Mining in Dorrigo: another perspective

Mining in Dorrigo: another perspective

The article appearing in the Don Dorrigo Gazette 16/11/2011 under the heading ‘Mining in Dorrigo’ presents information that appears to be directly from an Anchor Resources brochure on the Bielsdown Project.  It would seem appropriate to question and challenge this article and highlight perhaps what we the community haven’t been told.

Anchor Resources is one of three companies holding mineral exploration licences on the Plateau and is currently the most active. Anchor Resources activities include drilling for gold at Dundurrabin, proposed drilling for antimony/gold at Wongwibinda (Fishington Mine) and further drilling at Bielsdown. This flurry of activity in our region reflects the rising price of antimony, gold and other metals and I question whether this is due to resource scarcity or market manipulation? China produces 90% of the worlds antimony, and we have seen the price of antimony skyrocket from $4K per tonne to $16K per tonne in the last two years.  This price increase has largely been associated with the closure of a number of large producing antimony mines in China due to human health/safety and environmental concerns. It is pertinent to add here that Anchor Resources is now at least 96% owned by the Chinese company Shandong Jinshunda Group as of mid 2011.

I note that Anchor Resources refer to the exploration licence process, however it is difficult to find the latest approval for their Bielsdown project with the Government gazette showing an application to renew the licence in February 2011, however this licence doesn’t appear to be granted as yet. Also of concern is that a Review of Environmental Factors (REF) has not been undertaken for any of the exploration licence applications submitted by Anchor for the Bielsdown project since 2007.  My understanding is that a REF is a requirement of all exploration licence applicants to undertake an environmental impact assessment of the proposed activities so that NSW DPI can make an assessment under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 prior to granting the licence. Given that the Bielsdown project location has state and national significance as habitat for threatened species I question the currency of the exploration licence and how the NSW government has overlooked an important part of the approval process. This is not to mention the requirements under the Commonwealth legislation that the location triggers. It is unclear whether Anchor Resources have notified the Commonwealth government to determine if their exploration activities are considered a ‘controlled action’ under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 requiring further environmental impact assessment and approval. Many farmers have shared with me their frustration about their efforts and sacrifices in conserving native vegetation and habitat for the public good only to see mining companies given open slather.

I don’t wish to dwell solely on the environmental issues surrounding the potential of mining on the Plateau, as there are other issues that need to be considered. It seems that Dorrigo is not immune to the unprecedented mining expansion in regional Australia where the potential social and economic impacts need to be considered by the communities faced with these challenges. As the current legislation has been identified as inadequate to accommodate the risks, new policies are being developed and proposals to change legislation under debate. In the meantime, mining activities continue to expand.  In considering the full impacts of mining, the concerns of landholders and rural communities should not be dismissed as simply ‘alarmist’. The current inquiries and reports demonstrate the validity of these concerns:

·      Inquiry into Murray Darling Basin expanded to include coal seam gas (May 2011)
·      Inquiry into coal seam gas impacts: NSW Parliament (August 2011)
·      Inquiry into the impacts ofFly in Fly Outworkers on regional Australia (August 2011)
·      National Water Commission Report (Sept 2011) concern about coal seam gas use of water

It is important that communities can openly, safely and respectfully discuss the positive and negative impacts of mining, assisted by access to all information and learning from our past. 
I note that Anchor Resources provides a brief long-term perspective on the use of antimony presenting it to be a very safe substance, however its important to remember that history teaches us many things. Asbestos was also used historically in early times with a variety of uses. The human health problems related to asbestos identified in Europe in the late 1800s until a ban in Australia in 2003 teaches us that it is responsible and not alarmist to question the human health aspects of antimony.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding antimony such as conflicting information on bio-accumulation and a lack of Health Investigation Levels (HIL) or Ecological Investigation Levels (EIL) under the National Pollution Environmental Measure (NEPM) 1999 or by NSW EPA.   The only current guidelines we have are the safe limits set for waterways (0.009 mg/L ANZECC 2000), and for drinking water (0.003 mg/L NHMRC 2004). At the Bielsdown project site a number of the creek sample locations have concentrations of antimony, arsenic and zinc that breach both the ANZECC and NHMRC guidelines. The results of the laboratory tests for surface water samples suggest that there is residual surface water contamination of antimony, arsenic and zinc downstream of the former antimony mine site. (Source: Coffey Report in Anchor Resources Ltd 2009). The majority of past antimony mining in Australia has occurred in our region and sadly we still have the legacy of pollution from these abandoned mines and processing sites (such as Urunga). Recent spillages from the Hillgrove mine has highlighted the historic pollution in the Macleay River and concerns of landholders living downstream.

As China produces 90% of antimony globally, it is worth looking at the science emerging there:
·      Serious Antimony and Arsenic contamination in the aquatic environment in Hunan China (large antimony mining area). The Antimony concentration in drinking water exceeded both Chinese and WHO drinking water guidelines by 13 and 3 times. Fish gills exhibited the highest Antimony concentrations but the extent of accumulation varied with habitat (Fu et al  2010 Science of the Total Environment 16:408)
·      Water samples from Xikuangshan China the worlds largest Antimony mine were found to be two to three orders of magnitude higher compared to the typical concentrations of dissolved Antimony in unpolluted rivers. Signs of intoxication were observed among local mine workers with extensive exposure to different forms of Antimony for a long period of time (Lui et al 2010 Environmental Geochemistry and Health 32:5).
·      Concentrations of hair samples from Xikuangshan Antimony mining area and Guiyang City were compared. The contents of antimony, arsenic and mercury of human hair of  Xikuangshan antimony areas are much higher than those of Guiyang City. These results show that heavy metals in antimony mining area may significantly affect human health (Liu et la 2009 Huan Jing Ke Xue 15, 30:3)

 Lessons from other regions in Australia provide a few insights to consider on whether there are true social and economic benefits from mining for our regions.

The Bowen Basin
·      Positive economic impacts limited by use of non resident workers
·      Shortages/negative outcomes in housing, infrastructure, services, recreational amenities, local employment, local business/economy; crime; community justice and lifestyle
·      Projected cumulative social impacts in the region include: deteriorating infrastructure, damage to transport corridors, drain on human and social services, fly-over effects on local business and economy; acute housing and rental shortages, which can in turn force out residents and business owners.
(Sources: Carrington and Pereira School of Justice QUT June 2011; Rolfe et al 2007)

The Hunter Valley
·      Mining brings jobs but can deplete the labour pool (mining vs agriculture)
·      Mining brings benefits but they are not equally spread
·      Mining provides infrastructure but community networks/family life is often neglected, including polarising of communities; psychosocial impacts; feelings of social dislocation and changing community identity
·      The social changes accompanying mining can mobilise communities
(Source: Dr Jo-Anne Everingham University of Qld 2011)

I recently attended the Dorrigo Rotary Club meeting where Anchor Resources presented information about their mining activities. I asked whether we could have more information about the 60 jobs for the Plateau that had been quoted by Luke Hartsuyker MP in a newspaper after a briefing by Anchor Resources. I was told three times by Ian Price of Anchor Resources that he didn’t know about this despite him being quoted as the source. Another guest asked of the mining royalty payment to the NSW government, this question could also not be answered. If our local councils and local member are being told of the estimate of jobs that the mining development will bring I can only assume that the proposal is well past any preliminary feasibility study. It is disappointing that our community has not been privy to the same level of detailed information.

The planning process is currently in a state of transition in NSW with the planning legislation amended in September this year, which notably changed the Minister’s powers in assessing such developments. Hence the information provided by Anchor Resources on the mining lease process is incorrect as depending on whether the proposed mine development is considered a state significant project or not will determine if it is assessed either by the local council or by the NSW Planning Assessment Commission. There are also other approval processes that this development may require to undertake on state and commonwealth levels.  Regardless of who the final approval body is, the community will have 30 days to respond to the development application including the Environmental Impact Assessment. It is important that our community has access to support and information to be able to participate in a meaningful and informed way. I can only say that the current system is biased towards the development proponent with communities provided with little information or support. My background is as an environmental and social scientist currently based at University of New England and I have spent many years working with rural communities around natural resource issues. However I am wearing two hats as I am also a member of our community and It is the inequity of the current planning process that has influenced my active involvement in Dorrigo Environment Watch who has stepped up to assist our local community through the provision of information about antimony, mining and the planning assessment process.

Jacqueline Williams.

[Letter to the Editor, Don Dorrigo Gazette, December 2011]