riparian corridor. Additional draw from the Dargues Gold mine, like a straw dipped into our headwaters, will stress the sovereign resource, which is already in a state of fine balance, not surplus.
As the Catchment Management Authority testifies: ‘The Araluen Valley has experienced periods of extreme drought and lowering of water tables… The upper Deua River Catchment has been largely stressed over the last decade, with lowered water tables and poor environmental flow,’ (CMA: Review of Dargues Reef Gold Project, p. 1-2).
The Proponent assures us that under Modification 3, ‘the zone of anticipated drawdown for the Project is anticipated to be slightly smaller than presented in the original application,’ (RTS, p. xiv). This is a typical misdirection: the volume of loss of base flow to Majors Creek has actually increased due to the increase in ore extraction from up to 2.1L/second to 2.5L/second (EA, p. 148).
And that’s only counting the losses that the proponent describes as ‘loss of baseflow to Major’s Creek,’ (Preliminary Documentation Assessment [PDA]: Mod 3, p.15). The total draw is more than four times that: ‘groundwater inflows into the mine would increase progressively from nil to between 10L/second and 12L/second,’ (PDA: Mod 3, p.15). That loss must be felt somewhere in the catchment – downstream, where groundwater feeds surface water through springs, cracks and porous earth, and the proponent does not care to measure. 12 litres per second may not sound like much, but some dry summers you’d be grateful to see half that amount break through between the rocky crossings of the Deua. And the absence of that replenishing water from the ecosystem, agricultural projects and residential water holes will be felt cumulatively: up to 720 litres per minute, 43,200 litres per hour; 1,036,800 litres per day; 7,257,600 litres per week, and so on.
Unity Mining proposes to compensate for the water taken from the natural groundwater system with injections of damwater. These dams are to be filled by rainfall or pumping under their ‘harvestable rights’. So, the proponent ‘compensates’ for the loss of baseflow with water taken from the catchment, which would otherwise be flowing through the catchment. Under Mod 3, the proponent intends to increase the total volume of water ‘harvested’ in dams from 34.5 mega litres to 37 mega litres, which is the maximum amount they can claim based on the enlarged area of land they own (452 hectares, PDA: Mod 3, p. 13). But there is one 16-hectare oblong that they choose to subtract from this calculation (p. 13): the Tailings Storage Facility, an open-air dam with more capacity than all of the ‘harvestable rights’ dams combined.
The phoney compensation for moving water with standing water, taken from the same system, also raises the question of quality, which can only be answered with chemical treatment. Does the Department wish to entrust the water quality of a sensitive ecosystem, organic-agricultural and municipal drinking supply to the largely self-monitored chemistry of a mining company? A mining company which, under a different name, has a pre-operational history of water pollution, illegal flocculant use, and failure to alert people downstream when the water is not fit to drink? (I refer to the sediment/flocculating discharges at Dargues, for which the proponent was charged for three counts of water pollution by the Environment Protection Authority in 2013). Should the dams be empty, the proponent intends to compensate with admittedly tainted water (original EA, p. 2-32) pumped from historical mines; the Snobs, United Miners and Stewart & Mertons workings (Preliminary Documentation Assessment: Mod 3, p. 16, 17).
As the Catchment Management Authority points out: ‘The project proposes to offset groundwater losses with surface water captured in harvestable right farm dams and augmented with water drawn from old mines [Original EA, 4-22, 4-23]. This presents a number of issues of concern. The first is the loss of normal surface flows into Majors Creek during the construction of [now 4] new farm dams. The second is the quality of water from the two sources that will be released during periods of low flow. Given the analysis of water samples from the old mines stated in 3-32 of the [Original] EA, this represents a real risk to downstream water quality and users of this water,’ (CMA: Review of Dargues Reef Gold Project, p. 1).
The proponent tells us that groundwater levels would take a decade to recover (PDA: Mod 3, p. 15). ‘Following the completion of mining operations, pumping operations would cease and the workings would fill with groundwater until the standing water level within the workings is the same as the current standing water level,’ (p.14). As the water table gradually replenishes, it will be in direct contact with well over half a million tonnes of floatation tailings, stuffed into the disused mine as ‘paste fill’ (prohibited by the 2012 Land and Environment Court Order, but introduced via the Department of Planning with Mod 1). The water that feeds the creek and the river downstream will be contaminated with heavy metals for the foreseeable future.
4. Condition 2 – Disturbance Limits:
Condition 2 (Federal Approval 2010-5770): ‘Project activities must not impact on more than 0.2 hectares of the [critically] endangered ecological community Natural Temperate Grasslands of the Southern Tablelands of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory‘
-The Preliminary Documentation Assessment (p.29) lists this grassland as occurring within the project site ‘as a non-viable patch approved to be disturbed’.
-The proponent does not specify the surface area of this patch. The proponent does not specify what is meant by ‘non-viable’, or why a living patch of this grassland should be considered so.
-The proponent does not specify why (if more than 0.2 hectares) it was approved to be disturbed in the first place – and that approval may have been given wrongly.
-Personal observation: this grassland is described as a ‘dominant cover of native tussock grasses… Shrubs and trees are sparse or absent due to influences of cold air drainage, with minimum ground temperatures often below 10 degrees Celsius,’ (Prelim Doc Assessment, p. 29). During the public mine site tour of August 5, 2015, we stood overlooking the valley that is to become the Tailings Storage Facility. The terrain and flora matched this description exactly, as far as I can tell: native grasses, sparse shrubs and trees. And a distinctly icy wind, providing the ‘cold air drainage’ as above. The area I observed that matches this description was several orders greater than 0.2 hectares, and included the footprint of the TSF.
5. Condition 16 – Rehabilitation: TSF Capping
-Condition 16 (Federal Approval 2010-5770): ‘The tailings storage facility must be capped in accordance with the Environmental Assessment to prevent surface water infiltration into the landform.’
-As noted by the EPA: ‘The EA [for Modification 3] raises the use of waste rock as a capping and filling material in the TSF. It is the understanding of the EPA that the company had previously committed to capping the TSF with clay material. This is a current consent condition (Schedule 2, Condition 24) [Land and Environment Court Order, February 2012] that has not been nominated for alteration with respect to capping standards. There is nothing in the report about the suitability of this material for use in the TSF…’ (RTS, p. 35).
-The method for final capping of the TSF has not yet been determined (RTS, p. 35). How then can the Department be satisfied that it is sufficient to prevent water penetration into the tailings, or the longevity of its effectiveness?
-According to the Eurobodalla Shire Council and Dr Beck of GHD, the capping of the TSF will be vulnerable to long-term degradation due to erosive velocities generated by the ‘free draining’ landform and the slope of its embankments (1V: 3H) slope. Further degrading factors are identified: bushfire, burrowing and hoofed animals (should the ‘rehabilitated’ land be used for grazing, as foreseen by the proponent and the Department of Planning). Dr Beck’s most recent report to the Eurobodalla Shire (GHD, June 2016), including the Council’s own Introduction, suggests that (a) it will only be a matter of time before tailings are exposed to water infiltration and are gradually flushed into waterways, (b) this will result in turbidation and degradation of water quality downstream, even without consideration to toxicity, (c) in order to mitigate this, the TSF will require monitoring and maintenance by as-yet unnamed parties and as-yet undermined financing (read: public funds) for decades to centuries.
-Condition 16, that the capping ‘prevent water infiltration into the landform,’ is not satisfied by current plans (or lack thereof). Nor can condition 16 be reasonably expected to be satisfied by the still-undefined Rehabilitation Management Plan, unless the proponent were to commit to a multi-generational caretaker role, which would be unprecedented.
6: Condition 17 – Tailings Management: TSF Design
-Condition 17 (Federal Approval 2010-5770): ‘The proponent must design, build, maintain, and rehabilitate the tailings storage facility to meet the requirements of the Dams Safety Committee of NSW under the NSW Dams Safety Act 1978.’
–Since initial project approval in 2011, the NSW Dams Safety Committee has published guidelines specific to TSF design (DSC3F: Tailings Dams, June 2012) that render the original plans by Knight Piésold obsolete.
‘[T]he design of the TSF dam as approved was not designed in accordance with the Dams Safety Committee of New South Wales DSC3F Tailings Dams criteria. The Knight Piésold report dated 22 October 2010, which provided the original dam design, makes no reference to this guideline. The Dams Safety Committee of New South Wales DSC3F Tailings Dams guidance document was not published until June 2012. [The proponent] needs to acknowledge that by reverting back to the approved project the TSF dam is in fact not designed in compliance with Dams Safety Committee of New South Wales DSC3F Tailings Dams as stated in the [Response to Submissions], unless the proponent conducted further investigations to demonstrate the TSF dam is in fact compliant with this guidance.’ (GHD: Proposed Dargues Reef Mine – Modification 3: Comments on Response by Proponent, p. 10.)
-The facility is no longer known to be in alignment with the requirements of the Dams Safety Committee. Compliance with Condition 17 of the project’s Federal Approval (210/5770) is therefore in question.
-Furthermore, the Proponent makes contradictory claims about the design of the TSF. They claim that the facility would be ‘consistent’ with the original project approval, and that ‘no deficiencies have been identified to date [November 2015]’ against Dams Safety Committee requirements (RTS, p. xii). In the same document, they state that ‘The revised design [!] will incorporate the required maximum flood diversions,’ (RTS, p. 28). The latter statement implies that the original design is or has in fact been altered, and that at least one deficiency has been identified.
The proponent similarly insists throughout its Response to Submissions (Mod 3) that no changes are proposed to the approved facility, and actually claims that the TSF was designed with consideration to DSC3F (p. 46), which is impossible.
-The DPE states that ‘no changes are proposed under the Modification,’ (p. 13), and in the next paragraph requires that the TSF meet Dams Safety Committee Requirements (DSC3F). This will result in material changes to the TSF, as the original, ‘approved’ design pre-dates these guidelines (original approval was in September 2011; DSC3F guidelines were published in June 2012).
7: Condition 19 – Tailings Management: TSF Liner
-Condition 19 (Federal Approval 2010-5770): ‘The proponent must ensure that the tailings storage facility is lined in a manner consistent with the Environmental Guidelines – Management of Tailings Storage Facilities (Vic DPI, 2004).’
–According to Dr Beck of GHD, the TSF liner is inadequate and fails to meet relevant guidelines:
‘The Knight Piésold 2015 report includes a statement that only a single pass is proposed, refer to Appendix 7, Section 5.3.2, which states “The liner will be constructed by scarifying the surface soil, moisture conditioning and re-compacting to a target permeability of 3×10-8m/sec.”. This description would suggest that the liner was proposed to be constructed of a single pass layer without due regard for thickness and depth performance. The proponent’s response suggests a minimal approach that is not consistent with the liner design requirements and performance specifications normally expected at waste storage facilities and is not in line with best practice liner design, construction and performance specifications,’ (GHD, Proposed Dargues Reef Mine – Modification 3: Comments on Response by Proponent, p. 12).
-The Proponent claims that, due to eventual capping of the TSF (the method for which it has not yet decided) supposedly keeping tailings dry, ‘long-term generation of leachate from the facility [through the liner] is unlikely to be a significant risk. As a result, a formal assessment of the risk of that aspect of the Project was not undertaken.’ (RTS, p. 45). Note the logic here: presumption forestalls assessment. The foreseeable risk (or rather, certainty) of leachate generation from the TSF is not assessed because it is presumed not to be significant (or rather, because it might yield unfavourable results).
-Dr Beck further observes: ‘[T]he liner proposed is not commensurate with even the minimum liner for a landfill,’ (GHD, p. 8). To which the Proponent has previously countered: ‘the facility is not a landfill and Solid Waste Guidelines do not therefore apply,’ (p. 45, RTS, my emphasis)…
8. Flotation Tailings: Classification and Toxicity
-The Proponent appears to be at a loss as to which specific Waste Guidelines it will actually adhere with respect to tailings management. Unity Mining refutes the classification of flotation tailings as ‘special waste’, ‘liquid waste’, ‘hazardous waste’, ‘restricted waste’, or ‘general solid waste’ – ‘The Proponent contends that the tailings material does not meet the criteria identified in the Waste Classification Guidelines for any of the waste types,’ (EA – Modification 1, p. 17). The Proponent goes on to classify the tailings as General Solid Waste, in some hitherto unknown form that does not fit within the Environmental Protection Authority’s definition of the same type.
-So, the Proponent classifies flotation tailings as its own special brand of ‘General Solid Waste,’ and yet denies that the Solid Waste Guidelines apply to its management (RTS, p. 45). To which Waste Guidelines, exactly, will the Proponent adhere?
-The Proponent concedes that the ‘flotation tailings’ of which it intends to produce some 1,420,000 tonnes (RTS, p. 7), is ‘relatively enriched in silver, boron, molybdenum, and antimony,’ (EA, p. 56).
But it fails to mention: (a) the 20+ other elements that are present in toxic concentrations in the Tailings Composition (EA, Table 9, p. 57), (b) these concentrations in meaningful terms, i.e. compared to Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, and (c) potential health effects with contact or consumption by human and animal.
-The Proponent goes on to claim the ‘these elements would be bound in the structure of the minerals that form the flotation tailings and would be unlikely to be able to be mobilised into the environment,’ (EA, p. 56). To which I respond that with time and exposure, all material structures decay, and to which Dr Beck responds: ‘The proponent’s inference that low mobility in solution equates to low risk is inappropriate. Given both silver and antimony are toxic, the risk posed to human health and the environment should be appropriately characterised,’ (GHD, Modification 3: Comments on Proponent’s Response, p. 9).
-Unity mining counts as ‘enriched’ only those four elements (silver, boron, molybdenum, antimony) that exceed the ‘geochemical abundance index’, which measures ‘the enrichment of elements compared to average crustal abundance,’ (p. 57). But we – and every other endangered species downstream – don’t drink the earth’s crust. We drink the water, therefore the term ‘enriched’ should apply to any tailings element that exceeds its abundance in the water downstream, as it is found in the clear pools and trickling rapids of the Deua National Park, and/or in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
-The following is a direct comparison between flotation tailings composition (as presented in the Environmental Assessment, Table 9, p. 57), and Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 6. Let this once and for all dispel any doubt over whether the tailings are harmful to human and animal health should they contaminate drinking water.
Element in Tailings: Concentration Versus Maximum Australian Drinking Water Guideline:
Ag (Silver): 4.5 times maximum threshold (‘x’)
Al (Aluminium): 414,450x
As (Arsenic): <200x
B (Boron): 12.5x
Ba (Barium): 167x
Be (Beryllium): 45x
Ca (Carbon): no guideline
Cd (Cadmium): 50x
Co (Cobalt): no guideline
Cr (Chromium): 3,180x
Cu (Copper): 24x
F (Fluorine): no guideline
Fe (Iron): 49,333x (I have used the ‘aesthetic’ [taste] guideline for Iron as its health threshold has yet to be determined)
Hg (Mercury): 100x
K (Potassium): no guideline
Mg (Magnesium): no guideline
Mn (Manganese): 1,260x
Mo (Molybdenum): 500x
Na (Sodium): 166.8x (aesthetic guideline)
Ni (Nickel): 6,250x
P (Phosphorus): no guideline
Pb (Lead): 600x
Sb (Antimony): 1,266.6x
Se (Selenuim): 6x
Sn (Tin): no guideline
U (Uranium): 184x
V (Vanadium): no guideline
Zn (Zinc): 11.3 (aesthetic guideline)
-There is nothing benign about these tailings. Many of the above elements are either known or suspected to be carcinogenic in humans and animals. The recurring themes are cancer and tumours, but the Drinking Water Guidelines identify a range of known and possible health effects. The list is long and still being populated, but includes chromosome aberrations, heart complications, organ damage, brain damage, and reproductive harm: foetal damage and reduced fertility. These affects (and many more) are not limited to contact with the element in solution, but also in dust particles, which shed from exposed or spilled tailings in drier times. I encourage you to study the Drinking Water Guidelines for these elements, and ask yourself whether they belong, in concentrated form and in the order of millions of tonnes, stored in perpetuity in a fault zone at the headwaters of a drinking water catchment, organic-agricultural supply, and national park.
9. Condition 24 – Request for Variation of Plans, Programs or Activities by the Proponent
-Condition 24 (Federal Approval 2010-5770): ‘The Minister will not approve a varied plan, program, or activity, unless the revision would result in an equivalent or improved environmental outcome over time.’
-The following variations associated with Modification 3 defeat the above condition:
a) ‘Minor’ increase in total ore extraction (1.2mt – 1.6mt or 33% increase): There is simply no way that mining an additional 400,000 tonnes of ore, most of which will become tailings stored on-site in an admittedly permeable TSF or underground as paste fill, at the head of the catchment, can be classified as having an ‘equal or reduced’ impact over time, as compared with that waste having never been produced.
b) Construction and use of the Eastern waste rock emplacement – as identified by the Environment Protection Authority (RTS, p. 35), the proponent has not detailed the likely chemical composition of the Eastern Waste Rock Emplacement. Furthermore, I do not see how a 6-hectare, 630,000 tonne rock dump, dredged from underground, exposed to surface runoff, and certain to have some subsoil impact, is commensurate with Condition 24.
c) Extending the operational life of the mine by 7 years (31/08/2018 to 30/06/2025) – cannot possibly result in equal or lesser impact than the cessation (or prevention) of mining upon the standing deadline.
d) The withdrawal of dozens of pollution control measures from the Statement of Commitments (although I gather some criteria may now be more stringent due to the EPA defining them directly, this is not the case for all struck-through commitments)
e) Construction and use of a vehicle crossing over spring creek: tailings-laden trucks moving directly and continuously over the water catchment. An accident here puts tailings directly into the creek, or creek bed, which feeds into the downstream river system.
-The Department of Environment can legitimately refuse this modification, and indeed is bound to do so by Condition 24.
10. Public Will
-Modification 3 as amended faces virtually unanimous rejection by the community and the interested public. The Department of Planning & Environment website displays approximately 50 public submissions in objection, plus several highly critical submissions by way of comment, and zero public submissions in support. (This is in addition to a scathing submission from the Environmental Protection Authority and their refusal to recommend conditions of approval to the Department, damming criticism from Fisheries, and ongoing objection from the Eurobodalla Shire Council.)
-The 50-odd objections to the amended Modification 3 are more significant than their number. Mostly local, they reached the Department despite the, blink-and-miss exhibition period scheduled at exactly the time of year when people are least inclined to be engaged with the tedium of state planning – the Christmas holiday. The exhibition period was set for just 17 days (01/12/2015 – 18/12/2015), after Unity had taken some four months to produce its Response to the original Submissions against Modification 3, with the use of their paid consultant, R.W. Corkery & Co.
-The Department of Planning, with strange reluctance, granted a 15-day extension of the exhibition period (until January 4, 2016) via email to the Majors Creek Catchment Guardians. Despite the new deadline being unadvertised, and not even displayed on the Department’s website, submissions rolled in until the final day. Had the exhibition period been longer and better known to the public, the silent majority would have continued to make themselves known. Add to this the overwhelming public objection to the original project application (1,124 objections to 12 in support), and the thorough defeat of Modification 3a (cyanide) (331 – 60). I assert that the people have well and truly spoken on this project, and that Unity’s claimed social licence (RTS, p.iii) is counterfeit.
11. The Department of Environment’s Mandate to Protect and Conserve Must Take Priority
-Over supposed economic benefits that appear to be the primary interest of the NSW Department of Planning in its consecutive approvals of the Dargues Gold Mine and its modifications.
-If the Department of Environment is similarly concerned with perceived economic imperatives, consider that where freshwater is at stake, so too is the economy. No complex analysis of market forces is required. Just a simple thought experiment – would you be more inclined to buy river-front property with or without a gold mine and Tailings Storage Facility located upstream? Would you rather buy apples gown under Unity’s compensatory groundwater plan, or from the water than finds its own way into the Araluen Valley? Would you rather visit the Deua National Park, swim, fish, paddle in the river, and take your tourist dollar from town to town, with or without the proliferation of mining upstream? Would you do any of the above, if the whisper of a spill had reached you? The economy is on the river’s side: our prosperity depends, above all else, on the purity and reputation of our waters.
-I urge the Department not to take the conventional ‘middle ground’ of approving the Modification with a suite of new or old conditions and good-behaviour rhetoric. Since 2011, Unity Mining has modified its way out of every condition or commitment that it finds inconvenient. With Modifications 1, 2, 3a (cyanide), and 3b (just kidding about the cyanide), the Proponent has made every effort to erode the Conditions of its original approval, reduce its own Statement of Commitments, and strip away key environmental controls and operational limits and on their licence. They’ve made a joke of the Land and Environment Court Action (February 2012), whose Order they undo by Modification, as though the hammer never fell. And all the while, they will sincerely pledge to minimise harm to the environment. Indeed, one of Unity’s stated objectives in expanding the mine with Modification 3 (and introducing cyanide into the operation), while slashing environmental commitments, was ‘to minimise… the overall environmental impact of the Project,’ (EA, p. 19).
-I appeal to the Department of Environment not be complicit in this downward spiral. For the sake of all species downstream of Majors Creek, and the river that gives us life, refuse this Modification and this Mine.
Updated September, 2016