NT Indigenous leaders call for moratorium on new mines until government starts Redbank Mine rehabilitation: ABC

Jane Bardon

Bags of chemicals have been left blowing in the wind at the Redbank Mine.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Indigenous leaders are calling on the Northern Territory government to halt the development of more critical mineral mines until they start rehabilitating toxic exhausted sites, including the Redbank Mine.

Key points:

  • Native title holders want rehabilitation on the Redbank Mine to start before any more new mines open
  • Pollution from the mine is spreading from the NT to Queensland
  • New NT laws will allow mine remediation funds to be used for research into reviving old mines

For three decades, the deserted Redbank Mine, in the NT’s Gulf of Carpentaria, has been leaking battery acid-strength contamination into the environment across 40 kilometres, to the Queensland/ NT border

Where a copper mine used to be, there are now piles of disintegrating bags releasing chemicals into the wind, rusted infrastructure that creaks, and bands of orange and white substances crusting the leaking tailings dam.

A few kilometres below the site, acid leaching has turned Hanrahan’s Creek a fluorescent lime green, and the body of water is devoid of plants and fish.

Redbank Mine’s deserted infrastructure is leaking pollution as far as Queensland. (ABC News: Jane Bardon

Cultural custodian Donald Shadforth said he could not believe the state the site had been left in.

“I feel broken-hearted, seeing it like this,” he said.

“My grandmother used to walk and hunt and fish here, she would cry if she could see this.

“I think it’s a wakeup call for us to say, ‘right, no more mining on this country’.”

Donald Shadforth is appalled at the state of the Redbank mine site. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Mr Shadforth said his family had used to camp in the area.

“When I was a kid, it was a beautiful little paradise, this place, but when they put that mine here it changed,” he said.

“It makes you feel sad because what I see is this country crying out for help, you know?”

A polluted shallow creek
Hanrahan’s Creek is devoid of life because of pollution from the Redbank Mine.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Polluted shallow creek with a greeny colour
The pollution has turned the water green.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Government promises rehabilitation study

Since the Redbank Mine ceased operation in 1996, after two years of production, successive Northern Territory governments have promised traditional owners to stop the pollution.

NT Mining Minister Nicole Manison has now promised there will be a study started into rehabilitation options.

“That consultation is continuing with the community there, to look at what is the best way to go forward with rehabilitation of that site,” she said.

But the mine site’s native title holders, including Garawa elder Keith Rory, are sceptical.

“Well we heard it from them before. They keep telling us they’re going to fix the mine,” Mr Rory said.

Indigenous man stands in front of old mine site with infrastructure left over
Keith Rory is devastated that the legacy of copper mining at Redbank is pollution, which has spread across 40 kilometres.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Chief executive of the Northern Land Council (NLC), Joe Martin-Jard, said traditional owners wanted rehabilitation of the Redbank Mine to start now. 

“As far as we can see, from the Northern Territory government, it’s all talk and no action,” he said.

“All we’re hearing about is a plan to get a plan.”

Native title holder Donald Bob agreed.

“It’s damaging the whole country and we need it fixed,” he said.

“Nothing’s happening, we need things happening on the ground.”

Indigenous man with hat points to polluted creek behind him
Donald Bob is devastated the Redbank Mine has polluted creeks as far as Queensland.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Calls for Redbank clean-up before new projects

While Redbank and hundreds of other legacy mines continue to sit unrehabilitated, the NT government is urgently pushing for more critical minerals operations to be established.

It’s part of a national push to help reduce the reliance of the Australian and US renewables manufacturing industry on Chinese products.

Many proposed sites are on wholly Indigenous-owned or native title land.

Mr Martin-Jard is calling for rehabilitation to be started at Redbank before any new operations are opened.

“Lets start with Redbank, let’s clean that up before we start looking at new mines,” he said.

Mr Martin-Jard said he had also been horrified to see the state of the mine a few weeks ago.

“The site looked like a scene out of Mad Max,” he said.

“It’s actually getting worse, the poison’s spreading further into the waterways.

“We know it’s been detected 40 kilometres away at the Queensland border. It’s been described as one of the worst polluting sites in Australia.”

A dilapidated mine site with large rusty barrells
Redbank Copper collapsed in 1996 after two years.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Concerns over government rehabilitation fund 

The NT government’s $88 million mine remediation fund is too small to clean up Redbank, let alone all of the other territory mine sites needing rehabilitation.

The NLC is also concerned that the government’s new legacy mines remediation laws give the minister the power to divert funding for rehabilitation into research or reviving old mine sites.

The laws also mean the minister will be able to exempt remediation projects from checks and balances around sacred sites and wastewater discharge.

“We thought that the work would be about rehabilitating existing mines, not learning how to do it,” Mr Martin-Jard said.

“If the territory government wants to research how to clean up legacy mines, well, pay for it, why should it come out of this fund?”

Man with beard stands in front of a tree and indigenous artwork
Joe Martin-Jard wants remediation to start on Redbank before new mines open.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

Ms Manison said the new options for the rehabilitation fund would be beneficial.

“Its very important that we make sure we use this fund to help with research because it will help drive down costs in other remediation projects,” she said.

“If a mine can be remediated while also becoming a productive mine again, that is a good thing.”

a blonde woman standing in front of an australian flag
Nicole Manison says the mine rehabilitation fund will be put to good use.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Hopes for new mine

Mining company NT Minerals Limited is aiming to soon start a new copper and critical minerals project right next to Redbank.

NT Minerals Limited executive chairman Mal James said the new mine would not cause pollution.

“To get any new mine up, you have to make sure you’re complying with world’s best practice,” he said.

“We would obviously not be doing anything without the necessary approvals.

“We will be working very closely with the stakeholders, as we have done with other mines and traditional owners.”

But native title holders, including Mr Shadforth, say they are deeply opposed to any more mining in the area until the NT government rehabilitates the Redbank site.

A group of Indigenous men sit on dirt near polluted river
Keith Rory, John Clarke and Donald Bob don’t want to see mining begin again at Redbank.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

“Never again, unless they do something about this, clean this up,” Mr Shadforth said.