Traditional owners seek $225 million in compensation over impacts of McArthur River Mine expansion: ABC

A large lead and zinc mine's waste minerals storage facility seen from above.

The McArthur River Mine has been the subject of a number of court battles.

By Oliver Chaseling
Click here to view the original story on the ABC website.

Key points:

  • The NT’s McArthur River Mine is home to one of the world’s largest zinc and lead deposits
  • Traditional owners are seeking compensation from the NT government over the mine’s expansion
  • Lawyers for the NT government argued it was only liable for up to $10 million

A group of traditional owners are seeking “no less than” $225 million in compensation over the effects of the Northern Territory’s largest zinc and lead mine on their native title rights and alleged damage to sacred sites.

In an unprecedented trial heard in the Federal Court this week in Darwin, lawyers from the Northern Land Council (NLC) representing a group of Gudanji, Yanyuwa and Yanyuwa-Marra traditional owners laid out their final submissions.

They are suing the NT government for unspecified damages relating to the McArthur River Mine and a nearby port close to the remote town of Borroloola, about 970 kilometres south-east of Darwin along the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Over a three-day hearing that ended on Thursday, the court heard the traditional owners are seeking at least $225 million in compensation for cultural loss, as well as further compensation for economic loss — a figure still to be determined by the judge.

Sturt Glacken KC, representing the traditional owners, told the court the financial calculation of cultural loss was “not an exact science”.

But he said the amount of compensation his clients were seeking was based on a 2019 High Court decision to award Timber Creek traditional owners $2.5 million in damages for spiritual harm.

A locked gate with a large 'no unauthorised entry' sign affixed to it.

The McArthur River Mine sits on an enormous zinc and lead deposit.

“[Timber Creek’s] cultural landscape, with respect, is somewhat sparse compared to the [McArthur River]. So too the extent of damage,” Mr Glacken told the court.

“Using Timber Creek … as a touchstone of the ideas of fairness, the [$225 million figure] we’ve put down properly reflects the extent of that loss.”

The McArthur River Mine, which is home to one of the world’s largest deposits of zinc and lead, was established in 1992 following an agreement between the NT government and Mount Isa Mines.

In 2007, native title holders won a legal challenge against the NT government’s approval of a change in the extraction method from underground mining to open-cut mining, which requires the removal of more vegetation and top soil.

But the NT government passed new legislation just days later, allowing the open-cut expansion to go ahead and a stretch of McArthur River to be diverted.

The court this week heard accounts of social upheaval and cultural loss in the years following the mine’s expansion.

A close up image of Garawa man Jack Green looking directly at the camera.

Garawa man Jack Green is one of the applicants in the case.

In written testimony, Garawa man and applicant Jack Green told the court how the mine had affected his people.

“When they moved the river and dug up the country around it, they took the spirit away from country,” he said.

“The spirit of the country is important to people, it’s like our wealth. It’s what we pass on to the next generation.”

The court heard the NT government accepted it was liable for up to $10 million for the acquisition of land in 2006.

However, lawyers for the government argued that the land’s mineral and cultural values should not be a factor in the court’s awarding of compensation.

Barrister for the NT government, Damian O’Leary SC, said there was a long history of pastoral and mining development in the region, which would have impacted the claimants’ rights to native title long before the McArthur River Mine began operating in 1993.

“Critically … access to the area of the mine and the port had ceased, and ceremonial activities were no longer being conducted,” he said.

A white, modernist, flat-fronted building with "supreme court" in capital letters above a wide entrance.

The NT Supreme Court made a ruling in 2007 prohibiting the mine’s expansion.

Mr O’Leary also said while there had been a loss of cultural heritage within the mine’s footprint, the full extent of that loss would not be permanent.

“We accept that there’s an aspect of uncertainty, we’ve never taken the position that when the leases end in 2043, the land will spring back to its previous state,” Mr O’Leary said.

“Nevertheless … we do emphasise there will be an amelioration of sorts for the cultural loss when those acts do come to an end.”

The court is expected to hand down its decision at the end of 2024.