Traditional owners battle to stop Xstrata mine expansion

A GROUP of traditional landowners has begun legal action against the Federal Government over the expansion of the Northern Territory’s largest zinc mine.

The Northern Land Council 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 project, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, after the NT Government approved it in October.

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 5.5-kilometre river diversion would have on the environment.

Submissions by the public about environmental concerns were also overlooked, he said.

“There was an obligation to comply with the assessment procedures under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and that was not done,” Mr Williams told the Federal Court in Darwin. He said the consequence of that was “invalidity”.

The court hearing coincided with a heated day in the NT Parliament, with the Government attempting to push through amendments that would allow the project to go ahead.

The 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 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 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 yesterday arguing against Justice Angel making final orders on the matter. But he rejected their argument that the introduction of new legislation would render his judgement 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 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 bill was still being debated last night, although the amendments were expected to pass.

Tara Ravens, Darwin

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