Northern Territory faces legal action over decision to reduce security bond on McArthur River mine

Traditional owners and conservationists have launched legal action against the Northern Territory government over its decision to cut $120m from a bond held as insurance against any future environmental damage from the contentious McArthur River lead and zinc mine.

Lawyers for Jack Green and Josephine Davey Green, residents of the remote community of Borroloola, will argue the territory government’s November 2019 decision was unlawful.

Some traditional owners have been fighting aspects of the Glencore-owned mine, about 45km from Borroloola, for more than a decade.

Jack Green, a Garawa elder, said they had not been consulted about the decision to reduce the bond from about $520m to $400m.

“They’ve kept us in the dark – we still don’t know why they made that decision,” he said.

Josie Davey Green, a Gudanji woman, said the decision could have an impact on the river and her people for generations to come.

“My ancestors spent their lives with that river – it is everything to us, we’re all connected to it,” she said.

Lawyers from the Environmental Defenders Office, who are representing the residents and Environment Centre NT, will head to the territory’s supreme court on 25 February to ask for a judicial review, with a hearing expected later this year.

Zinc, lead and silver has been mined at the site since 1995, with operations moving from underground extraction to an open pit in 2006.

In 2013, waste rock stored at the site spontaneously combusted and smoked for more than a year. More than 60 truckloads of potentially hazardous material was also dumped in the wrong place.

The decision to lower the security bond was made at the same time as NT mining minister Nicole Manison approved the mine’s plan to manage the problems with waste material.

Kirsty Howey, Environment Centre NT co-director, said the case was being brought to make sure there was enough money to rehabilitate the area after mining ends in 2038.

“If Glencore doesn’t put up enough money to clean up after themselves, the burden will fall squarely on taxpayers. We are trying to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

A 2018 report from the NT Environment Protection Authority into Glencore’s plans to manage the overburden at the mine said: “The cost of rehabilitating the mine site in 2018 is likely to be substantially more that [sic] the current security.”

The report summarised that in the “unlikely event” Glencore abandoned the site and relinquished the bond, which at the time was $478m, “the NT government would be required to take on the responsibility of stabilising and closing the mine site, using the security bond, to prevent long-term contamination of the McArthur River.”

The report said: “The site is very complex and already heavily disturbed with an existing deep open pit in the floodplain, a waste rock dump that generates [acid drainage], and a [tailings storage facility] that is considered a major geochemical hazard.”

The mine site was “likely to require an active presence for potentially hundreds of years, if not in perpetuity,” the report said.

NT’s mining minister, Nicole Manison, has said the decision to reduce the bond was made after an “independent assessment process.”

A spokeswoman for Manison said the decision to reduce the security bond “was due to improvements in knowledge and technology regarding waste rock management consistent with the NT EPA assessment report for the project.”

The revised security amount was verified by an independent third party, she said, and the security amount was reviewed annually and reassessed by an independent third party every three years.

The Guardian asked for a copy of the review process but this request was not addressed.

In a statement sent to the Guardian, the mine’s general manager, Steven Rooney, said the bond amount was set using government guidelines and had been independently reviewed.

He said McArthur River Mining, owned by Glencore, had acknowledged the problems with waste rock management, but the waste was now being sustainably managed.

Glencore was committed to rehabilitating the site within the timeframes it had set out in its environment impact assessment, he said.

The statement added: “We will continue to engage with the First Nation people in the Territory on the environmental management of the mine and welcome local Traditional Owner and Custodian input on how we can continue to improve cultural heritage management in the region.”