Glencore to expand McArthur River despite sacred sites authority veto

Groundwater sampling adjacent to tailings dam at McArthur River zinc mine. (Image courtesy of Glencore.)

Glencore (LON: GLEN) has been given the green light to expand its McArthur River zinc mine in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT), against the advice of the state’s own sacred sites authority, which says it has not cleared the plan yet.

The state government’s approval would allow Glencore to double the size of the mine, extending McArthur River’s productive life until 2048. It also secures the jobs of about 1,100 employees and contractors, the state said.

As part of the permit, Glencore must comply with all relevant legislative requirements and conditions of authorization, including those relating to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989.

Under NT law, companies must have permission from the AAPA before they can alter or remove any sacred site

Under NT law, companies must have permission from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) before they can alter or remove any sacred site.

The authority noted on Thursday it had previously rejected the company’s application for a certificate. It also requested more consultation with traditional owners, worried about potential damage to sacred and heritage sites.

AAPA said Glencore’s appeal against that decision was still with the state government and the announcement of the plan’s approval was concerning.

“It was very sad for us — we have given [Glencore] a lot of chances to work with us but they haven’t done it,” AAPA chairman Bobby Nunggamajbarr said in an emailed statement.

Long awaited

Glencore has waited for the expansion’s final approval since 2018. The NT’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) found then that sacred sites could be damaged by the mine’s expansion, but recommended its approval on the basis that the risk of further environmental damage would be higher if the miner left the site.

Operating since 1995, McArthur is one of the world’s largest zinc mines. Last year, it contributed more than A$550 million ($400m) to the local economy.

McArthur River produced 271,200 tonnes of zinc, 55,300 tonnes of lead and 1.67 million ounces of silver in 2019.

The mine lies in the Gulf region, the traditional home of the Yanyuwa, Gudanji, Mara and Garawa peoples. The remote pocket of northern Australia is far from the Northern Territory’s urban centres, but about an hour’s drive from the mine is the small, majority-Aboriginal town of Borroloola, which straddles the McArthur River.

Zinc prices climbed this week to an 18-month high after Vedanta suspended mining at its Gamsberg zinc mine in South Africa following an accident that trapped ten workers.

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