A group of traditional land owners has begun legal action against the federal government over the expansion of the Northern Territory’s largest zinc mine.
The Northern Land Council (NLC) mounted the challenge against former federal environment minister Ian Campbell, claiming he failed to take into account mandatory considerations and follow mandatory procedures.
Senator Campbell signed off on the McArthur River Mine (MRM) project, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, after it was approved by the NT government in October last year.
The $110 million expansion is part of a project by Swiss mining giant Xstrata to turn the operation from underground to open cut mining.
NLC lawyer Neil Williams said Senator Campbell failed to consider the effect the radical 5.5km river diversion would have on the environment, including changes that “(have), or will have, or (are) likely to have an impact on migratory or vulnerable species”.
Submissions raised by members of the public about their environmental concerns were also overlooked, he said.
“There was an obligation to comply with the assessment procedures under the (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act) and that was not done,” Mr Williams told the Federal Court in Darwin.
“The consequence of that, Your Honour, is invalidity,” he said.
The court hearing coincided with a heated day in the NT parliament, with the government attempting to push through rushed amendments to legislation that would allow the controversial MRM project to go ahead.
The NT government was thwarted earlier this week when the NT Supreme Court ruled in favour of the landowners in a separate court case – a decision hailed by opponents as a win for both traditional owners and the environment.
Justice David Angel upheld the arguments of the NLC and ruled NT Mines Minister Chris Natt had used an invalid process to approve the mine’s expansion.
Work on the project was immediately stopped, leaving 400 people without a job and throwing into doubt the future of the operation.
NT government lawyers were back in the Supreme Court on Thursday, arguing against Justice Angel making final orders on the matter.
But he rejected their argument that the introduction of new legislation would render his judgment irrelevant, and stood by his initial ruling, saying his “job was to declare the law as it is now”.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the commonwealth, Xstrata and the NLC asked for the case regarding Senator Campbell to be adjourned until after parliament passed the new bill.
Country Liberal Party (CLP) determination to get mileage from the affair, including a question time heavy with cries of government incompetence, error and heavy handedness – pushed the matter back until the end of the day.
The legislation was still being debated at 5pm (CST), although it was likely the amendments would be passed.