An Independent Monitor’s report into McArthur River Mine’s environmental performance over the last year has divided opinion, with the mining company’s general manager and the government lauding findings that showed the river was in good health and that the company had minimised risks, while the Environment Centre NT called the report a “farce” with glaring holes in the risk assessment process.
The report also mentioned NT EPA recommendations about developing a plan to evaluate the risk of a catastrophic failure of a mine levee wall, but noted this was not required by the government at this stage, or enforceable by the EPA.
The 269-page report dated March 15, but released in full on Tuesday, was prepared by consultants Advisian on behalf of the NT Industry Department, covering the period May 2020 to April 2021, and based on testing by miner Glencore.
The operation, one of the world’s largest zinc and lead mines, sits about 700km southeast of Darwin. The NT Government began to look more closely at it in 2006, when the underground mine was redeveloped as an open pit, with concerns raised that the waste rock facility was polluting the environment.
Over the past 10 years, there have been environmental issues including a burning waste rock dump and lead contamination in cattle and fish.
Mine general manager Adam Hatfield said the company was pleased the Independent Monitor had confirmed that the river was healthy and fish were safe to eat, and it showed continuous improvement in environmental management and performance at the mine.
“The Independent Monitor’s positive findings about the mine’s environmental performance and continued good health of the McArthur River are testament to the on-going progress the mine has made in recent years and a reflection of the mine’s ongoing commitment to operating responsibly,” he said.
“The IM found that MRM has continued to avoid or minimise potential environmental risks through proactive management and monitoring across a wide range of site activities.
“The Independent Monitor found the mine demonstrated a high level of environmental performance with no significant environmental issues requiring urgent investigation during the audit period.”
Opportunity for improvement – plan for risk of catastrophic failure of levee wall
In a section near the end of the report called the NT EPA recommendations compliance workbook, it states there was an “opportunity for improvement” for the department to make it a requirement that the independent panel review the risk of catastrophic failure of the mine levee wall and the McArthur River diversion channel in view of future closure objectives.
The report states there is no reference to potential catastrophic failure in the NT Government’s authorisation of the mine, under care and maintenance conditions, and gave the operator a score of three out of four, or part compliance, which it also rated as high.
However, under the recommendation section of the workbook, it suggested a review of the risk of the failure of the levee wall. It states a care and maintenance plan to be developed could consider this but was not an enforceable requirement by the NT EPA, nor was there any specific requirement by the government under the authorisation.
It noted the department said it would be a requirement in the terms of reference for the yet to be established mine closure independent panel.
The risk of the failure of the levee does not seem to be assessed in the latest report. There were no reports issued in 2019 and 2020, but the previous Independent Monitor, the Erias group, said in the 2018 report it had identified a new “catastrophic” risk that the McArthur River reconnects with its old channel, causing the mine wall to fail and contaminated water to pour into the river.
It said if that happened, the impact on the mine levee wall is likely “potentially in the medium term”.
However, in a statement to the ABC in June last year, the department said the mine had addressed previous concerns about the levee wall.
“Reports regarding the implementation of control measures and subsequent results of monitoring have been provided to the department … and also to the [Independent Monitor] during the performance audit,” it said.
“The findings of the reports indicate that the control measures are effective in reducing the avulsion risk from catastrophic breaches.”
Questions over the environmental risk assessment registers
The report looked at the performance of the miner and the department as well as the implementation of the recommendations from the NT EPA.
The report states there were no significant environmental issues requiring urgent investigation and attention found, based on examination of 1,055 conditions, requirements and individual elements in the authorisation, water discharge licence and NT Environment Protection Authority recommendations.
It said out of 524 active requirements, there were 39 that the operator or the department were only partially compliant with. And that overall there was a high level of compliance by both the miner and department.
Environment Centre NT co-director Dr Kirsty Howey said the Independent Monitor report had been reduced to nothing but a farce.
“This is nothing but an expensive box ticking exercise. The ‘independence’ of the Independent Monitor has been utterly compromised by the fact that Glencore sat on the selection panel for the appointment of Advisian, and the department has a veto on the contents of the report,” she said.
“That’s the opposite of independent.
“If you read the fine print of the scant information that is available in the report, it is clear that there are glaring holes in the risk assessment process undertaken by Glencore.
“The biggest risk of all, that the McArthur River will re-divert and take back its old course causing the collapse of the mine wall and the destruction of the McArthur River, isn’t even mentioned.
“The mine’s risk register hasn’t been disclosed, and Glencore has not updated its environmental risk assessment register since January 2020.”
The report concluded that the mine operator had a comprehensive risk management plan that contained an appropriate environmental risk management framework and process.
But then, in a seeming contradiction stated: ”The operator has provided examples of actions implemented to manage potential environmental risks, however the anticipated resultant improvement is not monitored or reported in the current risk management process”.
The Environment Centre points out that earlier in the report it says the 2019 and 2020 environmental risk assessment registers have different formats with different table column headings and different risk descriptions.
“There is limited correlation between the risk registers, with 26 out of the 34 risk scenarios in the 2020 register unable to be clearly associated with the key risk summaries listed in the 2019 register,” it read.
“Comparisons between the annual environmental risk performance or the identification of improvements in risk profile are not easily made.
“The 2020 register does not distinguish between current control and proposed additional controls…The implication of an unclear control implementation status and inability to confirm if the residual risk rating score is based on planned (future) or implemented actions is that it is uncertain whether the inherent environmental risk has effectively been reduced.”
It went on to state the EMR provided an annual review of the most recent environmental risk assessment to check there was no increase but there had been no revision to capture new or altered risks or controls that may have occurred during the 12-month period.
“It does not appear that effectiveness of controls has been formally reviewed,” it said.
In December, the ABC reported that the NT Government’s eight mining officers, who alleged management fraud and misconduct affected their ability to regulate major mines, had their complaint rejected by the Office of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption. The media report said they alleged they were pressured to water-down environmental assessments for projects, including the McArthur River Mine.
The NT Industry Department rejected the allegations and denied the approval processes had been affected.