Western Mining Corporation first developed the Olympic Dam (Roxby Downs) Uranium Mine in 1983, despite strong and sustained opposition from Kokatha and Arabunna Traditional Owners and environmentalists. BHP Billiton purchased the underground Olympic Dam mine in 2005. In May 2009 BHP Billiton released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing plans to turn Olympic Dam into a massive open pit mine[1]. This new open pit mine is intended to operate alongside the existing underground mine and to increase uranium production from 4,000 to 19,000 tonnes per year and copper production from 200,000 to 750,000 tonnes a year[2].

Enough damage has been done from the Olympic Dam uranium mine, they should not expand it,” protests Eileen Wani Wingfield, a Senior Kokatha Woman from Coober Pedy in South Australia (SA).

“Many of our food sources, traditional plants and trees are gone because of this mine. We worry for our water: it’s our main source of life. The mine causes many safety risks to our roads – transporting the uranium from the mine. It has stopped us from accessing our sacred sites and destroyed others. These can never be replaced. BHP never consulted me or my families, they select who they consult with. Many of our people have not had a voice. We want the mine stopped now, because it’s not good for anything.”[3].

The existing mine operates under the Roxby Downs Indenture Act 1982, which provides overrides and exemptions from key state legislation including the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1979 and 1988. BHP Billiton is in a legal position to determine what consultation occurs with which Traditional Owners and the nature of any consultation[4]. 

The Company decides the level of protection that Aboriginal heritage sites receive and which sites are recognised. BHP Billiton claims that it fully complies with Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, the question remains why the company is unwilling to relinquish the outdated legal exemptions[5].

The Roxby Downs Indenture Act 1982 also allows wide ranging exemptions from key environmental laws such as the SA Environmental Protection Act 1993, Freedom of Information Act 1991 and the Natural Resources Act 2004 – including on critical water resources and Great Artesian Basin (GAB) management issues[6]. 

BHP Billiton should agree that this outdated Indenture Act be repealed by the SA Parliament and should withdraw their request to the SA state government that the Indenture Act be amended to apply and extend these exemptions and legal privileges to the proposed new open pit mine for decades to come.

The new open pit mine would see the production of radioactive tailings increase seven-fold to 68 million tonnes annually. These tailings are stored above ground and contain a toxic, acidic mix of radionuclides and heavy metals, effectively a source of permanent pollution. There have been many spills and leaks since the mine began. In the mid-1990s it was revealed that about three billion litres had seeped from the tailings dams over two years. These problems at the existing underground mine have yet to be resolved[7].

BHP Billiton have designed the proposed new open pit mine to leak on average some 3 million litres of liquid radioactive waste a day from the tailings piles and to dump radioactive tailings on the surface to be left there forever. They do not intend to rehabilitate the proposed new open pit at closure of the mine but to leave this radioactive scar on the landscape forever.

 BHP Billiton should have to prevent leakage and to agree to isolate tailings from the environment for at least the minimum 10,000 year regulatory standard applied by the Australian Federal government at the Ranger uranium mine. Is the proposed new open pit mine only ‘economic’ because BHP Billiton do not intend to responsibly manage their radioactive mine wastes or to properly dispose of these tailings into the void of the pit at closure?

Here you are, BHP, the biggest mining company in the world, and here we are the oldest peoples in the world. You should be listening to us about this land and the water. BHP, don’t go ahead with the expansion, we all know how dangerous it is,” explains Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, an Arabunna Elder from Lake Eyre South, South Australia.

“When you’ve packed up and gone that’s when the earthquakes will happen, don’t go ahead with it; use your common sense. There should never be an open cut uranium mine in the desert. We don’t know if your shareholders understand the impacts of what you’re doing to the Arabunna people, the Kokatha people and other tribes around that area. You don’t understand what you’re doing to the land and the culture.[8].

Integral to the 2009 open pit mine plan BHP Billiton proposes an increase in water consumption from 35 million litres daily from the GAB to over 260 million litres daily to be turned into liquid radioactive wastes in processing the ore[9].

This water would come from a combination of sources of which up to 42 million litres would come from the GAB and around 200 million litres a day from a proposed desalination plant near Whyalla. That’s over 100,000 litres every minute − in the driest state of the driest inhabited continent on Earth[10]. The water already taken from the GAB has had adverse impacts on the health and flow rates of the precious and unique Mound Springs[11]. The proposed desalination plant is also inappropriately sited and threatens the fragile low flushing Upper Spencer Gulf and the breeding ground of the charismatic Giant Australian Cuttle Fish[12].

Yet another provision of the Indenture Act means that BHP Billiton pays nothing for its water take for the Olympic Dam Mine. Despite the company recording a US$12.7 billion profit in 2009-10 precious Great Artesian Basin water is taken free of charge while the groundwater system is damaged and depleted.

The proposed expansion of the Olympic Dam uranium mine highlights the fallacy that nuclear power is a ‘solution’ to climate change. If the mine expansion proceeds as proposed Olympic Dam would generate 5.3−5.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, increasing South Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 12 to 14 per cent and undoing the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse pollution[13].

If the new open pit goes ahead BHP Billiton proposes that the majority of copper production occur in China rather than the current practice of processing all copper on site. The company intends to export a uranium infused copper concentrate, some 1.6 million tonnes a year containing a few thousand tonnes of uranium and some 400 000 tonnes of copper. China is the sole market for this radioactive concentrate. This highly contentious plan would see BHP Billiton dumping some 1.2 million tonnes of long lived radioactive mine wastes in China every year and would require an amendment to Australia’s uranium export treaty with China to provide for the unprecedented sale of Australian uranium in concentrates.

Uranium production at Olympic Dam is expected to increase to 19,000 tonnes per year, sufficient to fuel 95 power reactors, which will produce 2,850 tonnes of high level nuclear waste per year (in the form of spent nuclear fuel). That amount of spent fuel contains 28.5 tonnes of plutonium − enough for 2,850 nuclear weapons each year. Over the lifespan of the mine covered by the EIS up to 2050, it could be responsible for the production of enough plutonium for over 100,000 nuclear weapons.[14]

David Noonan, Nuclear Free Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation


[1]. BHP Billiton, 2009, Olympic Dam Expansion, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, accessed online 29 September 2009, http://www.bhpbilliton.com/bb/odxEis/downloads/draftEisDocuments.jsp

[2]. ACF, 2009, EIS submission: http://www.acfonline.org.au/default.asp?section_id=25 or direct download http://www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res/ACF_submission_Olympic_Dam_EIS.pdf

[3]. Wingfield, Eileen, 16 September 2009, interview with Cat Beaton.

[4]. Friends of the Earth, 2008, Roxby Downs Indenture Act, accessed 29 September 2009 http://www.foe.org.au/antinuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby/indenture/Indenturestatement-2008.pdf/view

[5]. Burdon, Peter, 2006, Above the Law, Roxby Downs and BHP Billiton’s Legal Priviliges, accessed online 29 September 2009. http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby/indenture/indenture

[6]. Friends of the Earth, 2008, Roxby Downs Indenture Act, accessed 29 September 2009 http://www.foe.org.au/antinuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby/indenture/Indenturestatement-2008.pdf/view

[7]. Friends of the Earth, 2009, ‘Roxby Downs Uranium/Copper Mine’, accessed 29 September 2009, http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby/summary

[8]. Buzzacott, Kevin, 18 September 2009, interview with Mia Pepper.

[9]. BHP Billiton, 2009, Olympic Dam Expansion, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, accessed online 29 September 2009, http://www.bhpbilliton.com/bb/odxEis/downloads/draftEisDocuments.jsp

[10]. ibid.

[11]. Mudd, Gavin, 1998, ‘The Long Term Sustainability of Mound Springs In South Australia: Implications For Olympic Dam’. Proc. “Uranium Mining & Hydrogeology II Conference”, Freiberg, Germany, September 15-17 1998, pp 575-584, http://civil.eng.monash.edu.au/about/staff/muddpersonal/1998-UMH-2-ODam-v-MoundSprings.pdf See also Dr Mudd’s research posted at http://www.sea-us.org.au/roxby/springsdrying.html

[12]. ABC, 2009, ‘Big cuttlefish ‘at risk’ from desalination’, http://abc.gov.au/science/articles/2009/04/30/2557262.htmsite=science&topic=latest See also ABC, 2009, September 24, ‘Giant Cuttlefish’, http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2695601.htm.

[13]. Mudd, Gavin, 2009, ‘Greenhouse emissions – Olympic Dam mine expansion’, accessed 29 September 2009, http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/u/roxby/CO2-Pred-v-ODam-2009.pdf/view

[14]. Green, Jim, 2009, Friends of the Earth Australia, Submission #77 to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Inquiry into Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, 2009 accessed online 29 September 2009 http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/jsct/nuclearnon_proliferation/subs.htm