McArthur River Mine Compensation Talks

Date: Oct 31, 2017

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The Northern Territory Government says it’s prepared to engage in discussions with the Northern Land Council about compensation to native title holders for the effect on native title rights and interests of the grant of mineral leases where the McArthur River Mine near Borroloola is situated.

The native title holders, Gurdanji and Yanyuwa peoples, have asked the NLC to negotiate compensation, “without the need for litigation, and to right the historic wrong by which the mine was established on their country without compensation”.

The mining and associated port operations at Bing Bong are conducted on mineral leases within the boundaries of the McArthur River Station. About one third of the pastoral lease area is used for grazing cattle. Mount Isa Mines (MIM) holds the mineral leases and the pastoral lease; McArthur River Mining Pty Ltd (MRM) is the mine operator; MIM and MRM are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Glencore plc.

Glencore is one of the world’s largest miners, processors and traders, and its McArthur River Mine is one of the world’s largest zinc-lead mines. 

The McArthur River Mine was established by Northern Territory legislation – the McArthur River Project Agreement Ratification Act 1992. The mineral leases were granted on 5 January 1993 for a term of 25 years, with a right of renewal for a further 25-year term

The leases offended the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Further, the Native Title Act 1993 included a special provision applying to the McArthur River Mine which meant that native title there was not extinguished (the “non-extinguishment principle”), and that compensation was payable.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the NLC has sought to negotiate the quantum and nature of compensation, but the Northern Territory Government would not entertain negotiations until native title was established.

On 26 November 2015, native title was determined over the McArthur River pastoral lease, including in relation to the mineral lease areas. Under the “non-extinguishment principle”, the native title will have full force and effect when the mineral leases come to an end in 2043. 

“As such, we see no reason why negotiations cannot now commence in respect of the NTG’s liability for the grant of the mineral leases,” the NLC has told the government. “Such negotiations would address liability under the Native Title Act and the Ratification Act.”

Chief Minister Michael Gunner has told the NLC that his government is prepared to engage in consultations, “in a spirit of goodwill to explore what settlement options might be available”.

“The Northern Territory Government prefers to resolve these issues by agreement, rather than through litigation, wherever possible.”

The NLC has also told the government that the mine has had enduring and significant adverse impacts on the native title rights of the Gurdanji and Yanuwa peoples: “The effects include adverse environmental impacts that involve long lasting, and largely irreversible, damage to their traditional country, and the effects on the native title holders as a result of being unable to access their traditional country and sites of spiritual significance located on the mineral leases  which are no longer accessible.”

The NT Environment Protection Authority is currently assessing an Environment Impact Statement from MRM to redesign its waste rock dump (the NLC has comprehensively criticised the project). The company is also proposing a Closure Plan that would extend the life of the mine to 2047, with a closure phase extending out to 3017.

“The EIS and Closure Plan make plain that the effects of the mine will be ongoing for many generations, well beyond the time when the mineral leases expire in 2043, and that it will be necessary for the Territory, the mine owner and operator, and the native title holders, to make long term plans for the better management of the country affected by the mine,” the NLC has told the government.

As well, the Gurdanji and Yanyuwa peoples, through the NLC, are seeking to engage with Glencore to make an agreement for the operation of the mine beyond 2018 – that is, for the renewed term of the mineral leases up to 2043 and further beyond that for the rehabilitation and closure of the mine as may be required under the revised mine project.