A MAJOR project by Swiss mining giant Xstrata is in doubt after Aboriginal landowners in the Northern Territory won a court challenge against the approval process for the McArthur River Mine.
In a surprise decision in Darwin yesterday, Northern Territory Supreme Court justice David Angel ruled that the Territory Government had acted improperly when it gave the green light to the expansion of a lead and zinc mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Xstrata had applied to divert the McArthur River for 5km near Borroloola, 700km southeast of Darwin, in a $110 million conversion from underground to open-cut mine.
But the controversial development, designed to extend the life of the mine by up to 35 years, could now be put on hold after the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in favour of traditional owners.
The company has repeatedly warned that the mine would be closed if its expansion application was rejected.
Northern Land Council chief executive Norman Fry said the decision was a victory for common sense and accused Xstrata of being motivated “solely by self-interest and greed”.
“The impact of this project demanded that an open and transparent process be adopted,” Mr Fry said.
“Unfortunately for the NT Government, this back-door approach in approving the project has brought nothing but shame on them.”
In August last year, NT Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour gave her backing for the expansion just six months after rejecting the proposal on environmental grounds.
The mine, which divided the Martin Labor Government, was finally approved by Mines Minister Chris Natt in October after the Government approved a revised environmental plan and imposed a $55 million security bond.
But green groups and some Aboriginal owners remained opposed to the development, which was also cleared by the Federal Government.
Justice Angel said the Territory Government’s approval of the expansion was invalid because it did not follow the proper 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.
The Government said it would carefully review the decision and “examine all available legal avenues” before commenting further.
In a statement, McArthur River Mines said it was disappointed in the decision and would consider the judgment over the coming days.
NT Environment Centre campaigner Charles Roche said the judgment “saved a tropical river”.