A group of traditional Aboriginal land owners has won a bid to overturn the Northern Territory government’s approval for the expansion of a major territory zinc mine.
The controversial project would transform the McArthur River Mine from underground to open-cut mining by diverting the river near the Gulf of Carpentaria by 5.5 kilometres.
The mine’s owner, Swiss mining company Xstrata, was given approval for the $110 million expansion by the NT government in October last year.
But the Northern Land Council (NLC) mounted a legal challenge on behalf of the traditional owners, arguing the government had failed to follow proper procedures under the Mines Management Acts.
In the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin on Monday Justice David Angel ruled in favour of the traditional owners, finding the government did not follow a correct process.
“The minister for mines and energy’s acceptance of the amended mining management plan was of no effect because the mining management plan was not in respect of the mining activities,” he said in his judgment.
“(It) does not authorise the third defendants’ proposed open-cut mining operation.”
Operators McArthur River Mining (MRM) first applied to expand the mine, on one of the world’s largest zinc and lead deposits, in March last year.
The company said the underground mine was no longer viable and the development of an open-cut mine was the only way to secure the future of the operation.
The NT Government sent the plan back to the drawing board to deal with environmental concerns.
Monday’s judgement casts doubt over whether the company can proceed with its expansion plans because Justice Angel found the approval process the government relied on was invalid.
Outside the court Charles Roche from the NT Environment Centre said the judgment was a win for both traditional owners and the environment.
“We do believe the decision is invalid under the act….it certainly should raise the bar that we will accept nothing less than best practice,” he told reporters.
“We are delighted, it is a great win for the NT environment.”
Work on diverting the river was supposed to begin this dry season, which officially starts in the NT on Monday
“The decision means they have to stop work immediately so they can’t go ahead with digging the canal at this point in time,” Mr Roche said.
“This was basically the last way we could protect the river from diversion, we have been concerned for a long time about its impacts. Today we saved a tropical river and it’s a great outcome.”
Mr Roche said it would be interesting to see if MRM, which threatened to pull out of the Northern Territory last year if its expansion plans were not approved, would continue to pursue plans for a river diversion.
“They said if they could not get this approval they would walk away,” he said.
MRM says on its website that the mine faces closure because underground mining is no longer viable.
But if open-cut mining was able to proceed, it would extend the mine’s life by 25 years, providing jobs and other economic benefits to the Borroloola region.