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CURRENT CASE: Supporting Traditional Owners to challenge the notorious McArthur River Mine

Garawa elder Jack Green and Gudanji woman and native title rightsholder Josie Davey Green are challenging the NT government’s support for Glencore’s notorious McArthur River zinc lead mine.

Status: the judicial review has yet to come before the NT Supreme Court.

First Nations Peoples have been fighting Glencore’s McArthur River zinc lead mine for decades, with several successful legal challenges already under their belt. 

Now two Traditional Owners have launched a judicial review of the NT government’s decision to reduce the amount of money Glencore needs to put aside to clean up the site. They’re supported by the Environment Centre NT, the Environmental Defenders Office, and members of the Grata Fund community.

A blight on Country

The open cut mine - which is situated on the traditional lands of the Gudanji people - is polluting the land of the Garawa, Gudanji, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples, their traditional lands and waters and their ancestral estates.

From the outset, the NT government has worked with the mine’s owners to prevent the Garawa, Gudanji, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples from having their say about the mine. They were not consulted about the development of the mine or informed of activities that may impact their heritage. An Indigenous Land Use Agreement was never negotiated, denying them the chance to give - or withhold - their consent. 

On a few occasions, Traditional Owners even beat the mine in court - only for the NT government to pass laws that overruled the court’s decision and let the mine go ahead. 

A toxic legacy

The mine is 60km from the predominantly Aboriginal town of Borroloola, and has been dogged by numerous environmental incidents, including ongoing acid pollution from the ‘tailings’ and waste rock. Routine testing has revealed elevated levels of lead in the Garawa community’s water supply. Residents believe that the contamination source was the zinc lead mine, which had previously contaminated the water supply in 2014. Many people no longer feel it is safe to take or drink water from the McArthur River.

“I am hurting so deeply. I worry for my children, and their children. I am fighting for my country,” says Josie Davey Green. “My ancestors spent their lives with that river – it is everything to us, we’re all connected to it.  It is part of us. We feel like we can’t fish there now, and I can’t get there to teach my children about culture and country – I have to go elsewhere.”

The mine is set to close in 2038. Glencore estimates that the site will need to be monitored and maintained for 1,000 years after mining stops. Yet the NT government decided to slash the mine’s environmental bond - money it has to put aside to cover its future clean up costs - from $520 million to $400 million. 

“We don’t trust the mine to clean up the mess properly. We need the bond to protect the river and our country if something goes wrong,” says Jack Green. “The bond wasn’t high enough before – it needed to be doubled at least. It’s not enough to repair the damage they’ve done – that’s why we’re fighting.”